By Paul Nicholson in Las Vegas
June 14 – The Concacaf Nations League finals kick off on Thursday at the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
With the Gold Cup following hard on the heels of the Nations League, the four finalists are holding nothing back and have packed their star names into their squads for the second edition of the Nations League. Thursday opens with the double header of Panama vs Canada in the first semi-final, followed by Mexico vs USA.
The last three major Concacaf finals have been contested by the US and Mexico with the US winning the Gold Cup and Nations League in 2021 and Mexico winning the Gold Cup in 2019.
The US have packed their squad with 16 of their 23 players coming from European club football – seven of them from English Premier League clubs. They will be expecting nothing less than to retain their title.
With Mexico rebuilding after a disappointing World Cup, the US will again build around Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic who is still the US team’s biggest name and most mercurial threat. He delivered a masterclass in the 2021 Nations League final, earning and scoring the winning penalty for a 3-2 extra time win. But whereas before he has been one of the few Americans playing in the European leagues, he is now one of many.
The Leeds duo of Weston Mckennie and Brenden Aaronson have a long hard season in the English Premier League but are battle hardened with a point to prove. Leeds’ Tyler Adams is missing through injury.
The US will also have US wunderkind Ricardo Pepi up front. Still only 19 and now playing for Groningen in the Netherlands, he was the breakout player for the national team in qualifying, scoring the key goals in the final rounds of Nations League that secured their trip to Vegas.
Gio Reyna, after a very public family fallout with former coach Greg Berhalter, is returning to the form he displayed in 2021 after a poor World Cup in 2022 and is in the squad.
In goal Matt Turner – Arsenal’s number two who should probably be their first choice and could well have proved to be the difference between winning and coming second in the Premier League – was a colossus at the 2021 Gold Cup with a series of remarkable clean sheets. Repeat that form in the Nations League and the US will be hard to beat.
Arch rivals Mexico arrive in Vegas with an improving set of results behind them under new Argentinean coach Diego Cocca. He has built his team around a pragmatic approach rather than an expansive one.
Transitioning out a number of old stalwarts, Cocca will be looking to Feyenoord’s Eredivisie winning forward Santiago Gimenez – the standout Mexican player in Europe this season – to spark Mexico into life.
Club America’s Henry Martin Club has been the leading goalscorer in the latest Liga MX season and can be a match winner, while Ajax’s Edson Alvarez is an automatic selection in midfield and will pull the strings of Mexico’s championship challenge.
The two traditional giants of the Concacaf region locking horns in the semi-final, it does open a pathway for a challenger to break the duopoly’s grip on the silverware.
Canada hope it will be them and with Bayern star Alphonso Davies returning to match fitness – he hasn’t played for Bayern since April – they have a real chance.
While not having the same big name depth as the Americans, they do have goalscoring quality. Kyle Larin comes in after a mid-season loan to LaLiga side Valladolid having scored eight goals in 19 matches and Jonathon David is similarly running hot with 24 goals in 37 Ligue 1 matches for Lille. Add the precocious talent of Tajon Buchanan, who plays at Belgium’s Club Brugge, it really may be Canada’s turn.
But first they have to overcome a Panama side who are desperate for a major tournament win with a group of players many of whom are now reaching their end of their international careers and for whom this tournament and the Gold Cup are a last chance for regional silverware.
Panama’s standouts include right back Michael Murillo who plays his club football at Belgium’s Anderlecht and the MLS pair of Houston Dynamo’s Adalberto Carrasquilla and Anibal Godoy, who has been at the heart of Nashville’s progress in the MLS.
They will provide Panama’s engine room for a front line that is still a reliant on the old warhorses of Jose Fajardo, Cecilio Waterman and Alberto Quintero. Their commitment cannot be questioned but if Panama are to cause an upset it will likely be through Ismael Diaz.
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