Earlier this week CONCACAF President Victor Montagliani announced that he has instigated a review into CONCACAF’s “archaic” World Cup qualifying format that leaves just six of the regions 35 teams alive with more than a year and a half to go before the 2018 World Cup.
“Something needs to change because you can’t have 85 percent of your members who are on the outside looking in two years before the World Cup,” Montagliani told The Associated Press. “It doesn’t make sense.”
CONCACAF’s system has been in place since the 1998 World Cup, the first tournament to feature 32 teams. The format calls for teams to play home and away matches until there are 12 teams remaining, though six of those 12 teams get byes until the semifinal round. From there the teams are divided into three groups of four with the top two teams in each group advancing to the final Hexagonal round. The final round sees the six teams play a round robin league with the top three teams advancing to the World Cup, and the fourth place team advancing to the playoffs.
CONCACAF’s concerns come from the teams that don’t make the Hexagonal as it’s tough for them to climb the FIFA rankings thanks to a lack of competitive matches. The set up also makes it hard for smaller countries to gain exposure and thus find commercial sponsors.
When discussing a new configuration Montagliani said: “Maybe it’s like the Europeans or maybe it’s like the South Americans with a league — or it’s a hybrid of the two.”
When discussing a change, CONCACAF is starting to walk down a very dangerous road. Their problem isn’t so much their current structure, but rather the quality of the region and the logistics of playing for a very limited number of World Cup spots.
Expanding the final round of World Cup qualifying is great, but it can’t come at the expense of the quality of competition and this is a region who’s regional tournament is only 12 teams because they simply can’t field 16 competitive teams.
Montagliani mentioned the Europeans, who are divided into nine groups with the winners automatically earning spots in the World Cup, while the top eight runners up advance to the playoffs. This format works in Europe because they are competing for 13 spots. It wouldn’t work in CONCACAF where there are only three and half spots up for grabs.
If CONCACAF would divide themselves into groups that would likely divide the United States, Mexico, and Costa Rica into different groups, meaning those nations would hardly be tested en route to earning all three guaranteed spots every four years. That is not good for a region that’s trying to grow.
That format would also take away the home-and-home series between the United States and Mexico, which certainly would not make the two biggest nations in the region happy.
United States fans should be all for CONCACAF expanding their World Cup qualifying. More competitive games for the USMNT is better in the short and long term for the team even if they are against significantly weaker teams. The U.S. would be better off travelling to St. Vincent and the Grenadines in September of 2019 for a World Cup qualifier than they would be playing a home friendly against Honduras.
If there was one area that CONCACAF not only needs to fix but can also do so logically it’s the final Hexagonal round. At the moment, the Hex is pretty pointless. There are six teams competing for 3.5 spots. In other words, there’s not enough competition. For the 2014 World Cup, Mexico advanced to the playoffs with just 11 points. That means if they would have just drawn nine of their 10 games and gotten a single win, they would have earned more points than they actually did. And that team didn’t get eliminated.
If CONCACAF wants to have more teams alive in the late stages of World Cup qualifying, the best solution is to expand the final round to eight or 10 teams. That would allow more teams to have a chance at the World Cup and gain exposure, while also making the final round more competitive. Instead of two-thirds of the teams advancing it would now only be half or even two-fifths.
There are of course logistical obstacles that CONCACAF would have to overcome. Expanding to 10 teams would require an 18-game league schedule completed over 18 international matchdays. That would take just under two years to complete so CONCACAF would have to start their qualifying process much earlier than what they are used to, though that may not be a bad thing.
CONCACAF could also be tempted to change the semifinal round but the truth is right now the semifinal round doesn’t need any tinkering. With two teams emerging from a group of four, it’s the round with the least room for error in qualifying. If they want to expand the final round to 10 teams, simply expand the final round to 20 teams and keep the four team groups.
CONCACAF isn’t wrong to suggest that their World Cup qualifying format needs updating. However, given what CONCACAF has to work with, it is essentially the best that it could be, and knowing that CONCACAF should tread lightly when thinking about making any changes.