What FIFA's International Match Hiatus Means for Concacaf, 2022 World Cup Qualifying

The first Concacaf Nations League finals were postponed, and the next time the region's men's national teams are supposed to be in action is to kick off 2022 World Cup qualifying–but there's some wiggle room to keep that from being the case.
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At this point, even the best-case scenario comes with complications.

If the coronavirus pandemic subsides in the coming months, and if there’s progress on a vaccine, and if the economy and infrastructure aren't in shambles, then sports might be primed for a return by the time the U.S. national team is scheduled to take the field next. That’s in early September. That’s when qualifying for the 2022 World Cup is supposed to start.

At that point—and again, this is if a lot of other things go right—coach Gregg Berhalter would be leading a team onto the field for the first time in seven months. That’s the longest fallow period for the American men in 14 years, since a similar stretch after a disastrous 2006 World Cup. Their two March 2020 friendlies in Europe were canceled and then last Friday evening, following a recommendation from FIFA, June’s Concacaf Nations League finals were postponed indefinitely.

From a sporting perspective, missing an opportunity to battle Honduras, and then either Mexico or Costa Rica, for the inaugural Nations League title doesn’t seem like a huge loss. Even if Concacaf’s newly-contrived competition establishes some traction, it still would place a distant third on a power ranking of senior international trophies. Rather, the casualty is the games themselves, the 180-plus minutes of play, not to mention the training time around them.

Owing to frequent injuries to key personnel, the youth and evolution of the player pool and the complexity and importance of familiarity and repetition in Berhalter’s system, this is a national team that still hasn’t gelled. We’re still not sure what it looks like when it’s playing its best, nor have we seen an optimal lineup. The trio usually regarded as the faces of U.S. Soccer’s next generation—Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams—have started together only once under Berhalter. And that was more than a year ago.

That stat doesn’t exactly cripple Berhalter or the team, but it sort of symbolizes a group that hasn’t had much of an opportunity to find a higher gear. The recent cancellations have only added to the issue. Whether it’s Ulysses Llanez never building on his promising February showing against Costa Rica or Gio Reyna missing out on his first senior caps in March, Berhalter will have lost the chance to develop valuable intel and some potentially useful options ahead of qualifying.

Of course, every national team except for Belarus—take pity on their scheduled September UEFA Nations League opponents, Albania and Kazakhstan—is in a similar boat. Soccer has been shut down around the world. Players have been at home juggling rolls of toilet paper. Many national sides, however, had established more continuity in tactics and personnel than the USA. September won’t be an ideal time to begin qualifying, even if it means the world is healing.

Maybe Concacaf will agree.

In FIFA’s Friday statement, it said it intended to “organize bilateral discussions with confederations concerning 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers in order to finalize a revised match schedule pending health and safety developments.”

If Concacaf and FIFA want to change the schedule, they can. And there’s room to do it. There’s now a silver lining to a World Cup in Qatar: the extra give in the calendar. The decision to stage the tournament in November-December 2022, rather than June-July, potentially allows for extra time for qualifying. And with Euro 2020+1, Copa América, Gold Cup and the Olympics all now scheduled for summer 2021, that time might be needed.

The new Concacaf qualifying format (more on that in a minute) will send the USA straight to the Hexagonal and require it to play 10 games, plus up to four potential playoff matches if it finishes fourth. The 10 Hex games were scheduled to occur over five international windows from September 2020 through September 2021. At that point, the World Cup doesn’t kick off for more than a year. And according to the current FIFA calendar, there are two open international windows in 2021 and room for four additional games in the spring of 2022, if FIFA is willing to push back the World Cup draw.

There are other moving parts obviously (including 2021 Gold Cup qualifying for some smaller nations), but it appears possible to push the Nations League final four to September and then kick off qualifying in October or later. That would let Concacaf finish out the inaugural season of its new tournament while giving teams a chance to get their legs under them before the bigger games begin. If future friendlies or 2021-22 Nations League matches are scuttled, so be it.

Offering teams the chance to play before qualification starts also could mitigate the impact of Concacaf’s new format, most of which is being felt by Canada. Last summer, the confederation announced the most significant overhaul to its World Cup preliminaries in more than two decades. This time, instead of a semifinal group stage that featured 12 teams competing for six spots in the Hex, the top six Concacaf nations in the June 2020 FIFA ranking would fill them automatically. The rest of the region would have to navigate a group stage, then multiple rounds of home-and-home qualifiers, just to produce one survivor that faces the fourth-place Hex finisher in a playoff.

While this format saves the likes of the USA, Mexico and Costa Rica the hassle of that semifinal round, it would be devastating to a side that appears to be improving but still falls just outside the top six. It turns out Concacaf has such a team: Canada, which trails El Salvador by 14 points in the most recent ranking. That deficit theoretically could have been erased by the March games now lost to the coronavirus or potential friendlies it might have been able to plan for June (none appear on the schedule).

Canada's 2022 World Cup qualifying fate hangs in the balance

It’s unknown whether teams like Canada or El Salvador would be able to find alternative games if World Cup qualifying is pushed back by a window or two. But if none of that occurs, then Canada will join 28 other nations in the arduous qualification path for lower seeds.

At this point, the Hex will comprise (in ranking order) Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras and El Salvador.

Speaking to TSN at the end of March, Canada coach John Herdman said the continuing flux in the schedule—even a September return to action is far from guaranteed—left him believing that his squad’s qualifying fate was uncertain.

“The only thing we can really control at this stage is the potential of a 7-35 pathway, an extension of FIFA windows that allows us to have these additional games to accumulate FIFA ranking points, or to be ready for a new qualification pathway that Concacaf has to put in place because of the adaptations they’ll need to make based on this reality,” Herdman told the network. “There may be some silver linings here. There was a big change in July [2019] to the way that the qualification process unfolded. … And we’re anticipating there may be an even bigger change, because that's what the football world is going to have to create in response to this very unique and frightening situation.”

Maybe he knows something. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. The only certainty is that the Nations League, World Cup qualifying and the rest won’t be played until it’s safe to do so. At that point, a competition format will have to be designed to fit the calendar. There doesn’t have to be a Nations League winner. That tournament has served its purpose already. There is a Gold Cup in the summer of 2021 and a World Cup toward the end of 2022. Those are unlikely to move. And so Herdman is right. Concacaf may have to rethink everything if the stadiums remain empty through the fall.