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Top 5 Takeaways from the Nations League

 

Written by Thomas Hair 

In case you aren’t yet aware (which is unlikely given the absolute scenes that reverberated around the sports world), the United States won the CONCACAF Nations League late Sunday night. Their 3-2 Extra Time win versus archrival México had everything, from video review drama to “shushing” of bottle-throwing fans to backup goalkeeper heroics.

But let’s zoom out from the ups and downs and viral moments of that Final. What should the average soccer-interested person in Charlotte take away from this win, this tournament as we look forward?

 

#1: This was a Coming-of-Age Moment

Since missing the 2018 World Cup, the American soccerzeitgeist has shifted to youth, potential, future. A “golden generation” of exciting young players has been emerging, both in MLS and abroad, to give fans hope again. But despite the unprecedented Champions League-level talent, that rekindled hope was still only that. Just hope. This group hadn’t been forged through flames into a true team yet. Still hadn’t actually won anything. 

That changed on Sunday night against México. With each hurdle, this young US team gradually grew in confidence, resolve, and togetherness before our eyes. 

 Mark McKenzie didn’t let a nightmare start crumble him and kept fighting like a warrior. John Brooks took an early yellow card but continued to marshal the defense with his same assured presence for the entire 120 minutes. Weston McKennie was everywhere and refused to let his team accept losing. Christian Pulisic, wearing the captain’s armband at 22, didn’t play his best but stepped up as a leader in a huge way, taking an absolutely fearless penalty and oozing the confidence that his teammates fed off to close the game out. I wasn’t 100% sure he had that in him! Then, when the result unexpectedly fell into the gloves of Ethan Horvath, it was Pulisic who went over to juice the inexperienced goalie up for the game-winning save

Before our eyes, these boys matured into men. Before our eyes, they proved they have the grit of historic US teams. Before our eyes, they stood up and shouldered the responsibility to lead this program into a new era. 

 

#2: Is Mexico having a generational crisis? 

As a new era blasts off in the United States, another may be nearing its end south of the border.

México was favored to win this inaugural Nations League because their top players have been together a long time. They’re always on the same page because they’ve been there and done that in big matches. Guys like Guillermo Ochoa (36), Néstor Araujo (30), Héctor Moreno (33), Héctor Herrera (31), and rumored Charlotte FC target Andrés Guardado (34) have been leading El Tri since I’ve been watching. With this loss to an upstart US side, however, there will be many in México demanding change.

As the US learned in 2017 though, it’s not easy to phase out an accomplished but aging generation if the next wave of talent behind them isn’t quite there. México should still qualify for 2022 with ease, but the team to do so will probably look quite different. Sunday’s result could help speed the evolution along.

 

#3: The US suddenly has a goalkeeper battle

Manchester City’s Zack Steffen entered this camp as the undisputed #1 goalkeeper, but that may have changed. 

The roughly equal amount of time he and Ethan Horvath saw on the pitch across the week’s three matches allowed us to directly compare the two shot-stoppers. From this limited sample size, the verdict is clear. And surprising.

It’s not that Steffen was bad, but Horvath – seldom used at Club Brugge this season – just looked better. In addition to making more big saves, Horvath looked far more comfortable in possession and passing out of the back. México’s press ruffled Steffen, but Horvath was a rock in every way possible. The trophy-winning penalty save was icing on the cake.

If there was a must-win game tomorrow, Steffen probably still starts by virtue of his more extensive pedigree and reps with the group, but the position is far from locked down. Horvath is a free agent this summer and, to further press his case, needs to find a club where he’ll play. 

 

#4: Can the US regroup for Costa Rica on Wednesday?

CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying begins in September. To replicate its quick cadence, US Soccer scheduled an additional friendly for Wednesday against Costa Rica (ESPN2 at 7pm), just three days after the Nations League Final.

This US team overcame a lot of adversity to triumph against México, but Wednesday’s game will test their mental strength in a different way. Can they similarly take this week’s euphoria in stride and stay focused enough to close this camp on a high note?

This is the last time US fans will see many of the European-based players until those crucial qualifiers. Let’s hope they keep the good vibes going!

Other Reasons to Watch: Orlando City striker Daryl Dike, who nearly led Barnsley to Premier League promotion while on loan, is expected to play, as well as young Roma right back Bryan Reynolds. Both traveled with the team but were ineligble to play in Nations League. On the other side, the Costa Rica squad features winger Randall Leal, who stars for our southeastern rivals Nashville SC.

 

#5: Charlotte FC scouts are watching. What did they see this week?

Smaller CONCACAF national teams provide a steady stream of talent to MLS. In addition to Leal, there’s Alberth Elis, who lit up the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers with Honduras and then became a star for Houston Dynamo. Now he’s scoring in Portugal. Curaçao goalkeeper Eloy Room impressed the Columbus Crew at a Gold Cup and has been their starter ever since. The list goes on. 

Because of close proximity and economics that undervalue Central American and Caribbean talent, any successful MLS club should have a strong scouting presence looking for gems in our own CONCACAF backyard. Charlotte announced its own North America Scout this week, and you can be sure Mr. Johnson had an eye on all of the teams in Nations League.

 Skipping over high-profile Mexican stars, here are three under-the-radar potential signings that caught my eye, and maybe Charlotte FC’s:

 

• Luis López (27), Goalkeeper, Honduras

  • Won the 3rd Place Medal for Honduras in a penalty shootout vs. Costa Rica
  • Has experience in the US as a backup on loan at LAFC in 2018

 

• Edwin Rodríguez (21), Midfielder, Honduras

  • Named to Nations League Best XI
  • Has been a key player for Olimpia in Honduras since age 19

 

• Alonso Martínez (22), Winger, Costa Rica

  • Had 11 goal contributions in 17 matches in the 2021 Costa Rican Clausura
  • Notably for us, also looked good against Atlanta in CONCACAF Champions’ League

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