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The Favorites, Potential Pitfalls and Features of Concacaf's World Cup Qualifying Octagonal

The region's final round of qualifying will be unlike any edition before it. Here's what to watch and expect on Concacaf's road to Qatar 2022.

Concacaf's grasp of geometry has evolved due to the pandemic, but the end result is actually quite apropos. 

World Cup qualifying in the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football is typically a brutal fight to the finish. It takes brains and brawn, savvy and skill, and those who make it out on the right side typically have to claw their way for it, no holds barred. Style points are fun, but just getting through at all is the aim. The Octagon, where mixed martial arts fighters beat each other senseless, then, is a pretty apt representation of the road to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. What was once a six-team final round of qualifying has expanded to eight, the Hexagonal morphing into the Octagonal and, hence, the ideal geometric figure to use as a symbol for the next seven months.

The big elephant in the eight-sided room is the unpredictability brought on by the pandemic, which forced the rejiggering of the international calendar and thus resulted in the new-look qualification process, and how that directly impacts certain teams and players. Already the Premier League has thrown a wrench into planning by having its clubs refuse to release players who would have to play in countries on Britain's "red list" for travel. Costa Rica, Mexico and Panama are presently the only three Concacaf Octagonal nations impacted on home soil, but that means any other teams slated to play in those countries are then also affected in some way. 

As long as that only remains in place for September's window, then the U.S. will not feel the effects of the ruling, but that could change if the guidelines are the same in October, when the U.S. is due to play in Panama. The "red list" itself could also evolve to incorporate more (or fewer) countries.

All things told, every manager is faced with a set of headaches and unpredictable elements like never before. The entire qualifying slate is compressed enough as is, but factoring in everything else that comes into play—and national team managers tend to absolutely hate things they cannot control—and these eight teams find themselves with the most atypical qualifying slog there's ever been.

So managing a way through the Octagonal will take more than just physical strength and endurance. It will be a test of depth and resilience, it will require some good fortune and navigating unprecedented circumstances and it will be a process where the points earned won't all come in the most aesthetically pleasing of manners.

Here's a closer look at how it'll all work and the eight sides entering the ring:

Concacaf's World Cup qualifying Octagonal

HOW IT WORKS

In simplest terms: Eight teams enter and play each other home and away in a 14-match round robin, with three points earned for a win and one for a draw. The final octet was constructed with Concacaf giving the region's top five teams in the July 2020 FIFA ranking (Mexico, U.S., Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras) automatic berths, while the region's remaining sides played a group stage and playoff to determine the final three (El Salvador, Canada, Panama).

The top three teams in the single table go straight to the World Cup, with the fourth-place finisher heading to an intercontinental playoff for one more spot in Qatar. The draw for the playoff (the Concacaf entrant will play a team from either the Oceania, Asia or South America regions) hasn't yet been conducted, but the playoff will take place in June 2022.

Teams can call in as many players as they'd like for the international windows, but on match day, they're limited to 23-player squads with five substitutions. Card accumulation for a player (i.e., two yellows) will result in a one-game suspension for the subsequent match. Perhaps most importantly and most influential, VAR will not be implemented by Concacaf during the competition, according to U.S. Soccer. That's quite significant in a region known for moments that go awry. Now that most are conditioned to having the luxury of replay on an every-game basis, there will be even more attention paid to the work of the match officials, whose calls in the moment will be the ones that stand.

The entirety of Concacaf's qualifying tournament takes place between September 2021 and March '22, with four of the five windows featuring three matches apiece due to the necessary crunch of the FIFA calendar brought on by the pandemic. It's far more condensed than the previous format. In qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, for example, six teams in the final round each played a 10-match (five home, five away) round robin over the course of 11 months.

THE FAVORITES

United States

First matches: Sept. 2 at El Salvador; Sept. 5 vs. Canada (Nashville); Sept. 8 at Honduras

USMNT's squad to open World Cup qualifying

What a difference four years makes. The USMNT hit its low point of its modern era in October 2017, when it cemented a fifth-place finish thanks to a confluence of events on the final night of qualifying, including an infamous defeat at Trinidad & Tobago when just a draw would've let the U.S. back its way into Russia 2018. Since then, it's been about rejuvenating and remaking the player pool and rediscovering the U.S. identity, and all of that has been achieved—first under interim coach Dave Sarachan and especially now under manager Gregg Berhalter. 

The U.S. has more players featuring at top clubs in Europe than ever before, and the core of the side is both young and capable. There's a temptation to project what all the burgeoning talent will be able to do on home soil in 2026, but it can do plenty in 2022 as well—provided qualification is secured.

