The risks, benefits and logistics of the new CONCACAF Nations League

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/christian-pulisic/" data-ylk="slk:Christian Pulisic">Christian Pulisic</a> and the United States could be seeing more of Costa Rica in the new CONCACAF Nations League. (Getty)
Christian Pulisic and the United States could be seeing more of Costa Rica in the new CONCACAF Nations League. (Getty)

Like it or not, international soccer is changing. And on Wednesday, the changes officially arrived in the Americas. They go beyond CONCACAF’s new logo; beyond the branding mumbo jumbo the confederation rolled out at a glitzy event in Miami. They crystalized in a new national team competition whose format is now set: the CONCACAF Nations League.

They have been met with excitement, but also concern, and most of all, a lot of confusion. A lot of uncertainty. A lot of questions.

So we put those questions to CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani, to a CONCACAF spokesman, to others, and to our own research and thought. And we came up with the following CONCACAF Nations League explainer:

The format

The Nations League is a competitive, tiered, seasonal tournament, but with group stage separated from knockout-style deciders. The plan is to hold it biennially, but there’s some wiggle room. More on that later.

The inaugural CONCACAF Nations League will kick off in September 2019, with qualifiers (beginning September 2018) placing the region’s 40 eligible teams into three leagues: A, B and C.

The U.S., along with the five other participants in the most recent Hex, automatically starts in League A, which will comprise 12 teams. Those 12 will be drawn into four groups of three after qualifying concludes. League B will have 16 teams – four groups of four. League C will have 12 – four groups of three. All groups will be double round-robins, meaning the U.S. will play four games – two home, two away – during the September, October and November international breaks in 2019.

A promotion/relegation system will then connect one iteration of the Nations League to the next. The four last-place teams in Leagues A and B will drop down to B and C, respectively, two years later. First-place teams in Leagues B and C will jump up to A and B to replace them.

The winners of the four League A groups, meanwhile, advance to a March 2020 championship event. Though it hasn’t been confirmed, the format will almost certainly be simple: two semifinals and then a final during the international break.

The calendar

The biggest logistical hurdle will be finding time for all of that on an already overflowing soccer calendar. The idea is that the Nations League will replace friendlies. But Montagliani confirmed to Yahoo Sports that nations like the U.S. and Mexico would “still have that opportunity” for friendlies. Exactly how many opportunities they’ll have is unclear.

So how do you fit friendlies, probably two Nations League cycles, two Gold Cups and World Cup qualifiers into four years?

FIFA designates five international breaks per year, during which a maximum of two games per country can be played. Let’s consider a typical four-year cycle, which offers up 20 international windows in all. In the outline below, Year 0 is the World Cup year – 2010, or 2014, for example. Year 1 is the odd year following it, and so on. Under CONCACAF’s current World Cup qualifying schedule, here’s what the calendar looks like for the U.S. or Mexico: 

Year 0

September, October, November — friendlies

Year 1

March — friendlies
June — friendlies
[July — Gold Cup]
September, October — friendlies
November — World Cup qualifying, penultimate round

Year 2

March — World Cup qualifying, penultimate round
June — friendlies
September — World Cup qualifying, penultimate round
October — friendlies
November — World Cup qualifying, Hex

Year 3

March — World Cup qualifying, Hex
June — World Cup qualifying, Hex
[July — Gold Cup]
September — World Cup qualifying, Hex
October — World Cup qualifying, Hex
November — World Cup qualifying intercontinental playoff OR friendlies

Year 4

March — friendlies

To wedge in one Nations League, let alone two, there would clearly need to be some reshuffling.

In fact, under the current World Cup qualifying format – even without considering potential Copa America participation – it would be impossible for CONCACAF to hold all necessary competitions on FIFA dates. The fourth (penultimate) round of World Cup qualifying would have to begin in November of Year 0, four months after the previous World Cup ends. That would leave insufficient time for the first three rounds – six games per team in total.

Ignoring those first three rounds – some games could be played outside FIFA windows – here’s what the U.S.’s calendar would have to look like:

Year 0

September, October — friendlies
November — World Cup qualifying, penultimate round

Year 1

March — World Cup qualifying, penultimate round
June — World Cup qualifying, penultimate round
[July — Gold Cup]
September, October, November — Nations League

Year 2

March — Nations League finals
June — World Cup qualifying, Hex
September, October, November — World Cup qualifying, Hex (six games)

Year 3

March — World Cup qualifying, Hex (final two games)
June — Nations League
[July — Gold Cup]
September, October — Nations League
November — World Cup qualifying intercontinental playoff OR friendlies

Year 4

March — Nations League finals

How can CONCACAF realistically make this work?

The future is filled with variables. That’s how. There are five important notes.

First, CONCACAF has not set specific dates for its second Nations League. Second, Montagliani has talked about possibly changing the region’s World Cup qualifying format. Any changes would be announced in the months after the 2018 World Cup.

