To get to the 2022 World Cup, the U.S. national team will have to survive the octagon.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the traditional six-team Hexagonal is no more. Instead, Concacaf will determine its three automatic World Cup berths with an eight-nation, home-and-home round-robin scheduled to kick off in June 2021, the regional governing body announced Monday. The USA and its rivals each will play 14 matches, after which the top three finishers will book their spots in Qatar. The fourth-place team will head to the intercontinental playoff in June 2022.
Even with the additional qualifiers (each final-round participant would’ve played only 10 games under the old format), Concacaf’s plan provides room for the 2021 Gold Cup, the Nations League final four and friendlies.
The USA hasn't taken the field since Feb. 1. Its next match in official competition will happen March 22-30, when the Nations League semis and final are contested. The inaugural final four originally was supposed to take place in Houston and Dallas in June. The Americans will play Honduras in one semifinal while Mexico and Costa Rica will play in the other, all at a U.S. venue to be determined.
Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup will start shortly thereafter. To whittle Concacaf’s 35 eligible members down to eight, the countries ranked 6-35 based on the July FIFA ranking will be drawn into six groups of five teams each. That draw will take place next month, Concacaf said. They’ll then play a single round-robin across the October and November international windows. The six group winners will pair off in three home-and-home playoffs scheduled for next March. The three survivors then will move on to the “octagonal,” joining the five seeded teams that received a bye to the final round.
Those five teams are Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras. Before the format readjustment, the top six teams in the FIFA ranking were supposed to qualify directly for the Hexagonal. El Salvador and Canada were battling for the final spot. They’ll now have to negotiate six games to reach the last stage.
“All teams now have the chance to compete for direct access to Qatar 2022 and dream of playing at a World Cup, while we have also respected the positions of those nations which had already mathematically qualified for the final round under the previous system,” Concacaf president Victor Montagliani said.
The eight teams in the octagon will play four games during FIFA’s new double international window in June 2021, then two each in September, October and November 2021, and January and March 2022.
Concacaf also said Monday that the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup will begin shortly after qualifying starts and will run July 10-Aug. 1 next summer.
The next available international window is Oct. 5-13.
Concacaf has not announced plans for the conclusion of the Concacaf Champions League, which was postponed during the quarterfinal stage.