The U.S. took big steps forward this summer, when two teams with very little crossover beat Mexico in a pair of Concacaf finals. Whatever the Nations League and Gold Cup trophies mean in the grand scheme, the thrilling manner with which they were won made for landmark moments for a team building toward something bigger. The failure of the past squad has little to do with the present and future of this one. That said, failure—or avoiding it—is still top of mind entering the most important seven-month stretch of this cycle.

“It’s nice to win a trophy in Nations League; it’s nice to win a Gold Cup trophy. It’s nice to be ranked 10th in the world in FIFA rankings," Berhalter said last week, upon the release of his first qualifying squad. “But it doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t qualify for the World Cup.

“Our mission is not even close to being complete. It would be a failure if we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. All the work would be undone if we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. So this is our next challenge. It’s really simple. Our next challenge is understanding that everything we’ve done until now is only a foundation.”

The opening window does not come without complications. For instance, Christian Pulisic's availability remains uncertain following a recent positive COVID-19 test (he said he is vaccinated and was asymptomatic before arriving at camp in Nashville on Sunday and joining training Monday, but U.S. Soccer said Wednesday that he did not travel for the opener vs. El Salvador). Weston McKennie has played in one competitive match since the June international window. Tim Weah had to withdraw with an injury. One week featuring three games and multiple legs of travel meant that Berhalter was already going to be tapping into his depth, and that will remain a theme throughout this marathon of a sprint of a qualification process. 

Mexico

First matches: Sept. 2 vs. Jamaica; Sept. 5 at Costa Rica; Sept. 8 at Panama

On paper, Mexico remains at worst a top-two Concacaf team (and according to the flawed-yet-influential FIFA ranking, it's one step above the U.S.). This summer's second-place finishes to the U.S. may have planted some seeds of doubt, though, and they definitely turned up the heat on manager Tata Martino. The margin for error as Mexico coach is razor-thin, and any early slip-ups could open the door to a change.

Some of Mexico's advantage at Estadio Azteca will be compromised, as its first home match, against Jamaica, will be played without fans. It's a direct result of the discriminatory and anti-gay fan chant that has persisted despite the Mexican federation and Concacaf's best efforts to eradicate it from El Tri's match-day experience. (The punishment was supposed to be two such games, but it was halved.)

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Rogelio Funes Mori's emergence at the Gold Cup provides an alternative at forward to Raúl Jiménez, the Wolverhampton striker who is still working his way back to top form after a horrifying collision that broke his skull and threatened his life last season. He was initially included in this group, despite the U.K.'s travel restrictions and with Mexico slated to play in three "red list" countries, but it's unlikely he'll wind up featuring. The influential Hector Herrera and Hirving Lozano are also not available for the first window, though, nor is rising star Diego Lainez, whose goal, for a few minutes anyhow, looked to have given Mexico the Nations League final win over the U.S. That margin for error is indeed small, and Martino's Mexico is going to start by facing some significant disadvantages. Despite everything, though, finishing out of the top three would be a shock.

TOP CHALLENGERS A TIER BELOW

Canada

First matches: Sept. 2 vs Honduras; Sept. 5 at U.S.; Sept. 8 vs. El Salvador

Canada has qualified for one men's World Cup, in 1986, and lost all three games without scoring a goal. It's in the final round of Concacaf qualifying for the first time since its attempt to reach the '98 World Cup. The pedigree, suffice it to say, is not quite there. The talent in this generation, however, most definitely is.

Even shorthanded, Canada pushed Mexico to the brink before falling in the Gold Cup semifinals, and it delivered the U.S. a defeat in Toronto in the Nations League group stage that sure seemed like a statement of intent. An attack led by forwards Jonathan David (Lille) and Cyle Larin (Beşiktaş) and dynamic wing play from the likes of Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) and Tajon Buchanan (New England Revolution for now, but heading to Belgian champion Club Brugge) have completely transformed what's possible for John Herdman's side. Canada will participate in the 2026 World Cup by virtue of being a cohost, but it has every chance to earn its way into the '22 one and alter its narrative as a side that perpetually comes up short.

Honduras

First matches: Sept. 2 at Canada; Sept. 5 at El Salvador; Sept. 8 vs. U.S.

Honduras missed the 2018 World Cup after falling in the intercontinental playoff to Australia, depriving Los Catrachos of a third straight trip to the big dance. They'll be a bit shorthanded in their bid to return, with capable forward Alberth Elis—their lone scorer in the two-legged defeat to the Socceroos—unavailable for the first match window. They'll also be at a disadvantage as the only team to open with consecutive road games (featuring lengthy travel in between, no less), to only return home to face the U.S., which makes for perhaps the toughest opening schedule in the field. 

