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How does the CONCACAF Nations League work? Mexico and the USMNT return to action

El Tri and the USA play twice in the next few days as they look to progress to the CONCACAF Nations League Finals.

La racha positiva de la Selección de Estados Unidos ante México
Jack DempseyAP

The CONCACAF Nations League returns on Thursday, with headliners Mexico and the USMNT playing their first competitive games since the Qatar 2022 World Cup. The Stars and Stripes travel to Grenada (24 March, 8:00 p.m. ET) and then host El Salvador (27 March, 7:30 p.m. ET), while El Tri are away to Suriname (23 March, 8:00 p.m.ET) and welcome Jamaica to Mexico (26 March 8:00 p.m. ET).

What is the purpose of the CONCACAF Nations League?

Note the use of the word ‘competitive’ up there. As was also the case in Europe, one of the main purposes of the introduction of the Nations League in 2018 was to reduce the number of friendly matches being played at international level. Effectively meaningless games are much scarcer than they were in the past, which means that almost every time the USMNT or Mexico meet up, there is something on the line.

In the case of the Nations League, the end goal is two-fold. It works as a tournament in its own right, with a nice shiny trophy to play for, but is also used to determine which teams qualify for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup, which will be played between 24 June and 16 July in the United States.

How are CONCACAF members divided up?

The 41 members of CONCACAF are divided into three Leagues (A, B and C) each of which contains four Groups (A, B, C and D) of three or four teams. The 12 teams in League A are theoretically the strongest ones in the confederation and compete to become Nations League winners, while the 13 teams who compete in League C are supposedly the weakest, yet still have a chance to secure Gold Cup qualification.

League A: title challengers

The 12 teams in League A are split into four three-team groups, which country playing home and away against the other two teams in the group. After the four matches have been completed, the top team in each of the four groups advances to the Nations League Finals, which consists of two semi-finals, a third-place playoff and a final. The winner of the final will – surprise, surprise – be named Nations League champions.

Where and when will the 2022-23 Nations League Finals take place?

The United States won the inaugural edition of the competition in 2020-21, defeating Mexico 3-2 after extra-time in the final in Denver. This year’s Finals will also take place in the US, in Paradise, Nevada, from 15 June to 18 June.

Staying in League A, the top two teams in each of the four groups qualify for the Gold Cup. The team that finishes bottom is forced to take part in the Gold Cup qualification tournament and is relegated to League B for the next edition of the Nations League.

League B: Promotion, qualification, relegation

In the two editions of the CONCACAF Nations League, League B has consisted of four groups of four teams - rather than three – who again face off home and away. This means each team in each group plays six matches, not four. The top team in each group in League B is promoted to League A for the next tournament and, on top of that, automatically qualifies for the Gold Cup.

The second of the four teams takes part in Gold Cup qualification, while the bottom nation is relegated to League C for the next Nations League. The team that finishes third stays exactly where they are and can put their feet up for a while.

League C: The league of hope and opportunity

Due to their being an odd number of teams in CONCACAF, League C is currently made up of one four-team group and three three-team groups. Like a League B, the top team is promoted to the League above for the next edition and takes part in the Gold Cup qualification tournament. The teams finishing second, third and fourth aren’t promoted, aren’t relegated and aren’t going to the Gold Cup either.

How does qualification for the Gold Cup work?

The CONCACAF Nations League determines 12 of the 16 qualifiers for the Gold Cup: the eight teams who finished first and second in the four Groups in League A, plus the four group winners in Leagues B and C.

Like in 2021, Qatar have been invited to take part in the 2023 Gold Cup, which leaves three places up for grabs for the four third-place teams from League A and the eight runners-up from Leagues B and C. Those 12 teams will compete in the qualification tournament to determinate the last three participants. Qualification consists of two rounds, with the 12 teams divided into six one-off ties in the first round. The six winners then go onto three one-off second-round matches, with the winners qualifying for the tournament.

How are Mexico and the USMNT doing in the 2022-23 CONCACAF Nations League?

As things stand in the 2022-23 CONCACAF Nations League, Mexico and the USMNT and are in identical positions. After two games, El Tri are in second place in Group A in League A, a point behind Jamaica, who have played a game more and who they finish the group against on Sunday. A point from their remaining two matches will ensure Gold Cup qualification, while two draws or better will see them win the group (on goal difference if they draw twice) and advance to the Finals.

As mentioned, the USMNT are in exactly the same boat. They currently have a point less than El Salvador but have played a game less and have a superior goal difference. The two teams meet in the final group match next Monday.