And it comes at the expense of high-profile friendlies typically scheduled in such FIFA match windows.
In autumn 2018, the Americans faced Colombia, Peru, England and Italy. This year, there are two games apiece against Cuba and Canada (FIFA average ranking: 127).
While friendlies garner greater attention and revenue, the Nations League carries consequences.
Besides, it was Concacaf opponents — namely Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago — that sunk the U.S. hopes of making the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Best to take care of business locally before expanding globally.
Gregg Berhalter, the first-year U.S. coach, called the Nations League “important in a way that we get to compete against Concacaf teams, we get to play away games, we get to prepare our group for the rhythm of what World Cup qualifying looks like. So for us, these games are important.”
Results will have a bearing on the FIFA rankings, which, in turn, will determine the six countries participating in the final round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. (The top teams no longer have to slog through a semifinal round.) When outcomes are calculated, official events, such as the Nations League, outweigh friendlies.
The United States is ranked second in the region behind Mexico and, barring catastrophic results, will make that qualifying field without any stress. The final round will begin a year from now.
Outside the top six, 29 teams will have to navigate an arduous schedule just to earn one place in a special Concacaf playoff. (Don’t ask.)
Additionally, two teams in each Nations League group will qualify for the 2021 Gold Cup, the regional championship unaffiliated with World Cup qualifying (Don’t ask.)
Oh, yes: The Nations League has three tiers, with regional powers Mexico, United States and Costa Rica in the top flight and a promotion-relegation system in place. (Don’t ask.)
Bottom line: The United States needs to finish ahead of Canada and Cuba in Group A to avoid embarrassment and set aside concerns both about securing passage to the World Cup qualifying scrum and getting into the Gold Cup, which it hosts.
Canada already has beaten Cuba twice. In theory, the Americans will breeze past Cuba, then aim to get at least a draw against the Canadians on Tuesday in Toronto. Next month, they will face Canada in Orlando and Cuba in the Cayman Islands because Havana’s stadium no longer meets requirements. (Don’t ask.)
The Nations League semifinals and final will occur in June at venues to be determined.
Europe conducted an inaugural Nations League in 2018-19, with Portugal defeating the Netherlands in the final and England and Switzerland reaching the semifinals.
Asked whether he would prefer playing lukewarm friendlies against global foes or significant matches against lighter opponents, Berhalter was diplomatic.
“One thing I have been stressing is all of them are important,” he said. “In general, this is good preparation for World Cup qualifying and a good experience for this group at this stage of its development.”
His team should handle Cuba, a regional lightweight weakened over the years by political defections. Since losing and drawing in the first two meetings (in the late 1940s), the Americans have won 10 straight. The previous clash came in a 2016 friendly in Havana (2-0).
Friday’s match comes exactly 11 years since a 6-1 verdict in a World Cup qualifier at RFK Stadium.
These two matches also will provide opportunity for Berhalter to continue implementing his playing style and tactics, which emphasize mounting attacks through possession out of the back.
“It’s a process,” veteran midfielder Michael Bradley said. “There is no start and end date. People in some cases would like there to be more tangible, set checkpoints. It’s not how it works.
“We have found a good way to work together in Gregg’s first nine, 10 months. We feel good about where we are going. We will try to push this thing forward in the right way every time we are together.”
United States vs. Cuba
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Zack Steffen (Fortuna Düsseldorf).
Defenders: Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact), Matt Miazga (Reading), Tim Ream (Fulham), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle).
Midfielders: Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Sebastian Lletget (L.A. Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Schalke), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes).
Forwards: Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Corey Baird (Real Salt Lake), Tyler Boyd (Besiktas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew).