The new CONCACAF qualifying process is bad, but it’s not ALL bad… but it’s pretty bad

Ives Galarcep absolutely flips his shit over CONCACAF’s proposed changes to its World Cup qualifying process. I’m feeling lazy, so I’ll let Ives summarize.

Galarcep goes on to add that he thinks this will destroy the US rivalry with Mexico.

Allow me to posit this counter. Maybe it’s time for both the US and Mexico to treat this as a “trial separation” and an opportunity for both sides to find higher, more ambitious barometers of success than merely beating each other. I think both the USA and Mexico have sort of outgrown this rivalry (and probably outgrown CONCACAF but that’s a different column) and would benefit from an overall organizational focus away from each other and instead towards challenging the best of Europe and South America, precisely the kinds of teams neither team ever beats on the big stage.

As much fun as the USA-Mexico qualifiers are (and I’ve been to three of them, including one at Azteca), are they even really meaningful? The two teams always qualify and the games pretty much just exist to line the respective federations’ coffers while allowing both sides’ passionate fanbases to hurl invectives at each other. But in order for it really to be a rivalry don’t the matches have to mean something? And the reality, the Mexico-USA qualifiers don’t mean all that much competitively. It’s not hard for either the US or Mexico to get out of CONCACAF’s final round regardless of how the six points at stake between them are distributed.

Will qualifying be a little bit less fun if the USA doesn’t play Mexico? Of course, but the new system isn’t all bad. Here’s why.

1) Believe it or not, qualifying actually gets more difficult and thus will better prepare our players for the proper matches at the World Cup tournament itself. With only one team getting an automatic qualifying spot out of each proposed final round group, that makes each and every final round match really, really meaningful. Ives views that as a bad thing. I view it as a positive. More truly meaningful matches are a good thing, no matter what.

2) This system will help the US get the World Cup in 2022. I figure that this format change was what the smaller Caribbean countries asked for in return for Jack Warner and CONCACAF assuring the US its unanimous support behind the World Cup bid. No deal within FIFA or especially CONCACAF comes for free and this new format is the “fee” US Soccer was forced to pay in order to get CONCACAF to march as one. When the US does get the 2022 World Cup, this will be one of the reasons why.

3) If ESPN/Telemundo/Univision want to keep the USA-Mexico rivalry alive, then go out and find a business (or Carlos Slim) with big markets on both sides of the Rio Grande to sponsor a two match series of friendlies between the USA and Mexico. Call it the Wal-Mart Cup and, in order to ensure folks take this seriously, put up a big cash prize to the winners. Sure it’d be a purely made-for-TV spectacle, but what US-Mexico match isn’t?

4) With a weak first round-robin of matches under the new format, there are plenty of opportunities for the US to do some “evangelizing” in new/different venues. There are lots of great and increasingly even soccer-specific stadiums in markets that really might get excited for a US match coming to town, even if it’s against the British Virgin Islands. Don’t just stick these matches in existing hotbeds like New York, Philadelphia and LA, even though the stadium situations there are advantageous. Instead, US Soccer should go to non-MLS markets like Raleigh, Atlanta, Omaha, Albuquerque, Honolulu and other places that could provide the USA with a good home atmosphere.

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22 thoughts on “The new CONCACAF qualifying process is bad, but it’s not ALL bad… but it’s pretty bad

  1. In re: evangelizing, just how small an opponent would the US have to face in order to have 80% or more of the crowd on their side in a World Cup qualifier in Miami?

  2. The qualifiers against Mexico were always less crucial in terms of the standings than the ones against Costa Rica, Honduras and a few others anyway.

    Maybe the USSF can make it up to Columbus by putting US-Costa Rica or US-Honduras there.

