CONCACAF

The new qualifying format created by CONCACAF could possibly help the USMNT.

As soccer fans look ahead to the 2022 World Cup, the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football has announced a new scheduling process for its region. The countries in CONCACAF will take on a new qualifying format leading up to the World Cup, which is slated to be held in Qatar. This new approach is unfairly favorable to larger countries such as Mexico and the United States and makes it more difficult for smaller associations to qualify. 

This new qualifying procedure is broken into two separate parts, including a hexagonal round and a group stage followed by a knockout round. These rounds  will take place in 2020-2021 and will determine 3.5 of the qualified teams from the CONCACAF region for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. 

First, matches are to be played by the top six ranked countries according to FIFA’s rankings.  Round robin match play will be played from September through November 2020 and from March through September 2021. After play is concluded, the top three teams will automatically qualify for the World Cup.  

The second part of the qualification round consists of associations ranked from No. 7 through No. 35 placed into eight groups. Groups A, B, C, D and E will have four teams each, while groups F, G and H will have three teams each. Each group will play its matches during the same months the top six teams play. The top team from each group will advance to a knockout stage with a single-elimination format. The winner of that knockout stage final will face-off against the fourth-place team of the hexagonal group. The winner of that match moves on to an intercontinental playoff against an Asian, Oceanic or South American country with a bid to the World Cup on the line.

The new and complex qualifier stage plan has already received backlash. Alterations have been proposed by critics to achieve a more fair method for CONCACAF teams to qualify for the World Cup. The concern is for countries outside of FIFA’s top six ranked teams, as their path is much more difficult. Added to that challenge is the fact that the lower-ranked teams can only reach a playoff to qualify instead of directly sealing a place in the World Cup. 

Criticism is also being directed at the fact that teams ranked seventh and eighth, like Canada or Panama, are much more similar to teams in the top six than the bottom twenty-nine. 

One suggestion to fix this problem is to place the 10 highest-ranked teams into their own group instead of six. The upside for the lower ranked associations in CONCACAF is that they’ll be getting more experience playing in high-stakes games. But at the same time, the mid-tier teams may feel they’ve received the short end of the deal.

Teams ranked toward the top will have no problems qualifying. With merely average results in matches, teams like Mexico will advance to the World Cup with ease. The proposed new scheduling system will have a positive impact on the U.S., who didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The fallout of missing the 2018 World Cup possibly contributed to the retirement of longtime players such as captain and striker Clint Dempsey and goalkeeper Tim Howard. Even though the team won’t be as strong as it has been in years past, the U.S should feel confident in their chances under the new system.

This new qualifying process has affected the importance of particular games played among countries in the CONCACAF region. Instead of the most important games being the actual qualifiers for teams hovering around the No. 5 to the No. 8 spot, the more crucial matches are the CONCACAF Nations League games, which can benefit their FIFA rankings. 

In the end, this new system helps small nations grow as teams, increases odds for major nations to receive a bid and hurts middle-of-the-road ranked teams. While this change addresses some prior issues, it’s now created new ones and made the road for large nations less challenging.

Contact Alex Raphael at raphaeac@dukes.jmu.edu. For more soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.