Concacaf Tweaks Format, Keeps Hex for World Cup Qualifying Ahead of 2022 Cycle

The Concacaf Hexagonal will remain for at least one more cycle, but the road to getting there has been eliminated for the region's top-ranked teams. As for the minnows–and the fourth-place finisher in the hex–the path to qualification is a long one.
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Concacaf’s Hexagonal will remain for at least one more World Cup qualifying cycle, the confederation revealed Wednesday, but the 12-team semifinal round is no more. Instead of the minimum 16-game qualifying schedule used previously, top teams like Mexico, USA and Costa Rica could reach the 2022 World Cup in Qatar by playing only 10.

The changes represent a boon for the top teams, who now have just about the same margin for error as before without having to negotiate the six extra games. The burden now falls on Concacaf’s lower-ranked teams, who get additional games but still must survive several rounds of qualifiers just for a shot at the intercontinental playoff.

Here’s how it’ll work:

The top six Concacaf teams in the FIFA ranking released after the June 2020 international window will qualify for the Hexagonal. (Before the Gold Cup, the top six teams were Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras and El Salvador.) They’ll comprise the Hex. There’s no other way to get in.

The Hexagonal matches will take place in September, October and November of 2020 and March and September of 2021.

The top three finishers after the double round-robin will qualify for Qatar. There will be USA-Mexico qualifiers for at least one more cycle.

This format will be especially hard on the teams ranked just outside the top six, who formerly had a decent shot at the Hex via the semifinal round. Right now, Panama is No. 7 and Canada is No. 8—both are decent sides.

Under Concacaf’s new format, they’ll be part of a 29-team competition that’ll begin with eight groups played in the fall of 2020 (six Concacaf nations aren’t FIFA members so are ineligible for the World Cup). The first-place finishers in each of the eight groups will qualify for a knockout stage. The quarterfinals, semifinals and finals will be played home-and-away in March, June and September 2021.

The winner will meet the fourth place team in the Hex in a home-and-away series in October 2021. The survivor of that will advance to FIFA’s intercontinental playoff for a spot in the World Cup. So, for the fourth-place finisher in the Hex, the road to the World Cup now requires an extra two games against Concacaf opposition, but no semifinal stage. Teams No. 7-35 in Concacaf will have to play 12-14 games to reach the intercontinental playoff.

One of Concacaf president Victor Montagliani’s primary initiatives has been to schedule more competitive matches for the region’s smaller countries. It’s the primary driver behind the Nations League tournament set to begin this fall. He said the new World Cup qualifying format also increases the importance of all games (Nations League, Gold Cup, even friendlies) by relying so heavily on the FIFA ranking. He claimed Wednesday that the integration “will raise standards of play to unprecedented levels.”

So the USA, Mexico and Costa Rica won’t have play as many qualifiers to reach the World Cup, but they will find that every game may have an impact. Keep on eye on that FIFA ranking.

Concacaf said that the qualifying draw and Hexagonal schedule will be announced “later this year.”

Following Sunday’s conclusion to the Gold Cup, the inaugural Nations League is the next competition on the docket. The USA will play home and away against Canada and Cuba this October and November. The winner of each three-team group will advance to the March 2020 semifinals. Essentially, the Nations League is replacing the semifinal round of World Cup qualifiers on the schedule.

Meanwhile, World Cup qualifying already has kicked off in Asia. Last month, six teams—Brunei, Macau, Laos, East Timor, Pakistan and Bhutan—were eliminated after home-and-home series, three years before the World Cup. Concacaf’s new format was designed in part to save some smaller countries from that fate.