By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 12, 2019) US Soccer Players - As the home to a few huge, powerful nations and a litany of far smaller and less wealthy ones, Concacaf has always faced a large and fairly unique challenge. The confederation's trickiest task is to help its giants grow and prosper in their pursuit of the world's elite while still respecting and elevating the many minnows in their wake. That's the dichotomy that's sculpted the region as we know it, from the World Cup to the Gold Cup to the Concacaf Champions League and beyond. This week the confederation brought all those questions rushing back to the forefront when it released its qualifying format for the 2022 World Cup.
From a United States perspective, things might not look all that different. The famed Hexagonal remains, albeit with a slightly adjusted timeframe thanks to Qatar hosting an autumn tournament instead of summer, and the elimination of the 12-team semifinal round. That's usually the main event for USMNT fans, who have come to relish the two rivalry meetings with Mexico and the exotic marathon of Caribbean and Central American away trips spread across many nerve-jangling months.
For CONCACAF's middle class, however, the new process is a stunning, arbitrary, and potentially disastrous shift, sparking widespread bafflement and outrage over the past few days. It centers on two key points. The use of the FIFA World Rankings to determine the six Hex participants, and the daunting 29-team slog for the second-tier route.
This is very bad news for programs like Canada, Haiti, Panama, and Trinidad & Tobago. Nations like this have shown themselves capable of hanging with the big dogs more often than not, and even killing a giant now and then. Now their leaders face a race against time to garner as many rankings points as possible in order to climb up the FIFA World Rankings.
FIFA's rankings are the same infamously suspect system that, until recently, perversely rewarded teams that DIDN'T play games and was manipulated on several occasions to earn higher placements in seeding for tournaments like the World Cup.
"The Canadian soccer community is rarely united about anything, but based on the fan reaction I've seen so far, disdain for this new format seems pretty universal," veteran Canadian soccer journalist Daniel Squizzato told USSoccerPlayers.com this week. "It's kind of ridiculous that FIFA rankings play such a large role in this format even though some teams are compelled to play competitive games in which they can't earn FIFA points. Canada beat Martinique at the Gold Cup but gets nothing for it, since Martinique isn't in FIFA. Trinidad & Tobago, who are also fighting for a spot in the Hex, have to spend two matchdays in September against Martinique in Concacaf Nations League play. Haiti beat Sint Maarten in CNL qualifying but gets zero FIFA ranking points, and so on."
Mexico, the US, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras, and El Salvador are the top six North American sides in the current FIFA rankings and thus would reach the Hexagonal if qualifying started today. Panama sit a mere six places and 20 points (1342 to 1322) back of the Salvadorans, while Canada are a mere three places and eight points back of Los Canaleros. Yet the gap between Concacaf's #5 or 6 teams and its #7 or 8 might as well be the Grand Canyon.
That's because member nations 7 through 35, the top echelon of which could well miss out on the Hexagonal by the equivalent of a FIFA algorithm's rounding error, will go into a multi-phase process already being compared to "The Hunger Games."
First goes a phase of eight groups of three or four teams apiece, with round-robin games over the second half of 2020. The eight group winners then take part in a single-elimination knockout bracket through early 2021. Then the sole survivor of that process must place the Hex's fourth-place finisher in a home-and-home series to decide which will advance to play another two-legged intercontinental playoff against a runner-up from another continent. It's sold as a chance for smaller countries to play more meaningful games, a common lament about formats of the past. Yet it sets up a mighty long road, and to still face long odds at the end.
Squizzato notes that this could be a blessing in disguise for teams like Canada who could build momentum against less challenging opposition before the high-pressure setting of those two-legged playoffs at the end. However, in Canada, Panama and beyond, there's been a widely expressed suspicion that the confederation is looking after its big fish at the cost of the small fry yet again and with a Canadian, Victor Montagliani, in charge, no less.
"CONCACAF ostensibly created the Nations League as a means to ensure more competitive games for more member nations, and that's great. But that's not what World Cup qualifying is for," said Squizzato. "Having dealt with Montagliani during his time with Canada Soccer, I'm personally predisposed to give him some benefit of the doubt, and hold out hope that there's some hidden genius to this plan that we all just haven't seen yet. But given the confederation's general reputation and history, I suspect I'm in the minority on that."
Perhaps the nicest thing everyone can say about Concacaf's controversial move is that is amps up the intensity for the Nations League, the brand-new competition set to debut this fall. FIFA's rankings system weights competitive matches more heavily than friendlies. The Nations League games are the last, best chance for teams to elevate their standing in the rankings calculations.
As fate would have it, Canada and the USMNT will face off in Nations League Group A, along with Cuba. The Canadians welcome the US to Toronto's BMO Field on October 15. The USMNT will host the return date a month later.
"Given that many Canadian fans will assume, rightly or wrongly, that this qualifying format is just the latest example of CONCACAF finding ways to kowtow to the USA and Mexico, it certainly should add some fuel to that fire," said Squizzato. "Then again, given the history both on and off the field, Canadian fans were already pretty amped up for this showdown as it was."
More from Charles Boehm:
- What to watch for at the 2019 Gold Cup final
- Three angles from USA-Panama as the USMNT pivots to knockout mode
- USMNT aims to shift gears vs T&T
- The problems with the US Open Cup format
Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com