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Concacaf's World Cup Qualifying Postponement Delays USMNT's Entry to Octagon

The USA, Mexico and other Concacaf favorites won't be kicking off World Cup qualifying next June after all, thanks to new coronavirus-related postponements announced Tuesday by the regional governing body.

The schedule shift—the second required by the pandemic—will see the expanded octagonal final round begin after the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup, rather than before.

Concacaf revamped the qualifying format last month, establishing a first round featuring the 30 lowest-ranked national teams in the region. The format won’t change again. Those 30 sides were divided into groups of five and were scheduled to play four matches each this October and November. Those round-robin games have been postponed. They’ll now be contested in March and June 2021. The six group winners then will play off for the three remaining spots in the octagonal. Those games also will take place in June 2021, just before the Gold Cup’s July start.

As a result, the octagonal has been pushed back as well. Sports Illustrated understands it will now begin during the Aug. 30-Sept. 7, 2021, international window. The USA will begin with games against two of the three first-round qualifiers. The second window will take place Oct. 4-12, 2021, when the Americans meet Honduras and Jamaica.

“Many parts of the region continue to have very challenging public health situations, and that has been a key factor in this decision,” Concacaf said Tuesday. “Additionally, several countries across the confederation have travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, which would make international football involving 30 national teams extremely difficult.”

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Before Tuesday’s announcement, the octagonal was set to end during the March 21-29, 2022, window. Now, however—and under the current FIFA calendar—each octagonal team will have played just 10 of 14 qualifiers by that date. Four more match days, or two windows, will be required to finish the round. One solution could be to postpone the June 2022 intercontinental playoffs, which will include the team finishing fourth in the octagonal. Another potential idea is to lengthen international windows by a few days in order to squeeze in a third game.

FIFA and Concacaf will work jointly on a solution. The octagonal format isn’t expected to change.

The schedule shift could have an interesting impact on next summer’s Gold Cup. Originally set to take place between qualifying dates, the tournament likely would’ve been played without several top players from several top teams. At that point, rest probably would have been more important. Now, with the likes of Mexico and the USA not starting down the road to Qatar until September, the Gold Cup could become more of a dress rehearsal and an opportunity to bring players together who otherwise wouldn’t have shared a field in a year or more.

The USA last played on Feb. 1 in a friendly without European-based players. The next available international window is next month, but U.S. Soccer is now low on time to schedule a game or two. November represents a more likely return to action, and Europe is the most likely setting. That would give coach Gregg Berhalter access to a collection of top players he hasn’t worked with since 2019.

"These are extraordinary times, and we all need to continue to adjust,” Berhalter said in a comment shared by U.S. Soccer. “We have established a strong foundation in our group and we will deal with whatever comes our way. We look forward to receiving the updated schedule so we can plan accordingly."