After a yearlong postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic, the CONCACAF Nations League finals kick off this week, and there are plenty of storylines to keep track of ahead of Thursday's semifinals and Sunday's final in Denver.
The United States -- featuring Christian Pulisic, Sergino Dest and Giovanni Reyna -- will have to get past always tough Honduras to potentially set up a championship clash with Mexico. "El Tri" are without Raul Jimenez, but they still boast Hirving "Chucky" Lozano and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona as they prepare for a veteran-laden Costa Rica side that is missing Keylor Navas.
ESPN's Gus Elvin and Eric Gomez break down the main storylines and what to watch for before the action unfolds.
UNITED STATES vs. HONDURAS (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
1. Can the U.S.'s hyped stars put it together for meaningful games?
Prior to Sunday's 2-1 defeat to Switzerland, the USMNT had compiled a 5-0-1 record over six games, outscoring opponents by a lopsided 26-4 margin. While many of those performances and scorelines were eye-catching, it must be noted that these results came against lower-ranked opposition like Trinidad and Tobago (103rd in FIFA rankings) and Panama (78th) or against younger, more experimental sides from the likes of Wales and Costa Rica.
There is no questioning the USMNT's talent pool or future -- the U.S. will likely field a lineup almost entirely made up of players who play in Europe's Big Five leagues on Thursday against Honduras -- but it is important to remember that Gregg Berhalter's side hasn't played a meaningful game against top opposition since a 2-1 defeat to Mexico at the 2019 Gold Cup final. Just how long ago was that? Well, Giovanni Reyna had yet to debut at senior club level for Borussia Dortmund, Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah was still an England youth international and Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley started that final at Soldier Field.
None of this is to say that the USMNT isn't ready to take the next step and prove its credentials this week against Honduras and potentially Mexico in Sunday's final. It is more to say that we need to see it first, as this week's games are sure to present a bigger challenge and serve as a much better measuring stick of the national team's progress than the blowout friendly wins the U.S. has achieved over the past 18 months. The fact that the U.S., albeit without Pulisic and Tyler Adams, came down to earth a bit against a top opponent in 13th-ranked Switzerland on Sunday also showed this side still has some questions to answer.
And while Honduras is no Switzerland, it still can prove a stubborn outfit, with a rugged back line led by the ageless Maynor Figueroa and exciting, European-based young attackers Anthony Lozano and Alberth Elis, and has the potential to provide the U.S. with a legitimate test.
The time is now for the U.S. to show its recent results weren't a fluke and that it can consistently reproduce these types of performances against better opposition and in a tournament format. With the likes of Pulisic, Dest, Weston McKennie and so many more fresh off winning silverware at the top levels of the club game, there is no reason to think the USMNT can't rise to the occasion against steeper competition. It can begin to prove that Thursday night in Denver by laying down the first of hopefully many markers with a win against Honduras. -- Gus Elvin
2. Who starts alongside Brooks in central defense?
John Brooks is an automatic starter at center-back for the USMNT when fit, but who will be his immediate and long-term partner in central defense remains to be seen. Under Gregg Berhalter, Aaron Long has gotten most of the reps in that role, but with the New York Red Bulls veteran out long term with a torn Achilles, Berhalter will have to look elsewhere. Bayern Munich's Chris Richards, who impressed while on loan at Hoffenheim and who many view as the long-term answer to this question due to his athleticism and passing prowess, is also unavailable for this tournament through injury.
That leaves Matt Miazga, who spent another season on loan from Chelsea and was a regular at Belgian club Anderlecht; Mark McKenzie, who impressed at Genk after joining them from the Philadelphia Union in January; and Tim Ream, who played scarcely with relegated Fulham in the Premier League. With Ream now 33 years old and largely out of action, the right-sided role alongside Brooks likely comes down to Miazga and McKenzie, both of whom had strong seasons in Belgium's top-flight.
Miazga, 25, probably enjoyed his best season in Europe, helping Anderlecht concede the second-fewest goals in the division and growing under the coaching tutelage of the ex-Manchester City great Vincent Company. Meanwhile, McKenzie acclimated extremely well in his first season in Europe and finished the season by earning a spot in the league's Team of the Week the final two weeks of the season. In other words, Berhalter has a tough decision to make.
While Miazga has more experience both in Europe and at international level (21 caps), McKenzie did not look out of place at all against Switzerland on Sunday in just his third cap. Given that McKenzie is more mobile than Miazga and a better ball-playing center-back, he might be the more natural fit alongside the towering and more no-nonsense defender that Brooks is.
That said, Berhalter may elect to go with the safer option and stick with Miazga, who is more of commanding presence in the box and has partnered Brooks five times before, including against the likes of Portugal, Brazil and England. The starting right-sided center-back position remains one of the few up-for-grabs places for the USMNT, and all eyes will be on whoever gets the nod come Thursday. -- Elvin
3. Can Honduras give itself a chance to spring the upset?
While Honduras manager Fabian Coito has two dangerous attackers in the aforementioned Elis and Lozano at his disposal, he will not be keen to try to outgun a USMNT roster that has Pulisic, Reyna, Brenden Aaronson, Joshua Sargent, Tim Weah and Jordan Siebatcheu to choose from in attack. The simple fact is that the U.S. is just a more talented and deeper team, which means Honduras will have to find ways to shrink the gap and neutralize the USMNT's strengths to give itself a puncher's chance. Coito will know this as well, having seen the U.S. score seven goals on Trinidad, six on El Salvador and Panama, and four on Jamaica in recent games against CONCACAF opposition.
