Good Friday morning Caps’ fans. We’ve reached the end of another long international break, with the Caps set to return to action tomorrow night against the Houston Dynamo.
We remain, however, on the subject of international football for a few more moments. More specifically, we shall focus on the matter of CONCACAF’s newfangled World Cup qualifying system.
For those of you who missed the news, CONCACAF is moving away from using a group stage method of deciding who qualifies for the Hexagonal, or the top six teams who compete head-to-head for spots in the World Cup. Instead, the Hex participants will automatically be decided based off FIFA rankings at a specified cut-off date.
The logic behind this move is to ratchet up the importance of the Nations League, with those a successful campaign in that competition presumably going a long way to bolstering a country’s FIFA rankings. CONCACAF just announced that they will be using the Nations League for Gold Cup qualification as well, further underscoring its importance.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Nations League is a good chance for smaller countries to get meaningful, competitive matches under their belt and replaces largely meaningless, cash grab friendlies for a few of the bigger nations. It has been an even bigger success in Europe, creating more interesting and exciting viewing during international breaks.
The problem here, of course, is that using the FIFA rankings brings a whole host of other factors into play. This includes the fact that not all of the participants in the Nations League are FIFA members, putting some teams at a disadvantage. The arbitrary nature of the FIFA rankings is also a problem (remember this is the formula that once ranked Switzerland as a top-5 team in the world).
But the biggest gripe is the way it protects the confederation’s biggest members, at the expense of everyone else. Obviously it isn’t breaking news that CONCACAF’s interests and the interests of the USSF and the FMF are largely intertwined. The fact that those two countries are virtually guranteed a spot in the Hex as long as this weird qualification system exists is consistent with past actions. And confederations change qualification processes all the time to benefit their biggest members—UEFA expanded the Euros largely to ensure the biggest countries are all but ensured a spot (Netherlands wound up missing the 2016 tournament anyway which is one of the more underrated soccer choke jobs in my opinion).
But the most recent round of rankings illustrated the problem that will ensue. Those who don’t qualify for the Hex will have to take part in a Byzantine group stage where the ultimate winner will earn a mere playoff with the fourth place team from the Hex to earn CONCACAF’s playoff spot. So if Canada, say, doesn’t make it in the Hex, the most they can hope for is a playoff for a playoff for a playoff to qualify for the World Cup, a process so laughably complex that it sounds like something out of Nutmeg News.
The competition for the sixth and final spot, and thus avoiding that indignity, will be fierce. El Salvador, Curacao, Canada and Panama are separated by roughly 30 points in the most recent FIFA rankings. Moving up can be difficult—Canada actually lost ground, despite a 6-0 win over Cuba the day prior. This is all a way of saying that CONCACAF, as only they can, ruined what otherwise would have been a fascinating battle for the Hex slots. It’ll be a moot point, as the expanded World Cup in 2026 will force a sea change in the qualifying process, but it still is disappointing for those of who care about the entire confederation developing—not just the U.S. and Mexico.
With that, we move onto the links!
Shameless Self Promotion
Check back later today for more updates ahead of tomorrow’s match. For now, be sure to get your lineup predictions in!
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