Four thoughts on Concacaf's new World Cup qualification format

It's an ambitious plan for a confederation that still must deal with a raging pandemic.

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Concacaf announced a new World Cup qualification format Monday, which it attempted to explain in both the graphic above and the video below.

Essentially, teams 1-5 in the FIFA rankings start qualification in June 2021 while everyone else (30 teams) will start things in October. 24 teams will be eliminated from World Cup Finals contention in November if they do not win their five-team groups, which will feature four total games.

Then, the group winners will play each other in a home-and-home series for one of three tickets to the final group, the eight-team ‘Octagon.’ From there, they will play a traditional final round round-robin home-and-home for Concacaf’s three spots in the 2022 World Cup with the fourth-place team moving into the intercontinental playoff - soccer’s most professional wrestling sounding qualification device.

Here are some thoughts on the format:

This still may not happen

Photo from Concacaf.com

Concacaf is in an unenviable position here, trying to make international events requiring frequent travel happen in a world in which international travel is at best limited and it worst wildly irresponsible.

With the two largest countries in terms of media outlets not starting World Cup qualification until June 2021 in this format, I think this is getting lost a bit. This starts in October. Like, this October. Like, best-case scenarios for a coronavirus vaccine say we won’t have one by then October.

A lot of nations who will be involved have managed the coronavirus pandemic much better than the United States or Mexico, but they’d like to keep it that way. That means many of the Caribbean nations with zero or very limited new cases. Some have closed their borders entirely or, like Canada, require visitors to undergo a quarantine period.

“If you’ve got to quarantine for 14 days, I’m not sure how realistic it is to run a World Cup qualifying tournament, but we’re talking about October here. We don’t know what it’s going to be like in October and as we saw from Europe things can change quickly. If you would’ve told me that the Bundesliga, the English league, Serie A would’ve finished their seasons and we’re about to start watching Champions League football in March, maybe April and May, I would’ve went, ‘Really?’” Concacaf president Victor Montagliani told OneSoccer. “But as you see when you properly plan it, when you properly do it you can pull it off. But, having said that, if we need to change things, we will. For now, I think it’s good we have a format, we have a plan, we have a structure so our Member Associations can start planning.”

Montagliani also said there are contingency plans in place for the October 2020, November 2020 and early 2021 FIFA windows. “Beyond that,” he said, “FIFA nor the other confederations haven’t thought beyond 2020 in terms of losing more dates because we would hope that we will have a solution to either deal with the situation or obviously the world has come up with a medical solution. There is a contingency plan for the short and medium term.”

The reality is that Concacaf may need to activate those contingencies, not only because countries may not flex and allow a delegation of two dozen plus people come into their country to play a soccer match, but also because ethically and also PR wise the last thing Concacaf needs is for something to go slightly wrong and have a WCQ be the reason some island in the Caribbean has another COVID-19 flare-up.

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The ‘Concacaf middle class’ again has the most work to do

2019: Un año positivo para la Selección de El Salvador - AS USA

Looking at the format itself, the teams who are not in the “Octagon” final round will certainly face the longest road. 30 teams are looking for three spots to the last eight.

You have to win a four-game group, which will be drawn August 14, in which you only have two home games and may travel to play your two toughest group opponents. It all depends on the draw.

Then, you have to play the winner of another group home-and-home in hopes of getting into the final eight, which may be the most forgiving of the three rounds you play despite the matches against the top countries in the region.

There is a group of nations who are right on the cusp of contending with Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States. Canada is firmly in that group. So, too, are Panama (despite making the 2018 World Cup), El Salvador and Haiti. While those seeded teams (Canada, Panama, Haiti, El Salvador, Curacao, and Trinidad and Tobago) are the strongest in the first round, there are still some potential mines lurking in the form of squads like Suriname, Bermuda, Guatemala and Guyana. Get drawn with two of those in the group, and you may be in for an early wake-up call interrupting your World Cup dream.

“It’s been very positive because now they see that they have an opportunity to get into the final eight. They also see that even if they don’t get into the final eight, they get to play some games to prepare for maybe what their goal is for the next few years,” Montagliani told OneSoccer.