Honduras won its first two matches at the Gold Cup but was well beaten by guest nation Qatar to close the group stage and was then blitzed by Mexico to bow out in the quarterfinals. On one end of the spectrum, it features players with as many as 172 and 132 caps (38-year-old Maynor Figueroa and 37-year-old Boniek García, respectively), and on the other, three uncapped players. In between, there are dangerous players like forward Anthony Lozano, who plies his trade at Cadiz in La Liga; winger Romell Quioto, who has three goals and four assists for CF Montreal in MLS this season and scored upon his return from a hamstring injury just before the international break; and Andy Najar, the D.C. United right back who has just one cap in the last four-plus years but can bring some dynamism to the wing. A finish in the 3-to-5 range in the table should be expected. 

Costa Rica

First matches: Sept. 2 at Panama; Sept. 5 vs. Mexico; Sept. 8 vs. Jamaica

If there's a knock on Los Ticos, it's that they've yet to develop a new generation to take the baton from the 2014 World Cup's surprise quarterfinalists. Keylor Navas, Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz are still very much at the core of what Costa Rica does, for better or for worse. There's probably one more run left in them, and the veteran-laden nature of the squad (seven current players total were on that 2014 team; 11 were on the 2018 World Cup squad) means that there will be ample familiarity with the region's rigors. 

But experience alone won't get Costa Rica to a third straight World Cup. This is a team that went winless in one pandemic-interrupted stretch of 10 matches from November 2019 to July '21 and whose only wins since a pair of November '18 friendlies are over Jamaica (twice), Curaçao, Bermuda, Nicaragua, Guadeloupe and Suriname. There's ample work to be done to prove that it still belongs among the region's top teams.

THE WILD CARD

Jamaica

First matches: Sept. 2 at Mexico; Sept. 5 vs. Panama; Sept. 8 at Costa Rica

The Reggae Boyz have ramped up recruiting efforts considerably with the hopes of luring English players with Jamaican ties who have fallen short of the England national team setup into their ranks. West Ham striker Michail Antonio is chief among the talent infusion, but the complications brought on by the Premier League's stance and Jamaica's first three games (two of which are in "red" countries), make things far from straightforward—and its federation is not particularly pleased about it.

Nevertheless, Antonio has been included in an expanded Jamaica squad for the first time and is one of a handful of players who will only be able to face Panama at home (Aston Villa summer signing Leon Bailey and Rangers attacker Kemar Roofe, who, like Antonio, is new to the setup, are among the others). Even if the top squad available is brought together at some point, or available for only spot matches as is the case in the opening window, there remain the issues of chemistry and cohesion. A list of new, talented imports is nice on paper and all, but can they play together? And can they do so in the cauldron of World Cup qualifying without ever having played as much as a friendly together as a unit? 

No matter how Jamaica's qualifying campaign turns out, it will be fascinating to watch unfold. In many ways, it's Concacaf's great experiment, and its possible outcomes are all over the map. Jamaica does catch a break for its opener vs. Mexico, given that no fans will be in attendance. It still needs to field a squad capable of taming El Tri, though.

THE UNDERDOGS

El Salvador

First matches: Sept. 2 vs. U.S.; Sept. 5 vs. Honduras; Sept. 8 at Canada

Coached by former U.S. international (and former U.S. Soccer youth coach and current National Soccer Hall of Famer) Hugo Pérez and featuring a number of players with U.S. ties and citizenship, La Selecta has some wild-card potential as well. There's a fearlessness to the way Pérez's side plays, evidenced by its performance at the Gold Cup, and while conservatism may be a more sound and safe approach in a qualifying campaign, the boldness will test each of its opponents—the first of which is the U.S. in the confines of San Salvador. The 29,000 available tickets at a limited-capacity Estadio Cuscatlán are expected to be fully utilized, and there's a chance of thunderstorms in the forecast, which should be more than enough to make for a proper Concacaf atmosphere.

Panama

First matches: Sept. 2 vs. Costa Rica; Sept. 5 at Jamaica; Sept. 8 vs. Mexico

Three years removed from the first World Cup it ever reached, Panama is back to where it had been—good and tough enough to challenge some of the region's top teams on occasion but unlikely to be included in that top tier itself. Like with Costa Rica, there hasn't really been a sound development process or replenishment over the last cycle, and the player with the most international goals on the current squad is 31-year-old Rolando Blackburn—with eight. A pair of veteran midfielders with more than 100 caps apiece, Anibal Godoy and Alberto Quintero, return to provide the leadership and know-how to guide Los Canaleros, but they had to eke by Curação in the playoff round just to make it to the final eight, didn't make it out of their Gold Cup group and are the lowest-ranked side in the field.

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