ARADISE, Nev. — After the euphoria of eliminating longtime rival Mexico in a game that often felt more like a bar fight than a soccer game, the United States men’s team must guard against any kind of disappointment to win Sunday’s CONCACAF Nations League final against Canada (9 pm ET, Paramount+/Univision).
This game will be different. That 3-0 victory over El Tri, during which both teams saw two players receive red cards for violent conduct, was played in front of a packed house of mostly Mexican fans at Allegiant Stadium. This time around, the 61,000-seat home of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders could be half full at best. The match is less likely to be marred by the kind of WWE-style antics that turned the last 30 minutes of the USA-El Tri contest into a farce.
That does not mean that the final on Sunday will be less contested. Over the past four years, the US and Canada have developed a genuine, sometimes nasty rivalry of their own.
Canada went unbeaten against the Americans in two 2022 World Cup qualifying matches. the Reds it topped the regional World Cup qualifiers last year, a fact that has reminded the US players at every opportunity this week.
“If Canada wants to say that, let them say it,” US forward Tim Weah said Saturday. “We are focused on our main goal.”
That goal, of course, is to win their second consecutive Nations League title at the expense of the Canadians.
“Regardless of who is in the crowd or who isn’t, I think we’re going to bring the same mentality that we had the other night,” US defenseman Chris Richards said. “Hopefully, after 90 minutes or 120, we’re lifting the trophy.”
Both teams are desperate to reclaim their regional supremacy. The United States was the only CONCACAF representative to reach the knockout phase at last year’s World Cup in Qatar. After defeating Mexico, the Stars and Stripes can put an end to any doubt about which nation is the best by lifting the cup on Sunday. Meanwhile, Canada is seeking its first title of any kind since winning its only Gold Cup 23 years ago.
So this promises to be another grudge match. Even if the two enemies manage to finish the game with all 22 players still on the field.
“We’re not planning to turn it into MMA,” Canadian defender Alistair Johnston said. “But at the same time, it’s CONCACAF. Things get CONCACAFy. And we’re fine with that.”
“I think that’s one of the reasons why we finished at the top of the World Cup qualification in our region,” he added. “We were really good at winning not only on the field, but also in mind games on and off it.”
This Canadian side is tough as nails and has consistently performed above the sum of its parts. And in the world wide ends of Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies, you have two legitimate game changers that Americans need to be aware of at all times.
“It’s a tough matchup because it’s a good team,” interim USA coach BJ Callaghan said during Saturday’s pregame news conference. “They can hurt you in different ways.”
As David’s teammate at French club Lille, Weah knows this better than anyone. “I love him, but he is my opponent, so it will be a war,” he said.
The suspended duo Sergiño Dest and Weston McKennie will be greatly missed by the Americans. But the US still has its own match-winner in captain Christian Pulisic, who bounced back from a nightmare season with Premier League side Chelsea to score twice against Mexico.
“This is Christian’s getaway,” Weah said of the national team.
However, Pulisic can’t do it alone. With Dest out, substitute right-back Joe Scally will likely be tasked with stopping Bayern Munich Davies. Yunus Musah, who was excellent in defensive midfield against Mexico in place of the injured Tyler Adams, will have even more ground to cover with McKennie out.
The United States remains the deeper of the two squads. The best man for man, too. “In terms of their individual talent, a lot of us are lucky enough to play in the top leagues, and we’re used to playing against the top players,” said US left back and Prem veteran Antonee Robinson. “It’s nothing new for us.”
Robinson then referred to Canada’s recent success against the Americans. “Obviously, it’s annoying that we didn’t beat them in qualifying. We want to beat everyone we play. But in terms of who the opponents are, I really couldn’t care less,” he said. “This is just another team standing in our way of lifting more trophies.
“We have grown since then,” he added. “Nothing in the past matters. It’s just about winning.”
Whatever it looks like in the end.
Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at various FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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