USMNT needs to play UEFA Nations League, not Copa America

The United States Men’s National Team fizzled out its World Cup run at the hands of the Netherlands. The Dutch side may have had less possession and less shot attempts. However, it still looked far stronger than their American opposition.

A credit to the Dutch, Louis van Gaal came out and said the United States did not adapt or adjust. Gregg Berhalter stuck to the same formula offensively and defensively with his young unit. And, despite a number of players plying their trade in Europe, Berhalter added he did not have a ‘Memphis Depay’ at his disposal. Memphis scored the opening goal, and Daley Blind mirrored his goal just before halftime.

It was always going to be a tough task to top the orange. Memphis Depay is a top talent when on his game. Virgil van Dijk remains one of the best defenders in the world. Frenkie de Jong is a game changer in the midfield for both club and country.

Still, the elimination from the World Cup showed something else. It showed the necessity for the United States to play in elite competition.

That could be a USMNT entry into the UEFA Nations League or Copa America, as it has done on several occasions in the past. The opportunity for growth and experience is pivotal if this team wants to achieve its dreams of success it laid out.

A need for top experience

Mexico and Canada are good teams. Costa Rica is aging, but certainly provided a challenge to the United States over the last decade or so. Constant opposition against these CONCACAF sides did well to prop the United States into the best team in the continent. That is, at least, looking at the Gold Cup and CONCACAF Nations League.

What it did not do, however, is prepare the United States for significant and meaningful games against teams rife with world class talent. Whereas the Netherlands had ‘warmup’ games in the Nations League against Belgium, Poland and Wales, all World Cup teams, the United States played Nations League games in June against Grenada and El Salvador. Those two countries have a combined two World Cup appearances, and none in the last 40 years.

The Netherlands, in addition to being talented both on and off the field, must adapt to play different play styles with those opposition. Belgium, Poland and Wales are different teams that have players that can match up against the Dutch. For the United States, his talent simply outmatches both Grenada and El Salvador. That being said, Berhalter’s squad only drew with El Salvador, 1-1, with Jordan Morris salvaging a point in stoppage time.

A USMNT appearance in the UEFA Nations League

It may seem like a far-fetched idea to jump from CONCACAF to UEFA for the Nations League. To be fair, there has been no intercontinental jumping for the Nations League. The closest anything is to this outside of friends is the Finalissima, most recently contested between the Copa America winner, Argentina, and Euro 2020 champions Italy.

However, teams from South America may soon compete in the UEFA Nations League much for the same reason that the USA should. All 10 teams from CONMEBOL are considering joining the UEFA Nations League from 2024 and on. To fit them in, the top-six teams in the World Cup Qualifying table would join League A, the top division. That means Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia join League A. The other four teams would join League B.

All of the games would happen in Europe to limit the traveling required to South America.

The reason CONMEBOL linked with UEFA is to present direct competition to FIFA’s plans for a biennial World Cup. However, it also provides more interplay and practice between elite teams. Argentina and Brazil are surefire contenders at each World Cup. Yet, this gives teams like Ecuador, Peru or Chile more play against top European opposition on a regular basis.

How the USMNT can fit in with top teams

Just as we saw in the World Cup for USA versus Iran, the USMNT fielded a lineup that was all European-based for the first time in its history.

Having the vast majority of USMNT players play in Europe means that it makes more sense to have the national team play competitive games in Europe than the United States or South America. It’s less travel for the players, and it provides the United States with tough away tests against European competition.

We’ve seen how competitive the European teams get in the UEFA Nations League.

Plus looking at the last four World Cup tournaments, the winners have all been European teams. Facing European competition would be a star test for the United States. That experience is valuable.

Logistically speaking, it may be a stretch to see the USMNT compete in the UEFA Nations League. That being said, the inclusion of South American teams provides precedent. The unfortunate case for the United States is the missed opportunity to make a North and South American Nations League. Competing against Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Uruguay would go a long way for the experience of an increasingly young USMNT side.

However, there is still a chance to compete in the Copa America, a South American tournament that often sends invitations to other teams. The United States played in four Copa America tournaments since 1993. In two of those, it got knocked out in the group stage. In the other two, it actually reached the semifinals, losing to Argentina and Brazil.

Moreover, it hosted the 2016 tournament when it lost to Argentina. The United States played Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay in the group stage, winning two and losing one. Then, the Stars and Stripes defeated Ecuador in the quarterfinals. The 2016 tournament was the only instance of the Copa America not happening in a CONMEBOL country.

Grant Wahl, a reporter covering the USMNT, says the United States “absolutely has to play” in the 2024 Copa America. Wahl even went so far as to say it should look into hosting the tournament. Wahl added that Ecuador, the intended host, lost interest in hosting the 2024 Copa America. It could set up an opportunity for the 2026 host cities.

On that topic, the 2026 World Cup means no World Cup qualifying games. Those were the best competitive games this batch of USMNT players had, as is the case for many teams. For example, Qatar did not play competitive games in the build up to hosting the World Cup. It is the first host nation to not pick up a point in the group stage, and just the second to not reach the knockout stage.

Competitive games

Whether those competitive games come from the Copa America or UEFA Nations League, they are paramount for the USMNT. Come 2026, expectations for the current squad will be higher. Not only will fans expect better quality, they will expect a better tournament.

If Gregg Berhalter remains the manager through then, he needs to try different tactics and player selections against top sides. He got it wrong against the Netherlands, but he will not be allowed to get it wrong as one of the three host nations.

PHOTO: IMAGO / Colorsport

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