The inaugural CONCACAF Nations League will kick off in September 2019, but 2019-20 CONCACAF Nations League Qualifying is in full swing. The league will include every member of CONCACAF (except Guatemala - suspended by FIFA and barred from entering teams in international competitions when the schedule for Nations League qualifying was being finalized), so it is not so much a qualifying tournament that is being held as a giant sorting exercise.
Ultimately, CNL will see 40 teams divided into three tiers, each comprising its own “league” (multiple small groups, in point of fact), with promotion and relegation between them and a top tier that will deliver a Nations League champion in 2020. Before all that, the teams must be sorted into their initial groupings: the six sides that contested CONCACAF’s final round of World Cup qualifying (USA, Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago) have been allocated to League A, the top tier of CNL; the rest will find their level in Nations League Qualifying.
How it works
There are 34 teams in CONCACAF Nations League Qualifying. Six of them will join League A, forming a 12-team caucus with the six already allocated to the top level of CNL; 16 will go into League B; the remaining 12 will form League C.
To figure out which teams go where, CONCACAF seeded the 34 teams that need to be allocated to a CNL tier into four groups, based on their ranking within the region as of March 2018. Every team in the draw will play one other team from each of the groups, so a top-seeded side such as Jamaica plays a game against another top-seeded team (El Salvador in Jamaica’s case), a second-seeded team (Suriname), a third-seeded team (Bonaire - Jamaica won, 6-0, in the October round of matches), and a fourth-seeded team (Cayman Islands - Jamaica won, 4-0, in the opening round of CNL qualifying in September).
Results establish the teams’ placing in a 34-team table, with three points gained for a win, one point for a draw, and none for a loss. Goal difference and goals scored are the secondary and tertiary tiebreakers, followed by away goals scored and fair play points.
In a nutshell, every team in qualifying gets four games to accumulate as many points and goals as it can. An additional wrinkle: each team has two home games and two away games in its set of four. The top six get to play in CNL’s League A next year; the next 12 will be in League B; the last 12 will form League C.
And there is the additional incentive of 2019 Gold Cup berths. Next year’s regional championship will feature 16 teams. Six qualifiers are already known: USA, Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago. The remaining 10 will be the top 10 teams in the CONCACAF Nations League Qualifying table. So any team inclined to mail in its CNL qualifying campaign risks missing out on a Gold Cup berth.
Once A Metro will spare you a 34-team table, but click here for the current standings after two rounds of CNL qualifying.
What the first half of the qualifying tournament has revealed is what we already knew: competition levels in CONCACAF are very uneven. Top of the table after every team has played twice is Curacao with two wins and a +15 goal difference (Curacao has yet to concede a goal in the competition). Bottom of the table is Sint Maarten with two losses and a -25 goal difference (Sint Maarten has yet to score a goal in the competition).
There are 11 teams that have no points and no goals scored after two rounds of qualifying; there are 10 teams that have maximum points after two games, and only two of those teams have conceded a goal.
But it is still a little early to say which teams will be claiming Gold Cup places - several of the unbeaten teams still have to play each other - and how the final league allocations will fall (though League C seems to be filling out nicely).
There will be more clarity after the third round of qualifying. Those games will be played between November 16 and November 20.
Games to watch
For New York Red Bulls fans, OaM will assume the primary interest is in those teams for whom current RBNY players are playing. And perhaps there may be a lingering affection for one or two of the club’s former players.
On that basis, here are four games that RBNY fans might find interesting:
Bermuda vs El Salvador - 7:00 pm, Eastern; Friday, November 16, 2018
Remember Zeiko Lewis? He hasn’t forgotten RBNY.
And though his career with the Red Bulls did not amount to more than a season with NYRB II, Lewis has OaM’s eternal admiration for enlivening the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.
Since leaving RBNY, Lewis has been to Iceland. He played a handful of games for FH in the Icelandic top flight, and a handful more for HK in Iceland’s second division. He contributed three goals in seven appearances to HK’s 2018 campaign: the club finished second in its division and will play in the Iceland’s top league next season.
The Icelandic season finished at the end of September, and Lewis appears to have been spending much of his time since back home in Bermuda.
Anyone in Bermuda want to go swimming. I don’t want to go by myself. Call In sick to work or something lol— Zeiko Lewis (@babypinkz_12) October 16, 2018
He’s also been playing for his national team. Lewis bagged a hat-trick for Bermuda in the team’s 12-0 win over Sint Maarten in the last round of CNL qualifying.
Bermuda was seeded into the second tier of teams for this tournament. At the time CONCACAF made its seedings for the CNL qualifying draw, it ranked Bermuda 22nd in the region: in the middle of the pack of second-tier sides in CONCACAF.
Par for Bermuda in this tournament would therefore be qualification for CONCACAF Nations League B, but not among the 10 teams heading to Gold Cup.
The team started its qualifying campaign with a disappointment: a 3-1 loss on the road in Aruba (a three-seed in this tournament). The 12-0 home win over Sint Maarten will have restored some confidence, but Bermuda will be aware that Sint Maarten looks like one of the weakest teams in the region on current evidence.
El Salvador is a top seeded team. Even on the road, it will expect to get something out of a game against Bermuda. But the Salvadorans struggled in their first road game of this tournament: it took an injury-time goal to claim three points against Montserrat (better than expected so far in CNL qualifying, but still a four-seed in the competition). Since then, El Salvador has cantered to a 3-0 home win over Barbados. The team has played two and won two, as predicted by the pre-tournament seedings, but has not amassed the sort of gaudy difference that other successful teams had accumulated in the competition.
