Concacaf has added yet another layer of importance to its new Nations League competition, which kicks off this week for most of the region and next month for both the USA and Mexico.
In addition to its influence on the FIFA ranking that will now play a critical role in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, the Nations League also will serve as the sole qualifier for the 2021 Gold Cup, the governing body revealed Wednesday.
The Nations League comprises three tiers—A, B, C—which were populated for this inaugural edition by results from 2018 World Cup qualification (all Hexagonal participants were placed automatically into A) and a preliminary competition contested by the confederation’s remaining members. League A contains four groups of three teams each. League B contains four groups of four teams each. And League C contains 13 teams divided among four groups. Each group plays a home-and-away round robin.
The USA is grouped with Canada and Cuba. The latter two teams will play each other twice this month. The Americans then will host Canada at D.C. United’s Audi Field on Oct. 11, before meeting Cuba four days later in the Cayman Islands. The group stage will conclude in mid-November.
Now, in addition to playing for a spot in the four-team Nations League finals in June 2020 (the group winners in League A), the USA and its rivals will look to avoid slipping up and risk missing out on a spot in the 2021 Gold Cup. In League A, the top two finishers in each three-team group will qualify for the 16-team Gold Cup. They’ll be joined by the first-place team in each of the four League B groups.
The remaining four Gold Cup qualifiers will be decided via two-leg playoffs contested in March and June of 2020. The first-place nations from League C will meet the runners-up from League B, with the winners facing off against the third-place finishers from League A. That means a stumble during the four-game group stage would require a favorite like the USA, Mexico or Costa Rica to negotiate a home-and-away playoff just to qualify for the Gold Cup. The USA and Mexico have qualified automatically for every one of the previous 15 Gold Cup tournaments.
The Nations League will feature promotion and relegation among the three tiers. If Concacaf continues this Gold Cup qualification system in future cycles, that means this fall’s results will have an indirect bearing on future championships as well. The Nations League is considered an official competition (new players will be cap-tied), and games will be weighted heavier than friendlies in the FIFA ranking. Wednesday’s announcement is yet another reason that U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter and Mexico’s Gerardo Martino, even if they’d rather not be game-planning for the likes of Cuba and Bermuda (one of Mexico’s foes), have little choice but to take the Nations League somewhat seriously.