What is the Concacaf Nations League, and how does it work?

CONCACAF Nations League - wordmark logo

This week, the Concacaf Nations League will begin the qualifying process for its inaugural 2019 edition. The United States have been able to skip qualifying after reaching the Hexagonal round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying for Russia 2018, but Canada will begin the seeding process Sunday when they face the US Virgin Islands (4 pm ET). 

Being that the tournament is a brand-new concept to the norms of international soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean, there are some questions. 

So, what is the Concacaf Nations League?

The Concacaf Nations League is a regional international tournament that will begin in earnest in September 2019. 

The nations that make up Concacaf will be divided into three divisions, with relegation/promotion among them. Twelve countries will play in the top tier, League A, 16 in the middle tier, League B and 12 in the bottom division, League C. Teams will be seeded based on a one-off qualifying process, beginning this week.

Six teams are granted placement directly into League A by having qualified for the 2018 Hexagonal. Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago will join the United States in League A, and the other six sides will be decided by qualifying. 

Each team in qualifying will play four matches between Sept. 2018 and Mar. 2019. The opponents were randomly drawn and all of the sides will be sorted into an aggregate table. In addition to placement for the Nations League, the top 10 from qualifying will join the other six in the recently-expanded 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup.

The 12 teams in League A will be broken into four groups of three teams each. The four who win their group will play each other in March 2020 to determine the inaugural champion. Those who finish bottom of each group of three will be relegated to League B.

Similarly, the 16 teams in League B will be broken into four groups of four teams. The group winners will be promoted to League A and those who finish bottom of the group will be relegated to League C. The four group winners from League C will be promoted to League B.

The six favorites to qualify for League A, according to the brand-new Concacaf Ranking Index, are: Jamaica, Canada, Haiti, El Salvador, Martinique and Cuba.

When will these matches be played?

During FIFA fixture dates, mainly replacing friendlies. Qualifying runs from September 2018-March 2019, and the inaugural tournament begins in September 2019 and concludes in March 2020.

Will all 41 Concacaf nations participate?

All but one: Guatemala were suspended by Concacaf since 2016 and will not take part in the seeding process. FIFA lifted the suspension in May, meaning it's possible Guatemala could enter League C during league play at some point. 

What does Concacaf have to say about it?

“CONCACAF Nations League Qualifying represents a watershed moment for CONCACAF and its 41-member family,” said CONCACAF President Victor Montagliani. “When the ball rolls in September, it will mark a new era of international football for our Member Associations, conceived in line with our ONE CONCACAF vision, during which all our countries have the chance to weigh themselves against the Confederation’s best, while widely developing national team football on and off the field."

What does this mean for the USMNT?

Not a ton in the interim. Being allowed to skip qualifying for both League A and the Gold Cup, they won't feel the Nations League impact until 2019.

When they do play, it will mean more competitive matches and fewer friendlies. With the corresponding UEFA Nations League, USMNT would have found it difficult to challenge themselves against European opposition as they have grown fond of. It's another trophy to win and more chances to face the top teams in Concacaf.

What does this mean for CanMNT?

A lot, especially initially. Canada can qualify for the 2019 Gold Cup while placing themselves in League A, helping establish them at the top end of the Concacaf hierarchy. The Nations League can act as a step in the direction of qualifying for World Cups. 

Additionally, like the United States, it's another opportunity to win a trophy.