El Salvador is currently 10th in the CNL Qualifying table: looking at a League B berth and holding on to the last Gold Cup qualification spot. Bermuda is 15th in the table, with three points and a +13 goal difference. If the Gombey Warriors can spring an upset at home, they would give themselves a shot at playing for a place at the 2019 Gold Cup in the final round of qualifying games.
Belize vs Puerto Rico - 9:00 pm, Eastern; Friday, November 16, 2018
Puerto Rico is still recovering from the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria, and the results of a few soccer games are not going to provide the sort of help the islands needs. But, though by no means a priority, the soccer program in Puerto Rico needs rebuilding too.
MetroStars and Honduras legend Amado Guevara has taken as his first head coaching job one of the more challenging tasks in CONCACAF at the moment. Results have not gone Puerto Rico’s way in the opening games of CNL qualifying: the team has lost 1-0 both home and away, to Martinique and St. Kitts and Nevis respectively.
There are no easy games for Puerto Rico in this tournament. It was drawn against three teams ranked above it in CONCACAF: Martinique is one of the top seeds in CNL qualifying; St. Kitts and Nevis and Belize are in the second-seed pool; Grenada is ranked above Puerto Rico in the third-seed pool. Positive results may be hard to come by for Guevara’s team.
On a more optimistic note, Guevara also coached Puerto Rico’s men’s U-20 national team at the 2018 CONCACAF Men’s U-20 Championship. His team lost its first two games by a combined score of 12-2. But the Puerto Ricans bounced back to win all three of their remaining Group Stage games and finish third in Group A.
A similar trajectory in CONCACAF Nations League Qualifying should be considered a measure of success for Guevara and Puerto Rico.
Jamaica vs Suriname - 7:00 pm, Eastern; Saturday, November 17, 2018
Jamaica was the highest-ranked team in the draw for this tournament and has been runner-up at the last two Gold Cups. Anything less than a League A spot and qualification for the 2019 Gold Cup will be a failure for the Reggae Boyz.
After a 4-0 home win over the Cayman Islands and a 6-0 road win over Bonaire, Jamaica is where it needs to be in the standings: sixth - the last available spot for League A and safely in the mix for a Gold Cup berth.
The team’s remaining games in CNL qualifying should prove a little more challenging - particularly the trip to El Salvador in the final round of matches. This game against Suriname will also need to be taken seriously. In qualifying for the 2017 Gold Cup, Jamaica played Suriname in Kingston and claimed a narrow 1-0 win to clinch its berth at the regional showcase tournament. Suriname has been competitive in CONCACAF for a while now, and is quite capable of fielding a team that can up-end a complacent Caribbean rival.
Suriname opened CNL qualifying with a 0-0 draw on the road in Dominica, followed by a 5-0 home win over British Virgin Islands. The team sits 12th in the current standings with four points and a +5 goal difference. Like Jamaica, it has yet to concede a goal in the tournament.
The Reggae Boyz are expected to win, but that expectation comes with its own pressure - particularly when, as head Theodore Whitmore noted, the team’s preparations have not been ideal. The Jamaica squad for this game includes a number of emerging players, mixed in with some first-choice starters.
New York Red Bulls left-back Kemar Lawrence is one of the veterans in the side. The squad also features former NYRB II midfielder and three-time USL Cup winner, Devon “Speedy” Williams.
Nicaragua vs Haiti - 8:00 pm, Eastern; Saturday, November 17, 2018
Haiti is currently second in the CNL qualifying table, with six points and a +14 goal difference from two games. That is exactly where Les Grenadiers want to be, since they are expected to qualify for CNL’s League A and claim a spot at the 2019 Gold Cup.
As one of the top seeds in the tournament, Haiti need fear no opponent in this tournament, but the team struggled to put away St. Lucia in the last round of games. It was a road match and Haiti did win it, but only 2-1. “Victoire sans honneur pour Haiti” thundered Haiti Tempo’s report on the game.
And now Haiti faces a potentially emotional return to the site of a recent humiliation for its national men’s soccer team. The 2017 Caribbean Cup was also the qualifying competition for Caribbean teams for the 2017 Gold Cup. Haiti stumbled in the tournament, but bounced back to beat Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago in a playoff for one last chance to get to the region’s big Cup.
Winning the Caribbean qualifying playoff put Haiti into a two-legged series against the equivalent qualifier from Central America: Nicaragua.
Haiti won the first leg in Haiti, 3-1. Haiti was still leading the series 3-1 when the second leg ticked into its last 10 minutes. Then Nicaragua won a penalty and Juan Barrera trimmed the aggregate score to 3-2. Then Barrera scored again in the 86th minute. And scored again in the 88th minute. Les Grenadiers had been about eight minutes away from going to the 2017 Gold Cup, but Nicaragua used six of those minutes to score three goals and take the Gold Cup spot for itself.
Nicaragua can’t eliminate Haiti from Gold Cup qualifying in this game, but Les Grenadiers maybe have something to prove to themselves with this match.
RBNY’s Derrick Etienne can now be considered a regular in the Haiti squad. He scored in Les Grenadiers’ 13-0 win over Sint Maarten in the first round of CNL qualifying games. And he set-up Soni Mustivar for Haiti’s opener against St. Lucia. He can be expected to feature in this game.
Nicaragua has also won its first two games of CNL qualifying, beating St Vincent and the Grenadines, 2-0, on the road, and cantering past Anguilla, 6-0, at home. Juan Barrera has four goals in the tournament so far.