  3. As much fun as the USA-Mexico qualifiers are (and I’ve been to three of them, including one at Azteca), are they even really meaningful? The two teams always qualify and the games pretty much just exist to line the respective federations’ coffers while allowing both sides’ passionate fanbases to hurl invectives at each other. But in order for it really to be a rivalry don’t the matches have to mean something? And the reality, the Mexico-USA qualifiers don’t mean all that much competitively. It’s not hard for either the US or Mexico to get out of CONCACAF’s final round regardless of how the six points at stake between them are distributed.

    I’m not sure this is totally accurate. I think there have been several instances where if either Mexico or the U.S. lost at home to the other, they could have been in a good bit of trouble

    For example, if you assume that everything else would have unfolded the same in terms of results, Mexico losing to the U.S. at Azteca last time would have dropped them to 16 points, which is where Costa Rica and Honduras ended up. Honduras would have beaten them on GD. And if Costa Rica had just held on for 30 seconds more against the U.S. at RFK, they’d have advanced and Mexico would have been out. Yes, I know the results may not have ended the same if the Azteca match had ended differently, but it shows that Mexico didn’t really have that much room for error.

    Keep in mind also that going into that Azteca match, Mexico was 2-3 in the Hex so far, including road losses to the U.S., Costa Rica and El Salvador. They were about to go to Saprissa. If they had lost that match to the U.S., I really think the whole program would have imploded, and instead of getting the confidence they needed to turn things around at Saprissa, that match could have been their end for this cycle, as a loss would have put them 2-5.

    2002 was another year when either Mexico or the U.S. could have been in deep trouble if they’d lost at home to the other. Honduras was knocking on the doorstep and I remember us being very worried going into that ninth matchday at Foxboro.

  4. Once I read that you thought this made sense…
    “As much fun as the USA-Mexico qualifiers are (and I’ve been to three of them, including one at Azteca), are they even really meaningful? “

    I will conclude that you have never been to a USA vs. Mexico match in Texas or much less have a clue what the big game means down here.

    Thus, you lost me as a reader instantly.
    Peace.

  5. As a USMNT fan, this format scares the SH*T out of me. A four group qualifying group where only the top team qualifies directly leaves WAY too little room for error.

    A neutral should find it exciting, though.

  6. Friendlies do not prepare anyone for competition. Even a cash prize friendly is just a friendly. Aiming higher is great, but the US has a less-than-zero chance to play a meaningful match against a European or South American powerhouse between World Cups.

    And with regard to the first point, the qualification process gets more challenging, but not in a way that helps us prepare for the World Cup. It’s challenging because we will play teams that have a huge home field advantage and that bunker heavily against us and try to exploit mistakes. Now, it’s certainly ripe with ways to trip up, and may be more likely to result in us missing a World Cup – but breaking down a bunkering Jamaica or scraping a draw on the bumpy pitch in San Pedro Sula are not the types of experiences that will help us know our tactical positioning against a Slovenia or smoothly move from limited possession to countering against a Ghana. It will make us much better able to beat weaker teams who are fully focused on us; it will not help us raise our level of play to match top-flight teams. Right now, Mexico (and @Saprissa) are the only ways that we manage that in the Hex.

  7. Solution: combine CONCACAF and CONMEBOL into a single federation of the Americas. As it is, 4 SA teams and 3 NA teams qualify automatically, with one playoff per federation. Why not combine them and have 7 auto-bids, with a playoff for finishers 8 and 9? Then we’d have much better consistent competition and be able to do away with meaningless trash like the Gold Cup.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone else in the world would go for this idea. I’m pretty much by myself on this one…

  8. I’m not opposed to it. I’m not sure we’d make it in as easily, but is that a bad thing?
    We could also scrap the Gold Cup in favor of a larger Copa America

  9. frankly, i’m all for scrapping world cup qualifying altogether and have advocated this for years. hold the confederation championships every four years offset with the world cup. it’s easy enough to work up a formula where final positions in the confederation cups translates into world cup spaces. my primary rationale for such a scheme is the ridiculous fixture congestion that top clubs are stuck with now. use the intervening years to play invitationals, friendlies, etc and focus on the under-21 and below championships for player development. make the olympics an amateur showcase again and scrap the confederations cup.

