Nations League is inhibiting USMNT’s prep for 2026 World Cup

When the U.S. men’s national team faces Jamaica in the semifinals of the Concacaf Nations League on Thursday, it will be looking to take the next step toward a CNL three-peat.

The U.S. claimed the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2021, when it defeated Mexico 3-2 in extra time, and maintained its hold on the trophy two years later with a 2-0 win over Canada. A win against Jamaica and victory in the subsequent final three days later will cement the U.S.’s status (at least in terms of the CNL) as the Kings of Concacaf.

Win or lose, though, there is a question to be asked as it relates to the U.S. and the Nations League: How much, if at all, do the Americans — and other top teams in the region — benefit from taking part in the competition, especially ahead of the 2026 World Cup?

The positives of the CNL to the entire region — and Concacaf’s 41 member associations — are clear. The Nations League is a vital engine to the development of national teams in Central America and the Caribbean. Prior to the introduction of the Nations League, some countries would go multiple years without their men’s national teams playing a match. The Cayman Islands, for example, didn’t play a single match from April 2015 through August 2018.

“The Nations League assures that all our members will have the opportunity to play more and compete more, which in turn will propel greater development of the sport at every level,” said Concacaf president Victor Montagliani when the creation of the tournament was announced in March 2018.

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The ensuing years have borne this out. The CNL is divided into three tiered leagues — A, B and C — with promotion and relegation between them based on finishing position in each group. The winners of the groups in League A then square off to determine the CNL champion. That ensures every country will get a steady stream of games. Thanks to the Nations League, the Cayman Islands played five matches in 2023 alone.

The value proposition of the CNL for the U.S., Mexico and other top teams in the region isn’t as clear cut. What would be better: playing a knockout-style tournament against familiar opposition or a high-profile friendly against the likes of Brazil or Spain?

During a conference call with reporters last week, that very question was posed to U.S. men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter. He said he sees value in both kinds of matches. In a knockout-style tournament, Berhalter said the vibe is different given the possibility of extra time and penalties.

“There’s no margin for error, and to learn that time and time again is invaluable for a group,” he said. “And then playing high-profile opponents like Colombia, Brazil is all part of the plan also, and I think for the fans to get to see those opponents. But for our players to get to experience what it’s like battling through those games and trying to be successful in those games is also helpful for the growth of this team.”

To be clear, the U.S. isn’t going to beat Concacaf opposition every time — the Americans lost to Trinidad & Tobago this past November, after all. But Concacaf already has the Gold Cup — held every two years — to provide an opportunity for those top teams to go up against each other in a tournament setting. Is it really necessary to add another competition on top of that which, with a few exceptions, is held every year? The redundancy seems obvious.

With the 2026 World Cup fast approaching, a more varied schedule is needed.

“I think it’s a no-brainer. Your players have to play the best teams in the world in order to grow, and that’s a fact,” said Hugo Perez, a former U.S. international who has previously managed El Salvador and the U.S. U-15 national team. “Whether you lose or tie or win, it doesn’t matter, because you’re preparing for a big event like the World Cup now.”

Certainly a possible matchup against bitter rival Mexico brings with it some positives. Rivalry games steel players for tougher assignments ahead, but there’s also a sense that playing against an unfamiliar team has its benefits.

“The Nations League is your area, and you know them already,” Perez said. “For [El Salvador] players it was very important because they wanted to show that they could play against these guys who are worth millions. But then, you are on the other side and they’re saying, ‘Ah, come on.’ It’s still a Nations League tournament and you have to win, but the mentality is a little bit different.”

It could be argued that in the past, the Nations League had some value in that it could serve as preparation for World Cup qualifying. Players became familiar with the challenges of playing in the Caribbean or Central America, which include weather, travel, hostile crowds and less-than-pristine playing conditions. But with Canada, Mexico and the U.S. co-hosting the 2026 World Cup, that benefit — at least for this cycle — has shrunk to zero, and out of five FIFA international windows every year, the Nations League is usually taking up two. (The 2019 edition of the competition took up three, but Concacaf has reduced this commitment in subsequent iterations of the CNL.)

There are also commercial aspects to consider. Concacaf confirmed to ESPN that the winners of the CNL will get $2 million, with $1 million going to the runner-up, $600,000 to the third-place finisher and $200,000 to the team finishing in fourth. The current CBA for U.S. players stipulates that they’ll get 70% of any winnings from the CNL, though, so while the USSF would get some money for winning the Nations League, one federation source indicated it’s not as lucrative as hosting a friendly, in which revenues from television and sponsorship activation would kick in. This is especially true when the world’s bigger teams come to town.

The same goes for Mexico, which regularly schedules friendlies in the U.S. thanks to its agreement with Soccer United Marketing.

“The commercial impact from Mexico to play on U.S. soil against any opponent is amazing,” said Dennis te Kloese, the sporting director of Dutch club Feyenoord who previously was the GM of Mexico’s national teams. “Obviously with the amount of fan support and true followers of the Mexican team, that’s always sold out wherever they go. There is so much money to be made for the Mexican federation commercially on friendlies. The challenge and the balance was always a little bit of finding the right opponent so that it also is appealing for the players, and not to play the same opponent over and over and over again.

“To be honest, to play at home in the Azteca Stadium, against a Caribbean team or whatever, it doesn’t make any sense commercially. It costs money, actually.”

Unfortunately for the region’s biggest teams, there aren’t a ton of alternatives in terms of scheduling friendlies against the world’s better national teams. With the advent of the UEFA Nations League combined with World Cup qualifying, every FIFA international window between now and November 2025 is booked solid in that part of the world. Similar limitations exists in South America thanks to CONMEBOL’s marathon slate of World Cup qualifiers, which takes up dates through September 2025. World Cup qualifying campaigns in Asia and Africa, along with qualifying for the 2025 Africa Cup of Nations, limit the options even further.

Looking at the FIFA calendar, there are some pockets in which the U.S. could take advantage. South America has free dates in October and November of 2025. Asia has one in September 2025. With the start of its last playoff round for the World Cup this coming November, there should be more potential opponents available. Africa has an opening in June. Given the logistical moving target of securing opponents, nothing is guaranteed, however.

The U.S. isn’t completely stuck when it comes to finding top competition in the run-up to the 2026 World Cup. There are June friendlies against Colombia and Brazil. The Copa America will provide additional opportunities against tough opponents. But then it will be two years until the 2026 World Cup, and Berhalter will no doubt want to maximize his opportunities to test his side.

The current landscape in terms of preparation is far from ideal.