After a yearlong postponement because of the coronavirus pandemic, the CONCACAF Nations League finals kick off this week, and there are many storylines to maintain observe of forward of Thursday’s semifinals and Sunday’s closing in Denver.
The United States — that includes Christian Pulisic, Sergino Dest and Giovanni Reyna — should get previous all the time powerful Honduras to doubtlessly arrange a championship conflict with Mexico. “El Tri” are with out Raul Jimenez, however they nonetheless boast Hirving “Chucky” Lozano and Jesus “Tecatito” Corona as they put together for a veteran-laden Costa Rica aspect that’s lacking Keylor Navas.
ESPN’s Gus Elvin and Eric Gomez break down the principle storylines and what to observe for earlier than the motion unfolds.
1. Can the U.S.’s hyped stars put it collectively for significant video games?
Previous to Sunday’s 2-1 defeat to Switzerland, the USMNT had compiled a 5-0-1 file over six video games, outscoring opponents by a lopsided 26-Four margin. Whereas lots of these performances and scorelines had been eye-catching, it have to be famous that these outcomes got here in opposition to lower-ranked opposition like Trinidad and Tobago (103rd in FIFA rankings) and Panama (78th) or in opposition to youthful, extra experimental sides from the likes of Wales and Costa Rica.
There isn’t any questioning the USMNT’s expertise pool or future — the U.S. will possible discipline a lineup virtually solely made up of gamers who play in Europe’s Massive 5 leagues on Thursday in opposition to Honduras — however it is very important do not forget that Gregg Berhalter’s aspect hasn’t performed a significant recreation in opposition to high opposition since a 2-1 defeat to Mexico on the 2019 Gold Cup closing. Simply how way back was that? Effectively, Giovanni Reyna had but to debut at senior membership stage for Borussia Dortmund, Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah was nonetheless an England youth worldwide and Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley began that closing at Soldier Subject.
None of that is to say that the USMNT is not able to take the subsequent step and show its credentials this week in opposition to Honduras and doubtlessly Mexico in Sunday’s closing. It’s extra to say that we have to see it first, as this week’s video games are positive to current a much bigger problem and function a significantly better measuring stick of the nationwide workforce’s progress than the blowout pleasant wins the U.S. has achieved over the previous 18 months. The truth that the U.S., albeit with out Pulisic and Tyler Adams, got here right down to earth a bit in opposition to a high opponent in 13th-ranked Switzerland on Sunday additionally confirmed this aspect nonetheless has some inquiries to reply.
And whereas Honduras isn’t any Switzerland, it nonetheless can show a cussed outfit, with a rugged again line led by the ageless Maynor Figueroa and thrilling, European-based younger attackers Anthony Lozano and Alberth Elis, and has the potential to offer the U.S. with a professional take a look at.
The time is now for the U.S. to indicate its current outcomes weren’t a fluke and that it might probably constantly reproduce a lot of these performances in opposition to higher opposition and in a event format. With the likes of Pulisic, Dest, Weston McKennie and so many extra recent off profitable silverware on the high ranges of the membership recreation, there isn’t any purpose to assume the USMNT cannot rise to the event in opposition to steeper competitors. It could actually start to show that Thursday evening in Denver by laying down the primary of hopefully many markers with a win in opposition to Honduras. — Gus Elvin
Herculez Gomez says he cannot think about Christian Pulisic discovering a greater scenario at a giant membership if he leaves Chelsea.
2. Who begins alongside Brooks in central protection?
John Brooks is an computerized starter at center-back for the USMNT when match, however who shall be his speedy and long-term accomplice in central protection stays to be seen. Below Gregg Berhalter, Aaron Long has gotten many of the reps in that function, however with the New York Red Bulls veteran out long run with a torn Achilles, Berhalter should look elsewhere. Bayern Munich‘s Chris Richards, who impressed whereas on mortgage at Hoffenheim and who many view because the long-term reply to this query as a result of his athleticism and passing prowess, can be unavailable for this event by way of damage.
That leaves Matt Miazga, who spent one other season on mortgage from Chelsea and was a daily at Belgian membership Anderlecht; Mark McKenzie, who impressed at Genk after becoming a member of them from the Philadelphia Union in January; and Tim Ream, who performed scarcely with relegated Fulham within the Premier League. With Ream now 33 years outdated and largely out of motion, the right-sided function alongside Brooks possible comes right down to Miazga and McKenzie, each of whom had sturdy seasons in Belgium’s top-flight.