One way Honduras could potentially spring an upset is by breaking up the game by dishing out and drawing tactical fouls. Traditionally, Honduras players are dark art masters within CONCACAF, with 38-year-old Figueroa the ringleader in the back. The rugged defender has amassed a record 165 caps for Los Catrachos and has made a name for himself in Honduras, England and now in Major League Soccer with the Houston Dynamo as someone who plays the game physically and on the edge. If Honduras is to keep the score down and have a chance to snatch this on the counter, it will need Figueroa and the rest of the side to be physical, committed and tactical in terms of breaking up play.
This defense-first strategy will be nothing new for Honduras, which will also count on its forwards to drop deep, get behind the ball and help in defense. It may not make for entertaining football, but it could prevent the USMNT from getting into a rhythm and serve as Honduras' best chance of making it to an unlikely final.
The aim for Coito and his men will likely be to keep this 0-0 for as long possible, as the longer they stay in the game, the more likely it will be that the U.S. will start pressing and make a mistake or get caught defensively. Elis is the X factor for Honduras, as his pace and trickiness, which some of the U.S. side will remember well from his time with the Dynamo before moving to Portuguese side Boavista, make him the ultimate danger man on the counter. Honduras is a big underdog here, but with an experienced group and some history in terms of grinding out competitive results against the U.S., it is not without a chance, especially with La Pantera up top. -- Elvin
MEXICO vs. COSTA RICA (Thursday, 10 p.m. ET)
1. Who will start as El Tri's striker with Jimenez injured?
Since Raul Jimenez went down to injury following a nasty collision with Arsenal's David Luiz last November, manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino has undergone the difficult task of replacing his production in El Tri's lineup. It is undoubtedly not an easy task. Jimenez spearheaded the offense in recent times, scoring 11 goals in his last 16 games for Mexico.
He is also the country's only Premier League export and one of the few Europe-based stars in the player pool. So far, Jimenez's production and role has largely been irreplaceable.
Club America's Henry Martin, the player most similar to the Wolverhampton Wanderers forward by position and physical stature, has struggled to make his mark. Puebla striker Santiago Ormeno, who scored nine goals in the recently completed Guardianes 2021 season, is of no apparent interest to the Argentine coach. Alan Pulido and JJ Macias -- the latter currently training with the Olympic side -- don't seem to have caught Martino's eye in their appearances for either the senior team or the under-23 squad.
Then there's Javier "Chicarito" Hernandez, who leads MLS with seven goals through the same amount of games. Though Martino has said Chicharito remains a viable option for him going forward, it's hard to ignore the cold shoulder the former Manchester United striker has received in recent months from his national team coach.
In Jimenez's absence, Martino has retooled his offense without a traditional striker carrying the load. Napoli's Hirving Lozano has undoubtedly become the target man up front, either as a false nine or off the wing. In their friendly against Iceland last week, Lozano came off the bench and handed El Tri the 2-1 win in just under a half an hour with a brace. Speedy players like Lozano and Diego Lainez, who can create in tight spaces and pull defenders away from their zones, seem to be Martino's bet against Costa Rica and beyond. -- Eric Gomez
2. Can Mexico's defense rise to the test?
Much like the USMNT, Mexico's back line is prime for debate. In their last five matches, the most common pairing of central defenders for Mexico has been that of Hector Moreno and Carlos Salcedo. Though Moreno's experience is unrivaled (the 33-year-old has over 100 caps and has played in three World Cups), his form has been called into question after a pair of lackluster seasons in the Qatari club Al-Gharafa.
El Tri has kept a clean sheet in just two of their last six matches but have bailed out of a few key errors against Iceland and against Costa Rica in a previous friendly. Others who have joined Moreno and Salcedo in Mexico's defensive rotation include Cesar Montes and Nestor Araujo, who just completed his third season in La Liga for Celta Vigo, though neither has been able to convince Martino to shake up the Moreno-Salcedo pairing.
Martino has also toyed with the idea of having three at the back, slipping in Ajax Amsterdam defensive midfielder Edson Alvarez between Moreno and Salcedo. Alvarez, another former Club America star, was nonetheless responsible for an own goal against Iceland.In later stretches of the match, he appeared to be instructed to head back into the midfield so as not to crowd the back line.
Mexico's somewhat slow central defenders will have a tough task against Costa Rica and the speed of Joel Campbell. However, it's much more intriguing to think what Martino will do if he has to face the USMNT and its ability to create problems with its speed and skill up front. -- Gomez
3. Is this Costa Rica's last stand with the current generation?
With his stint at Paris Saint-Germain and his three Champions League medals from Real Madrid, Navas remains Costa Rica's most recognizable player -- but the 34-year-old goalkeeper will miss this tournament with an injury. Without arguably CONCACAF's top player, the Ticos will therefore have to rely on a bevy of other veterans to make a run at the trophy.
In total, nine of the 23 players selected by manager Ronald Gonzalez are over the age of 30. Of the current group, another four will be 30 or older by the time the 2022 World Cup rolls around. Gonzalez is well aware the current generation's time in the sun is ending, and to that end, he replenished his roster with five players 23 or under, including Columbus Crew's Luis Diaz.
The impending rise of teams like Canada and Jamaica, as well as the sustained success of CONCACAF giants Mexico and the United States, means Costa Rica will have a tough road ahead of it if it wishes to qualify for a third consecutive World Cup and beyond. The first test for Costa Rica's hybrid group will come against Mexico, and will likely draw a fair bit of conclusions as to whether it will continue to be a player in the region -- or fade away for the next few years. -- Gomez