The CONCACAF Nations League, a continental tournament featuring the top teams in North and Central America, is nearing its conclusion. The USA, Mexico, and Canada all stand out as the top-ranked teams in the region and have all reached the quarterfinals, alongside Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Jamaica.
CONCACAF is the name given to the group of soccer-playing nations in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The acronym stands for “Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football.”
There are several tournaments for men’s, women’s and youth national teams organized by CONCACAF, with the Nations League being one of the latest additions to the soccer calendar. Like its UEFA counterpart, the competition was crafted in order to reduce the number of friendlies required to fill out an international schedule and provide more competitive environments which can be few and far between for many top international sides.
The USA will be looking to win a third consecutive Nations League trophy after claiming the inaugural edition of the competition in a final against Mexico and beating Canada in the second year. But there are a host of other smaller, lesser-known nations that will be hoping to spring some upsets that could set them up nicely for future tournaments.
As the CONCACAF region gets set to host the World Cup in 2026 (in USA, Mexico, and Canada), there has never been a better opportunity for less heralded nations to earn a coveted spot in the expanded 48-team World Cup field. The CONCACAF Nations League is an important proving ground for these countries.
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The CONCACAF Nations League is the North American version of a tournament that was started in Europe in 2018.
The European soccer body, UEFA, launched the Nations League as a competitive replacement for the hefty amount of friendlies that European nations were playing merely to fill the schedule between the World Cup and European Championships.
CONCACAF saw this and essentially copied it beginning in 2019. The USA was crowned champion of the first two editions after winning the 2019/20 and 2022/23 finals.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the inaugural edition, but the intent is to complete the Nations League in a two-year window, filling in the gap between the World Cup (played every four years) and the North American championship for national teams called the Gold Cup (played every two years in odd-numbered years).
The United States won the first two editions of the tournament, first lifting the trophy in 2021 with an extra-time win over Mexico before topping Canada in the summer of 2023.
The CONCACAF Nations League is broken down into “leagues” or tiers, which separate the nations based on relative strength: League A (top tier), League B (mid-tier), League C (lowest tier).
The very first edition of the Nations League took every country’s FIFA world ranking into account, and since then teams have been moving up and down tiers based on performance. The Nations League champion for any edition can only come from teams competing in the top tier (League A).
All 41 nations that form part of the CONCACAF region find themselves in one of three tiers: 12 in League A, 16 countries in League B, and the remaining 13 countries in League C.
In each tier, the participating nations are drawn into groups which sees them playing round-robin with home and away matches against other opponents in the group. There is a reward for winning the group, and there are also consequences for finishing last.
The first-place group finishers in League A face off for the tournament title, while the group winners in League B and League C earn promotion up to the higher tier.
The last-place group finishers in League A and League B are demoted (relegated) to the lower tier.
As the competition is still relatively new, there have only been two completed CONCACAF Nations League tournaments to date.
In the 2019/20 final, the first in the competition’s history, the CONCACAF Nations League produced a mouth-watering final between rivals USA and Mexico that was eventually played in June 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fixture lived up to the hype, as it was level 2-2 after 90 minutes of action. Christian Pulisic scored the winning goal in extra-time, a 114th-minute penalty, which gave the United States the tournament’s first title.
In 2022/23, USA defended the trophy by defeating Canada 2-0 in the final in Las Vegas, with Chris Richards and Folarin Balogun scoring the goals.
MORE: Why the first USA vs. Mexico Nations League final was so epic
Quarterfinal matchups are between four seeded teams, which earned a bye to this round, against four qualifiers from the group stage.
In the table below, the home team’s score is listed first in each match, with seeded teams hosting first leg and unseeded teams hosting second leg.
To determine semifinal matchups, quarterfinal winners are re-seeded, placed in a table based on their results across the two quarterfinal legs.
While it’s an unusual format, don’t overthink it — teams receive three “points” for a win and one “point” for a draw, just like a regular table setup. Tiebreakers, in order of operation, are goal differential, goals scored, and away goals scored.
The objective, in part, is to incentivise performance across both legs regardless of the score in the opening match. Should a team blow out their opponent in the first leg, they would still wish to pick up three “points” in the second leg, while looking to increase their goal differential.