Third, even if the qualifying format doesn’t change, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, as of now, is slated for November, not June. That opens up space between World Cups for qualifiers, Nations Leagues and the like.

Fourth, the qualifying format will then change out of necessity for the first 48-team World Cup in 2026. So CONCACAF can essentially solve these scheduling dilemmas as it goes.

Oh, and fifth? There’s an outside chance the 2019-20 CONCACAF Nations League turns out to be a one-and-done.

The future of Nations Leagues

That’s because the proposed Global Nations League could, if soccer’s power brokers move quickly, debut as early as 2021.

The Global Nations League wouldn’t destroy CONCACAF’s version, though; it would simply restructure it and adopt it. Or, as Montagliani put it, “even if there is a Global Nations League, our Nations League would kind of fit into that.”

The main pro: equality

The biggest benefit of the CONCACAF Nations League is twofold. It guarantees all 41 member associations two things: competitive games and money.

Without the Nations League, the lack of competitive games and revenue for the majority of those members was CONCACAF’s most pressing problem:

The 17 nations, many of them tiny, that get knocked out in the first two rounds [of World Cup qualifying] don’t get the opportunity to glean revenue from meaningful qualifying matches. And they don’t have the clout nor the cash to organize money-making friendlies. They can’t attract sponsors. Thus, they don’t have the money to invest in facilities, coaching, player development, etc., that would allow them to grow the sport domestically and close the gap on the region’s elite.

The Nations League will place 8-12 games on a national team’s schedule over four years. It will also eventually ensure that the nation’s soccer federation makes money off those games. Or at least “that’s the goal,” Montagliani told Yahoo Sports. “[We want to] aggregate our assets.”

What that means is selling media and commercial rights centrally, rather than putting those sales in the hands of the individual federations. It’s a scheme that has proven lucrative for UEFA at both club and international level. And it’s imperative for increasing equality throughout the region.

The barriers to equality

Now, there are some obstacles here. Chief among them are pre-existing media rights contracts, such as the one U.S. Soccer, through Soccer United Marketing, has with Fox and ESPN. Those two networks have agreed to split up U.S. men’s national team friendlies and qualifiers evenly until 2022. But they paid for a certain amount of games – reportedly around five each per year. If friendlies suddenly turn into Nations League matches, and CONCACAF sells the rights to those matches separately, that’s unacceptable. So, as Montagliani told Yahoo Sports, the centralized scheme is “going to take some time to evolve, because there are some current contracts in place.”

The success of the desired scheme, and the willingness of the U.S. and Mexico to agree to it, will ultimately depend on how attractive the Nations League is to broadcasters – not just in the U.S., but throughout the region. If CONCACAF struggles to sell rights, it won’t be able to spread money around to small Caribbean federations while also appeasing larger ones that could otherwise bring in millions on their own.

And it’s a real challenge, because, well, do many of these hypothetical group games look appealing to a network like Fox or ESPN?

Hypothetical CONCACAF Nations League groups. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
Hypothetical CONCACAF Nations League groups. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Montagliani, though, insisted there had been “no real pushback” from the U.S. and Mexican federations. And if CONCACAF can keep the big boys happy while also stimulating cash flows to the minnows, the Nations League will engender more equality.

The cons

There are no sure-fire drawbacks. But there are plenty of potential ones:

— Oversaturation is a real worry. It’s a worry for players, whose physical burdens are already excessive. It’s also a worry for fans, who can only care about so much soccer. Adding another competition could dilute the value of all three competitions – Nations League, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifiers – that CONCACAF is now asking fans to care about.

— “I’m not sure how many fans really enjoy friendlies, when there’s eight substitutions at halftime,” Montagliani told Yahoo Sports. “In the end, the game means nothing.” But would a fan in one of CONCACAF’s major markets rather watch his or her national team play a “competitive” match against Haiti? Or a “non-competitive” match against France? Many would probably choose the latter, because there’s more to a game’s entertainment than its importance. CONCACAF is depending on that fan at least being satisfied with the former.

— There’s also a worry that the region, in a soccer sense, could become too insular. Will teams – especially the U.S. and Mexico – really benefit from playing the same opponents, or at least the same type of opponent, over and over? Probably not. And will fans get bored of it?

— Very few people outside of the participating nations will care about the B and C Leagues.

— The scheduling dilemmas mentioned above, though perhaps not prohibitive, could prove to be a headache.

The bottom line

CONCACAF is essentially placing a bet on itself – a bet on the marketability of its product. And many would probably advise against that bet. But if it pays off, the Nations League can be a boon to the sport throughout North and Central America.

And yes, that includes the U.S. and Mexico. If the entire region improves, it should take the CONCACAF kings with it. As Montagliani told Yahoo Sports: “Our better teams are only going to get better when everybody else around them gets better.”

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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