Miazga, 25, most likely loved his finest season in Europe, serving to Anderlecht concede the second-fewest objectives within the division and rising underneath the teaching tutelage of the ex-Manchester City nice Vincent Firm. In the meantime, McKenzie acclimated extraordinarily properly in his first season in Europe and completed the season by incomes a spot within the league’s Staff of the Week the ultimate two weeks of the season. In different phrases, Berhalter has a troublesome determination to make.
Whereas Miazga has extra expertise each in Europe and at worldwide stage (21 caps), McKenzie didn’t look misplaced in any respect in opposition to Switzerland on Sunday in simply his third cap. On condition that McKenzie is extra cellular than Miazga and a greater ball-playing center-back, he is perhaps the extra pure match alongside the towering and extra no-nonsense defender that Brooks is.
That stated, Berhalter could elect to go along with the safer possibility and stick to Miazga, who’s extra of commanding presence within the field and has partnered Brooks 5 instances earlier than, together with in opposition to the likes of Portugal, Brazil and England. The beginning right-sided center-back place stays one of many few up-for-grabs locations for the USMNT, and all eyes shall be on whoever will get the nod come Thursday. — Elvin
3. Can Honduras give itself an opportunity to spring the upset?
Whereas Honduras supervisor Fabian Coito has two harmful attackers within the aforementioned Elis and Lozano at his disposal, he won’t be eager to attempt to outgun a USMNT roster that has Pulisic, Reyna, Brenden Aaronson, Joshua Sargent, Tim Weah and Jordan Siebatcheu to select from in assault. The easy reality is that the U.S. is only a extra proficient and deeper workforce, which suggests Honduras should discover methods to shrink the hole and neutralize the USMNT’s strengths to offer itself a puncher’s probability. Coito will know this as properly, having seen the U.S. rating seven objectives on Trinidad, six on El Salvador and Panama, and 4 on Jamaica in current video games in opposition to CONCACAF opposition.
A method Honduras might doubtlessly spring an upset is by breaking apart the sport by dispensing and drawing tactical fouls. Historically, Honduras gamers are darkish artwork masters inside CONCACAF, with 38-year-old Figueroa the ringleader within the again. The rugged defender has amassed a file 165 caps for Los Catrachos and has made a reputation for himself in Honduras, England and now in Main League Soccer with the Houston Dynamo as somebody who performs the sport bodily and on the sting. If Honduras is to maintain the rating down and have an opportunity to grab this on the counter, it should want Figueroa and the remainder of the aspect to be bodily, dedicated and tactical by way of breaking apart play.
This defense-first technique shall be nothing new for Honduras, which will even depend on its forwards to drop deep, get behind the ball and assist in protection. It might not make for entertaining soccer, nevertheless it might stop the USMNT from getting right into a rhythm and function Honduras’ finest probability of constructing it to an unlikely closing.
The purpose for Coito and his males will possible be to maintain this 0-Zero for as lengthy potential, because the longer they keep within the recreation, the extra possible it will likely be that the U.S. will begin urgent and make a mistake or get caught defensively. Elis is the X issue for Honduras, as his tempo and trickiness, which among the U.S. aspect will bear in mind properly from his time with the Dynamo earlier than shifting to Portuguese aspect Boavista, make him the last word hazard man on the counter. Honduras is a giant underdog right here, however with an skilled group and a few historical past by way of grinding out aggressive outcomes in opposition to the U.S., it isn’t with out a probability, particularly with La Pantera up high. — Elvin
Herculez Gomez says vigilance have to be taken by Mexico and Wolves with Raul Jimenez’ return to soccer.
1. Who will begin as El Tri‘s striker with Jimenez injured?
Since Raul Jimenez went right down to damage following a nasty collision with Arsenal‘s David Luiz final November, supervisor Gerardo “Tata” Martino has undergone the tough process of changing his manufacturing in El Tri‘s lineup. It’s undoubtedly not a simple process. Jimenez spearheaded the offense in current instances, scoring 11 objectives in his final 16 video games for Mexico.
