September 2018 marks a new dawn for international soccer. Throughout the soccer world, teams are competing for the first time in “Nations League” games designed to increase the level of competition in national team fixtures between big tournaments.
Nations League games will largely replace friendlies on the FIFA calendar and will allow teams in regions throughout the world to play in a league-like format with promotion and relegation.
Canada will be one of the first teams competing, as they play their first qualifying game for CONCACAF’s version of Nations League this Sunday against the U.S. Virgin Islands in Bradenton, Florida.
The competition could inject new life into international soccer in general, but for a country like Canada it could be especially beneficial. Vancouver Whitecaps fullback Marcel De Jong, a veteran player for the national team, certainly sees the upside.
“We get lots of games which is good us, we can get used to each other more,” De Jong tells Waking the Red of what the Nations League will provide. “Instead of playing just three games in a year now we get six or seven games a year which is so much better for us as a team and we can grow.”
The 40 teams currently playing in CONCACAF will be placed into three separate leagues (A,B,C) from which they can be promoted and relegated. Canada are currently trying to be one of the six teams from qualifying to join the A division, already inhabited by the six teams who qualified for the final round of 2018 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
These divisions will then be divided into four groups with three teams each. Finishing in last place in a group means relegation, while finishing at the top of the group will mean a spot in the Nations league championship in 2020.
Canada is not looking past their game against the U.S. Virgin Islands, but understand the opportunity that playing in the top division of Nations League would provide. A chance to play consistently against the top teams in the region, both home and away, is incredible preparation for World Cup qualifying and Gold Cup matches.
“We are definitely looking at the bigger picture here,” said De Jong. “We need to win this game first, but we’re thinking ahead and trying to build something here and get everybody on the same page this time.”
The number of upcoming Nations League fixtures will give Canada a chance to get on that same page a lot quicker. That has been an issue in recent years as the national team moves from one manager to another without a lot of tangible growth.
“The last couple of years we’ve had lots of things going on,” De Jong says of the program. “Different coaches, Benito [Floro] and Octavio [Zambrano], so it’s good that we now have a coach that is here for the longer haul.”
This has been De Jong’s first national team camp under that new coach, John Herdman, who took over the job from Zambrano eight months ago. De Jong’s first impression of his new national team boss has been positive.
“He takes his job really seriously and he is trying to get his vision in our heads. He’s really pushing us and that’s a good thing.”
Canada enters Nations League with perhaps its most exciting and talented roster of this past decade. Especially positive is how many players that Herdman has called into camp are still incredibly young.
Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Alessandro Busti, Zachary Brault-Guillard, Derek Cornelius, Liam Fraser, Mathieu Choinière and Liam Millar are all 20 years of age or younger. Davies and Millar have both already featured for the senior national team.
“It’s exciting, we have a lot of talented players who are willing to play for Canada as well,” said De Jong. “I think that’s huge for us and important for the country.”
Canada will have the opportunity to cap-tie many of these players in the coming month, but that isn’t as big of an issue as it used to be. The aforementioned group have all shown themselves to be committed to the program.
Newfound commitment, new coach, new competition. There is a lot to be excited about in Canadian soccer circles right now. Nations League gives Canada a chance to build on that excitement, and as such is a massive opportunity for the program.