In CONCACAF Nations League finals, Denver gets chance to make World Cup pitch – The Denver Post

Some of the best soccer players on the planet will convene in Denver this week for the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals and finals.

Names such as Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest, Juventus’ Weston McKennie and Real Madrid’s Keylor Navas are just a few of the world class players who will represent their country at Empower Field at Mile High starting Thursday night.

And the next four days may very well be Denver’s try-out for a bigger tournament down the road with even bigger names — the 2026 World Cup.

“(The Nations League)’s further evidence not only of our ability to host games and tournaments of this caliber,” Colorado Rapids general manager Padraig Smith said, “but of our position as one of the leading soccer cities in the United States.”

Denver is one of 23 cities vying for 16 spots to host World Cup games in 2026. The tournament will be spread out across the U.S., Mexico and Canada, with 10 American cities expected to host games, as well as three in Mexico and three in Canada.

FIFA will have the ultimate say in which municipalities get that honor, and there is no doubt this will be a huge test to see if Denver is worthy.

Produce a world-class atmosphere and smooth operation for Thursday night’s semifinals between the U.S. and Honduras (5:30 p.m.) and Mexico and Costa Rica (8 p.m.), as well as Sunday’s championship and third-place game, and the city’s bid will receive a Mile High boost.

“Nations League serves as a great opportunity for Denver to showcase ahead of this final selection process by FIFA,” CONCACAF General Secretary Philippe Moggio said. “We’re excited to be able to be part of that process and showcase what Denver can do.”

Of course, Denver wouldn’t have even had this opportunity were it not for COVID.

The competition was originally scheduled to finish in Texas in 2020, played across three stadiums. When it was postponed by the coronavirus, CONCACAF wanted to keep it at one venue in a “hub” city. That’s when Denver came into play.

“We needed a city that has a top-class stadium with excellent travel links, with great accommodations and obviously one that is known as a strong soccer market,” Moggio said. “Denver ticked all those boxes.”

This is the inaugural edition of the Nations League, and it will bring the U.S. Men’s National Team to Empower Field for the first time in 21 years.

The competition was created to provide more competition for the smaller countries inside CONCACAF’s boundaries, but in the end it’s the big boys who are left standing.

The four countries competing — the U.S., Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica — are arguably the top soccer nations in North and Central America. They earned the spot in Thursday night’s semifinals after winning their groups during the group stage in the fall of 2019.

“It was a watershed moment for us (to introduce the competition),” Moggio said. “And now being in a position to finalize it with the first edition of the Nations League finals, it’s a fantastic climax.”

That’s why the four countries are bringing their best. There are only so many opportunities to win a trophy for one’s country, with the Gold Cup being the only other national team competition run by CONCACAF.

“We want to put our name on the trophy first,” U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We have an outstanding group of players, who not only have a chance to compete but will also gain valuable experience as we prepare for the start of World Cup qualifying. We are looking forward to the unique experience of playing in Denver.”

On Thursday, Colorado soccer fans will have a chance to watch Christian Pulisic for the first time since 2017, when he scored two goals in a World Cup qualifying match against Trinidad and Tobago at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

But this is a completely revamped USMNT team from four years ago. The only players left from that roster this week are Pulisic, Tim Ream, Deandre Yedlin and Colorado Rapids midfielder Kellyn Acosta.

This is the new wave of the United States Men’s National Team. Never before has the U.S. had so many stars from European clubs like Barcelona, Chelsea, Juventus and Manchester City.

And Denver soccer fans will be afforded the luxury of watching them in their own backyard.

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