New CONCACAF World Cup qualifying structure is downright outrageous

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On Wednesday, CONCACAF released its new model for qualification to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. While the number of qualifying teams stays the same – three-and-a-half – the new method is an utterly baffling concoction of wealth division and competitive nonsense that leaves teams at the bottom with almost no prayer of competing and those in the middle suddenly confused at where they fit in.

CONCACAF released a video combing through its new qualification method, stating that teams will be tiered by FIFA rankings, with those at the top gaining a significant, almost insurmountable advantage. While CONCACAF qualifying has always been segmented in the recent past, with teams like Bermuda, St. Kitts & Nevis, and Montserrat forced to slog through three rounds of preliminary qualifiers before reaching the meat and potatoes, the top teams like Mexico, the United States, and Costa Rica still had to play through a group stage before reaching the famous Hex.

Now, in the new format, the top six FIFA-ranked CONCACAF sides go straight through to the Hex, no group stage needed, with the top three earning CONCACAF’s three automatic qualifying bid. Meanwhile, the bottom 29 – twenty-nine teams! – are unable to earn an automatic bid at all, instead playing a Champions League-like group stage/knockout round combo for a spot in a playoff against the Hex’s fourth-place side for one half-bid, with the winner entering into the intercontinental playoff against a TBA federation. Breathe, you’re not the only one confused.

Right away, the North American federation has succumbed to an outrageous imbalance of power, with the infamously imperfect FIFA rankings dictating who is even eligible for a World Cup automatic bid and who is only good enough for a half-bid via a long and arduous trek through a series of lower-level matches before a playoff against the Hex’s fourth-place finisher?

CONCACAF will argue it is actually doing the lower-tiered teams a favor, giving one of them a better opportunity to reach a World Cup as they are separated from the top teams and able to compete against themselves for the chance at a spot, but in reality, the federation is creating a gargantuan rift that could see an exhausted an ill-equipped team set up for an intercontinental slaughter. While the federation wished to avoid having three-quarters of the teams eliminated two years out from the big dance – a legitimate problem – this new format hardly solves that issue, seeing the bottom-tier group stage concluding by the fall of 2020, with 21 teams eliminated at that point. The knockout stage will then eliminate another four teams in March 2021, and another two in June. For the top teams, they will play six fewer competitive games with the straight shot into the Hex, instead leaving them with just five international windows of Hexagonal games (September, October, and November of 2020 plus March and September of 2021) to savor.

The federation is also robbed of its more intriguing matchups, with the top teams now unable to play the likes of Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala, Haiti, or St. Vincent & the Grenadines, all who made the group stage last qualifying cycle and got a chance to pit themselves against the best. Trinidad & Tobago surprised and reached the Hex, while Guatemala and Canada came close in fun matchups that mattered.

In addition, the system creates a confusing dilemma for those teams on the cusp of the Hex. Is it better for a team on the edge like El Salvador, Panama, or Canada to be in the top-tier round robin with a shot at an automatic bid should they surprise over the course of 10 matches? Remember, the bottom two teams in the Hex are fully eliminated. Or is it better to be in the lower-tier creation against theoretically lesser opponents, only able to earn the half-bid but progressing as the favored side for much of the qualifying cycle? If they prefer the latter, would teams throw games between now and then to drop in the rankings and not risk a spot in the Hex?

While there are understandable problems the federation looked to solve with a new qualification format, their creation instead raises far more questions than it solves, and creating a significant power division using an imperfect ranking system spells disaster before the cycle even gets under way. While the old system had its drawbacks, this is unquestionably a step back for the federation that sees competitive balance further eroded instead of progress forward.