CONCACAF, the red-headed stepchild of FIFA’s regional confederations, today issued a new format for World Cup Qualifying for the 2022 competition scheduled to take place in Qatar. And in a stunning development, it’s actually an improvement!
The previous system in place since the 1998 qualification was famous for The Hexagonal, a group stage where the final six teams played each other home-and-home for three guaranteed World Cup spots. The fourth place team was awards a playoff spot against another region, while the bottom two teams failed to make the World Cup — like the USA did in 2018.
But before “The Hex,” all teams were forced to play a “fourth round” qualifier. That was a group of four teams each played six games (three home, three away) that weren’t often competitive, but forced teams like the USA and Mexico to put wear and tear on their best players in the middle of club seasons.
This multi-round system forced the power teams of the region to send their best teams to far-flung locales with conjuncted names such as St. Vincent and the Grenadines or Antigua and Barbuda is gone. The flattening of Caribbean archipelagos like a Category 4 hurricane ends as now those nations will need to go through a qualifying system just to reach final competition.
That’s out the window now as the top five teams in the region (USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras) will join three teams of the 30 member nations not in the top five for a new eight-team, home-and-away group stage qualifier where all teams will play 14 matches.
The Hex is dead, long live The Ocho.
This is a positive change for many reasons:
- Now every game matters. When you’re watching the USMNT take on Antigua and Barbuda in a rainstorm in a match you know that’s meaningless because they’re going to get flattened, it’s not good for either the USA or the country getting paved. While the 6th-8th teams that qualify will certainly be underdogs, they should be plucky enough to keep matches competitive.
- It’s more must-watch inventory for CONCACAF rights holders, and more chances for fans to get competitive matches.
- The USA and Mexico will continue to face each other home-and-away in what are the most competitive matches between the sides every four years.
- The smaller teams in CONCACAF will have more of an opportunity to improve their national programs with a better path to better meaningful matches. They’ll also pick up much needed additional revenue, and have a more reasonable path to sustained success.
- And for bettors, this means more competitive matches on which to wager as opposed to friendlies or flattenings during the international sabbaticals. It’s a win-win all around.
The CONCACAF World Cup qualifying hexagonal has been replaced with the octagonal, i.e., The Ocho. USMNT and Mexico go straight into the final 8. pic.twitter.com/JZh2zLxfTa— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) July 27, 2020
The USA might have their first true international superstar in Christian Pulisic, and he’ll have this path as a platform to reach his first World Cup final. It should make for a more entertaining and engaging path for he and his teammates to get there.