  10. I love your 4th point. There are a few of soccer specific stadiums from the USL/NASL that could use a WC qualifier for the CONCACAF minnows.

    I would not mind making a trip to Blackbaud Stadium (5,100 capacity) in Charleston, South Carolia to watch USMNT vs Aruba.

    I am sure that USA has enough US supporters from MLSUSLNASLNCAA to make that stadium nuts with various chants, tifos, and choreography.

  11. Losing the two USA-Mex matches would be a bummer, sure. But that’s not the sum total of the qualifying experience. I say that as a USA fan, but also as a very interested neutral with regards to the other games played in CONCACAF qualifying.

    If this makes for some more entertaining non-US matches and scenarios along the way I’ll take it. I’m not saying it definitely will, but I’m more than willing to give it a try this time around. To me CONCACAF qualifying has been a bit boring the last couple times around.

  12. Count me as one who does like the new system. I think it will benefit the region as a whole.

    Four things you didn’t mention as benefits.

    1) More games for the minnows and mid level teams in the region will mean more rankings points for all, and all who beat said teams. Which means more rankings points for the USA/Mex and their chances for a seed go up.

    2) The first round of group will be an opportunity to play some younger players. There are two placs at stake, one slip (however unlikely) should be recoverable here This will help both nations bring along talented players and give the Euro based core of their teams a bit of a breather. While the USA team will play MORE games, the core can play less.

    3) The USA/Mexico rivalry will live on, it just will play out at the Gold Cup. The battle for Continental Supremacy will play out where it should play out, at the Continental Championship. There will still be two meetings every cycle. The profile of the Gold Cup should rise now.

    4) For the rest of CONCACAF, a chance to grow the game. Now, nearly half the teams play only 2 or 4 games (2 knockout rounds get it down to 12 before group play kicks off). Now, All but 3 teams will play at least 6 games, and 16 teams will play at least 12. More games, more TV games for the host nation, more chances to grow the sport.

    Second tierl teams (below the big 4) like T&T, El Salvador, Canada, Jamaica, Guatemala, and Panama still get more games, and more money, and a chance to improve their domestic leagues.

    While this also means a chance for soccer to really grow in places that are a bit further down the ladder, but do have some potential (Haiti, Cuba, Grenada, Suriname, Nicaragua), especially if they are regulars getting to the SF round with 4extra spots in it.

  13. Carribean countries will be able to use the new format as a way to recruit overseas players who have dual citizenship.

    And maybe the Suriname government will allow its overseas players represent their native country.

  14. That would probably depend on the time of year. As someone who lives on I95 in Georgia, I can guarantee that a crap-load of Canadians go down to Florida every winter.

  15. you know, i’m not sure off the top of my head if that is how the women’s tournament field is determined. but you get my basic idea… add some prestige to the continental/confederation tournaments. i
    n fact, another way to ease the crazy-ass “club vs. country” row is to hold two-stage qualifying rounds for the confederation championships. for instance, right now uefa could be holding preliminary rounds with all the national teams that *didn’t* qualify for the world cup. yes, some high profile players would be running their nuts off for a few weeks playing for “club and country” in a compressed time frame, but they wouldn’t be the same boys that just spent the summer (or some portion thereof) in south africa.
    the same is true for south america. if the five teams that made it to the finals were excluded from any sort of qualifying play until next spring, the players could focus on their club duties. then they play a short series of qualifiers for an eight-team confederation cup. the semi-finalists of that tournament go to the world cup. you can still arrange for a few at-large inter-confederation playoffs as well, what we now call the X.5 world cup spots.

  16. I think my two biggest gripes against this format is that 1) The US will likely not play Mexico at all; a rivalry that has sort of become CONCACAF’s version of Brazil-Argentina and 2) The distinct possibility that the best teams of CONCACAF will not represent the region at the WC. This proposed format is actually even worse than the current format.

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