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USMNT Could Open World Cup Qualifying at Trinidad & Tobago; Dates Set for Octagonal

The U.S. men's national team learned Wednesday that it will start down the road to the 2022 World Cup on the road—possibly in Trinidad & Tobago—and that it’ll face Mexico in October 2021 (home) and January 2022 (away) as Concacaf conducted its qualifying draw.

“We have some clarity now,” said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, who participated in two qualifying cycles as a player. “We’re looking forward to this challenge. We know some of the difficulties of qualifying in Concacaf. We know there are some very difficult conditions to go into. But we’re relishing that, and we’re also looking forward to playing the home games.”

The revamped qualifying format sends Concacaf’s top five teams based on FIFA ranking straight to an expanded octagonal final round, which will be played as a home-and-away round robin from June 2021 through March 2022. The octagonal’s other three participants will be decided via two rounds of qualifying comprising 30 teams that kicks off in October.

The top three finishers in the octagonal will book passage to Qatar, while the fourth-place team will head to an intercontinental playoff in June 2022.

Mexico, USA, Costa Rica, Honduras and Jamaica are the five automatic octagonal qualifiers.

After drawing the groups and second-round matchups for the first two rounds, FIFA on Wednesday assigned the octagonal participants to a spot in the final stage that would determine their schedules. The USA was drawn into position No. 4, which means it’ll start qualification on the road against the survivor of the second-round playoff between the winners of Group A and F. Those are likely to be El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago. Should the Soca Warriors advance, it’ll mean the Americans will begin the 2022 World Cup cycle where the 2018 edition ended in humiliating fashion, as a 2-1 qualifying defeat sent coach Bruce Arena’s side crashing out.

“That could be really interesting if that does happen,” USA and Chelsea star Christian Pulisic said. “Obviously we know what happened last time around. It’ll just be an opportunity to go out, start really strong right away and obviously get some revenge there as well. That’ll be a really big game and we’ll be as best prepared as we can be.”

Pulisic gained some valuable qualifying experience in 2017, but for many of his younger teammates, this will be the first go-around in the Concacaf crucible.

“I’m really excited. All the guys have been,” he said. “We’ve waited such a long time for this and yeah, I know we have a really good group of guys that are really hungry and just want to be in that next World Cup, obviously especially not being in the last one. Even more so for me, I want to be in this one bad. So we’re really looking forward to this challenge.”

The USA’s second game in the opening qualifying window will be at home against another qualifier, most likely Canada or Haiti. The octagonal will conclude in March 2022 at Costa Rica, where the Americans have traditionally struggled. The road trips to the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City and to San Jose, Costa Rica, will account for two of the USA’s final three games.

“You have 11 games before that to get the group used to playing in these qualifying games and then you have two of the harder opponents away from home toward the end,” Berhalter said. “I think that’s a way to look at it. The other way to look at if you can take care of all of your business beforehand, you could be in a very good position going into those games.”

The Canadians, who are a top seed in the first round’s Group B, were gifted with what should be an easy path to the second round playoff. They’ll face Suriname (FIFA rank No. 141), Bermuda (No. 168), Cayman Islands (No. 193) and Aruba (No. 200) once each in October and November.

Between now and the meat of the qualifying schedule, the USA has next summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup, the Nations League finals in March and two international windows this fall during which Berhalter is hoping to play up to four friendlies. He said Wednesday that the goal is to play two games at home in October and two “high-level games” in Europe the following month. The October games likely would be played with an all MLS-based squad. Conversely, the matches in Europe likely will be contested using players based in Europe. The Americans haven’t taken the field since the Feb. 1 friendly against Costa Rica.

Here’s a rough USA qualifying schedule:

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Game 1 - at Group A/F winner, May 31-June 15, 2021

Game 2 - vs. Group B/E winner, May 31-June 15, 2021

Game 3 - at Honduras, May 31-June 15, 2021

Game 4 - vs. Jamaica, May 31-June 15, 2021

Game 5 - at Group C/D winner, Aug. 30-Sept. 7, 2021

Game 6 - vs. Costa Rica, Aug. 30-Sept. 7, 2021

Game 7 - vs. Mexico, Oct. 4-12, 2021

Game 8 - at Jamaica, Oct. 4-12, 2021

Game 9 - vs. Group A/F winner, Nov. 8-16, 2021

Game 10 - at Group B/E winner, Nov. 8-16, 2021

Game 11 - vs. Honduras, Jan. 24-Feb. 1, 2022

Game 12 - at Mexico, Jan. 24-Feb. 1, 2022

Game 13 - vs. Group C/D winner, March 21-29, 2022

Game 14 - at Costa Rica, March 21-29, 2022