It hasn’t been universally positive, though. El Salvador was sitting in the sixth and final place for what would’ve been the Hex under Concacaf’s original format and unsurprisingly was not pleased at going from being in the final round to suddenly being two rounds away from it.

“For El Salvador, this new format substantially affects the hope, the efforts and the sacrifices made by our senior national team, generating a disruption in all levels of sporting life in our country,” El Salvador federation president Hugo Carrillo wrote in a letter to Montagliani.

“As a Member Association, we want to place on record our total and absolute dissent and disagreement with the decision to implement the new Octagonal format for qualification to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, leaving our national team out of those which already were qualified in the first format, and also, in the name of El Salvador, we request in a very special and respectful way that you reconsider the possibility to maintain the original format.”

The format most fair to this ‘middle class’ likely is the one that leaked out a few months ago involving three groups of four with the group winner moving on. That idea reportedly was turned down by FIFA for not having enough games. I wonder if that is a decision FIFA will regret in hindsight when looking back at the pandemic, but now they’re certainly getting games.

Concacaf protected its other competitions

Costa Rica to face Mexico, U.S. to meet Honduras in Nations League ...

I don’t think it was an accident that the teams in the Concacaf Nations League Final Four were given a pass into the final round (along with Jamaica, which, wow. Very lucky, Reggae Boyz, since I’d put them in that middle class I mentioned above).

Fans may not care about having a resolution to the inaugural edition of the Nations League, but it’s fair to say the region’s administrators do. There’s certainly something to the cynical view that the confederation wants another crack at a U.S. vs. Mexico game with something on the line and all the $$$ that comes with that. But I also think there’s some truth behind the lip service of wanting to cap off a tournament that legitimately has done to help the smaller members of the confederation improve than anything else in the last two decades. An exciting Final Four could help fans start to buy into the tournament as much as Concacaf does.

Concacaf also cares about the Gold Cup. Despite happening every two years, the tournament not only is an economic winner for Concacaf it’s also what it views as its premium men’s product. And, fair enough, it is the regional championship.

I’m glad to see a commitment to the qualification process. It would’ve been easy to again fall back on the FIFA rankings and knock out teams like Barbados simply by virtue of the pandemic mucking things up. Instead, we’ll get a play-in tournament in the United States, not only allowing those teams an opportunity to make the Gold Cup but also giving them a chance to have time together to fine-tune their systems and get matches to gain momentum for a potential upset bit in the tournament.

That leads to our final point…

This could be fun!

Yeah, I’m skeptical that things will work out as neatly as Concacaf as drawn it up on paper. Let’s be honest, even in the best of times, that rarely happens in Concacaf, and these are not the best of times.

Yet, let’s just say it does work out. Fans of the biggest teams are going to see their team play 14 World Cup qualifiers, plus the Gold Cup, plus some friendly matches from June 2021-March 2022 - and that’s the ones who don’t make it to the World Cup.

“The great news for our region is we’re going to come out of the blocks once we get the green light from our medical authorities, we’re going to come out of the block and it’s going to be a bit of a spring to the end of 22 with World Cup qualifying, Gold Cup, Nations League and then obviously the World Cup itself at the end of 22,” Montagliani said in the OneSoccer interview. “Then, as the calendar turns to 23, then it’s another sprint to us hosting the World Cup, so it’s going to be a Formula 1 race for this region between now and, I would say, 2026 in terms of football, which I’m not sure the last time a Concacaf president could say that when it had a plethora of football and a plethora of talent.”

These should be exciting times in the region. Never before have we had this many top players spread throughout this many teams. Never before have we had so many potential upstarts or countries who have reasonable goals of getting to tournaments like the Gold Cup or the World Cup for the first time ever or ending decades-long droughts.

At some point, we will defeat COVID-19. What an absolute release it will be to be in the stadium again or even to watch a team like the U.S. or Canada struggle in the heat and sweat of some jam-packed, far-flung stadium in Central America.

Will it happen like it’s drawn up? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But if it does, it’s going to be a whole lot of fun.