By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 30, 2020) US Soccer Players - This week Concacaf rolled out its grand new plan for the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle. On Monday, the confederation unveiled a revised format and timetable for the road to Qatar in the wake of the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, it released the rescheduled dates for the final phase of the inaugural Concacaf Nations League and updates on the 2021 Gold Cup and its qualifiers.
As you've probably read by now, the Hexagonal is gone. In its place is an "octagonal" final round featuring eight teams instead of six but otherwise the same home-and-home round-robin schedule. Like before, the top three finishers go to the World Cup, while the 4th-place team goes into an intercontinental playoff.
The USMNT and the rest of the region's top five teams in the FIFA World Rankings (which also includes Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Honduras) advance directly to this "octo" phase. The 30 nations at #6 and below must go through two qualifying rounds to determine who gets the final three slots.
On first blush, this plan actually looks like an improvement on its predecessor, providing more of what fans like about qualifiers and opening up the party to more participants. It is complicated, though. Concacaf had to balance access with a reasonable schedule in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.
Inevitably there are winners and losers in this setup, just as in the previous iteration. Right off the bat it's tough luck for the 6th-ranked team, currently El Salvador, who immediately registered a protest against the new format. La Selecta is just 31 ranking points behind 5th-place Honduras in the current FIFA rankings. Now, they face lengthy qualifiers to get back to where they believed they were.
Canada, Jamaica, Panama, and Trinidad & Tobago join El Salvador and Honduras as "bubble teams," to borrow a term from college basketball. They regularly find themselves split along a somewhat arbitrary line drawn by the confederation to delineate its elite from the rest. Previously, Concacaf marked off the top six. Now, it's the top five. Those who miss that cut do have a path, though the survivors will have to play six games across the October, November, and March international windows with little margin for error in any of them.
While nations six through 35 duke it out in the first and second round, four of the top five will contest the Concacaf Nations League semifinals and finals. Those were originally supposed to happen earlier this summer. The US will face Honduras and Costa Rica will meet Mexico, with the winners vying for the title of first-ever Nations League champs. Those games are now on the schedule for March 2021 in the United States. Concacaf originally booked AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys for the Nations League finale. If life has regained any measure of normalcy by March, expect a similarly outsized venue for what could be the region's premier matchup.
It's clear that the Nations League remains a high priority for the confederation, in both financial and soccer terms. The central idea was to provide smaller nations with more competitive matches outside of the World Cup qualifying process to shrink the gap between the region's elites and also-rans over time. The first go-round seems to have worked well enough, with the second edition now on the schedule beginning in May 2022. That's immediately after the close of qualifying, potentially casting a brighter spotlight on the competition in the run-up to the fall World Cup in Qatar.
In an interview with Fox in the wake of Monday's announcement, Confederation chief Victor Montagliani provided a reminder of why that matters in the long run. He let slip the news that the region could have as many as eight participants in the 2026 World Cup. That's due to the tournament's expansion and the three co-hosts Canada, Mexico, and the US automatically taking part.
Even with a subsequent clarification that these details are not yet set in stone, it's still a head-turning development. Considering how much Concacaf's 3rd-place finisher in the 2018 qualifying cycle, Panama, struggled in Russia, there's work to do if the region is to represent itself well come 2026. Then again, with no clear idea of how FIFA will arrange the 2026 World Cup, it's tough to predict what increased Concacaf participation may mean.
As much as there is to like about this week's news, there's a significant asterisk attached. COVID-19 remains the elephant in the room here. It's far from clear that the pandemic will allow teams, much less fans, to travel across the region without lengthy, cumbersome quarantines starting a few short months from now. There's limited cushion for further delays built into the schedule. The worst-case scenarios are quite concerning. Imagine a qualifier sparking a viral outbreak in a small country with limited means to combat it.
If you can manage to set aside the large "if" that represents, the new format may end up being a crowd-pleaser. It's also one that will ask a lot of the athletes involved, and probably test the depth of every nation's player pools.
Regardless, Concacaf now has a public way forward. The games are on the schedule with the expectation that they will go ahead as planned. The pressure is on all the teams in the region to show that they can adjust to the latest version of their realities.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
- The near future of the USMNT according to Gregg Berhalter
- How 2020-21 is shaping up for American players in Europe
- Soccer in the bubble begins
- Why MLS, USL, and other leagues are taking such risks to get back on the field
Logo courtesy of Concacaf