He’s additionally the nation’s solely Premier League export and one of many few Europe-based stars within the participant pool. Up to now, Jimenez’s manufacturing and function has largely been irreplaceable.
Club America‘s Henry Martin, the participant most much like the Wolverhampton Wanderers ahead by place and bodily stature, has struggled to make his mark. Puebla striker Santiago Ormeno, who scored 9 objectives within the lately accomplished Guardianes 2021 season, is of no obvious curiosity to the Argentine coach. Alan Pulido and JJ Macias — the latter at present coaching with the Olympic aspect — do not appear to have caught Martino’s eye of their appearances for both the senior workforce or the under-23 squad.
Then there’s Javier “Chicarito” Hernandez, who leads MLS with seven objectives by way of the identical quantity of video games. Although Martino has stated Chicharito stays a viable possibility for him going ahead, it is onerous to disregard the chilly shoulder the previous Manchester United striker has acquired in current months from his nationwide workforce coach.
In Jimenez’s absence, Martino has retooled his offense with out a conventional striker carrying the load. Napoli‘s Hirving Lozano has undoubtedly turn out to be the goal man up entrance, both as a false 9 or off the wing. Of their pleasant in opposition to Iceland final week, Lozano got here off the bench and handed El Tri the 2-1 win in just below a half an hour with a brace. Speedy gamers like Lozano and Diego Lainez, who can create in tight areas and pull defenders away from their zones, appear to be Martino’s wager in opposition to Costa Rica and past. — Eric Gomez
2. Can Mexico’s protection rise to the take a look at?
Very similar to the USMNT, Mexico’s again line is prime for debate. Of their final 5 matches, the commonest pairing of central defenders for Mexico has been that of Hector Moreno and Carlos Salcedo. Although Moreno’s expertise is unmatched (the 33-year-old has over 100 caps and has performed in three World Cups), his type has been referred to as into query after a pair of lackluster seasons within the Qatari membership Al-Gharafa.
El Tri has stored a clear sheet in simply two of their final six matches however have bailed out of some key errors in opposition to Iceland and in opposition to Costa Rica in a earlier pleasant. Others who’ve joined Moreno and Salcedo in Mexico’s defensive rotation embody Cesar Montes and Nestor Araujo, who simply accomplished his third season in La Liga for Celta Vigo, although neither has been in a position to persuade Martino to shake up the Moreno-Salcedo pairing.
Martino has additionally toyed with the thought of getting three on the again, slipping in Ajax Amsterdam defensive midfielder Edson Alvarez between Moreno and Salcedo. Alvarez, one other former Membership America star, was nonetheless accountable for an personal aim in opposition to Iceland.In later stretches of the match, he gave the impression to be instructed to go again into the midfield in order to not crowd the again line.
Mexico’s considerably gradual central defenders could have a troublesome process in opposition to Costa Rica and the velocity of Joel Campbell. Nevertheless, it is way more intriguing to assume what Martino will do if he has to face the USMNT and its means to create issues with its velocity and talent up entrance. — Gomez
3. Is that this Costa Rica’s final stand with the present technology?
Along with his stint at Paris Saint-Germain and his three Champions League medals from Real Madrid, Navas stays Costa Rica’s most recognizable participant — however the 34-year-old goalkeeper will miss this event with an damage. With out arguably CONCACAF’s high participant, the Ticos will due to this fact should depend on a bevy of different veterans to make a run on the trophy.
In whole, 9 of the 23 gamers chosen by supervisor Ronald Gonzalez are over the age of 30. Of the present group, one other 4 shall be 30 or older by the point the 2022 World Cup rolls round. Gonzalez is properly conscious the present technology’s time within the solar is ending, and to that finish, he replenished his roster with 5 gamers 23 or underneath, together with Columbus Crew’s Luis Diaz.
The approaching rise of groups like Canada and Jamaica, in addition to the sustained success of CONCACAF giants Mexico and america, means Costa Rica could have a troublesome street forward of it if it needs to qualify for a 3rd consecutive World Cup and past. The primary take a look at for Costa Rica’s hybrid group will come in opposition to Mexico, and can possible draw a good bit of conclusions as as to whether it should proceed to be a participant within the area — or fade away for the subsequent few years. — Gomez