US Men's Soccer Team Can Screw Up World Cup Qualifying in a Whole New Way This Time
If you can believe it, World Cup Qualifying in CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) was supposed to have started already. However, with FIFA canceling the spring, summer, and September international windows due to COVID-19, the North American region has had to devise a new plan for qualifying for Qatar 2022.
Three teams will play 20 matches, and one will play 22, for the right to char in the Qatari sun come November 2022. There are three rounds to this new plan. The first is the teams ranked 6-35 in the region by FIFA (every country except for the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Jamaica, basically) divided into six groups of five . Each team in those groups will play four games - two home, two away - this upcoming October and November.
The winners of those six groups will then enter the second round, a two-legged playoff next March (the winner of Group A will play the winner of Group F, B winner vs. E winner, C winner vs. D winner). The three winners of those will join the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Jamaica in the third round in what is no longer the Hexagonal, but now an Octagonal. All eight teams will play each other home and away, and those 14 matches for each country will take place between June 2021 and March 2022, with each international window having two games in it. Those matches will be in June (four matches), September, October, and November 2021, and then January and March 2022. The top three teams from the Octagonal segment automatically qualify for the World Cup, with the fourth-place team entering FIFA's Inter-confederation playoff for an additional spot.
This varies pretty far from the original plan, which saw the Hexagonal final round that we've all come to know and love already set by FIFA rankings, and then the rest of the region's teams entering into a playoff system to determine which team would play the fourth-place team in the Hexagonal for the right to advance to FIFA inter-Confederation playoff. The bonus of this is that no team would have had to play more than 10 matches.
The kicker is that CONCACAF is still going to try to stuff a Gold Cup into the middle of this next July as well as the Nations League semifinals and final in March. That's on top of at least European-based players coming toward the business end of a severely condensed schedule next season, and whatever MLS comes up with from here. It's going to be jam-packed for a host of U.S. and Mexican internationals and some other stars from other countries as well.
If all that's confusing, just check out the official video here that explains it.
The packed schedule has not, as of yet, taken into consideration the restrictions that might be in place. Will all teams have to play behind closed doors? Will it vary by country? Is there any hope that the U.S. can play in front of fans by June 2021 (probably not!)?
In a vacuum, the extended final stage of qualifying should be beneficial to the U.S., as more matches should mean the better teams rise to the top and are less punished for freak results or playing on a waterlogged pitch and such. But this is the U.S., there isn't anything they can't fuck up. Ten matches should have been more than enough last time around, and they still tripped over their own dicks. And considering the crux of the team - Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna - just had 14 more matches piled onto their already stuffed European schedules...
It is severely punishing to teams like Canada, Trinidad & Tobago, El Salvador, and Panama - nations that have either qualified for a recent World Cup or had big hopes to do so (Canada might have the best player in the region, after all). They will have to play six matches just for the right to play 14 more, where previously they would have only faced a handful before a playoff with the fourth-placed team from the Hex where anything could happen.
Canada and El Salvador get doubly boned, as either could have qualified directly for the original Hexagonal and only had to have played 10 matches total for a World Cup spot (though would have been severe underdogs). The spots in the Hex were going to be based on FIFA rankings, with Canada only four slots behind El Salvador at the moment. Now both will have to navigate a group stage with only four games, meaning one sideways result could sideline them, and then a fraught two-legged playoff where just a bad deflection or an inexplicable decision from a clueless ref (and this is CONCACAF, where all the refs are helpless) can send you home. .
Good thing Alphonso Davies is only 19. He's going to need the energy.