CONCACAF qualifying is forgiving and ‘archaic,’ but only one of those is a real problem

With eight Hex games played and two to go, the United States men’s national team remains a favorite to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It is in a good position for several reasons. Its performance over the past 11 months, however, is not one of them.

The Yanks have been mediocre – below average, actually. They’ve won just two of eight matches, and lost three. The reason they are alive and well, rather, is the forgiving nature of CONCACAF qualifying.

Many, including yours truly, have made the point over the past year, ever since the U.S. lost to both Mexico and Costa Rica to open the final round. The federation’s president, Victor Montagliani, has called the format “archaic.” He suggested change. Others have too.

But the two gripes – that the format is forgiving, and that it is archaic – are very different. One isn’t even a gripe. And only one is a problem that warrants addressing. It’s the latter.

CONCACAF’s forgiving nature is not an issue derived from the format. It is a result of the region’s ownership of 3.5 World Cup bids, despite its boasting only three World Cup-caliber teams and, in a given year, only two or three more who could claim to be on the fringe of the world’s top 40. No rational format change can remedy that.

If the final round included eight teams, with three still qualifying directly and a fourth attempting to do so through a playoff, it would still be forgiving, only in a different way. Sure, a smaller percentage of final-round competitors would qualify. But more games against, on average, weaker teams (the seventh- and eighth-ranked CONCACAF members this cycle were Jamaica and Haiti) would favor the big teams, and keep their qualification odds more or less unaffected. An “Octagonal” or “Decagonal” would simply give the U.S. more time to rectify its mistakes, and lesser foes against which to do so.

On the other hand, while a move to a system like Africa’s – a 20-team final round, with five groups of four, out of which only the group winners qualify – would create more drama, it would also just be dumb.

The ultimate goal of World Cup qualifying is to identify the most deserving teams for the sport’s banner event. Not necessarily the biggest or best, but the ones who, throughout an extensive process, demonstrate they are worthy. For a format to achieve that goal, it must be flexible.

In other words, it must ensure it selects three (or five, or 13) teams based on match results, not on flawed rankings systems or randomized draws. CONCACAF’s early rounds, by necessity, are influenced by the latter two criteria. But the final round isn’t.

In Africa, it is, and it’s problematic. The format is extremely inflexible, in that it greatly constricts the various combinations of teams that could claim Africa’s five World Cup spots. When the flaky FIFA Rankings placed 2014 World Cup participants Nigeria and Cameroon in Pots 2 and 3 for the final-round draw this time around, and when that completely random draw placed them together in a group with Africa’s top-ranked team, Algeria, the format alone effectively eliminated two of Africa’s five best teams.

The point is not that the best teams have to go to the World Cup. It’s not elitist. It’s that teams should be given a chance to prove they are the best on the field. No matter how well Nigeria, Algeria and Cameroon played in six final-round games, even if all three played better than any other African side, two were staying home next summer. That’s ridiculous. It’s unjust. It’s infuriating.

CONCACAF’s final round, on the other hand, is completely flexible. (That of Asia, the other comparable region, is fairly flexible too.) It gets the most deserving three or four teams every time. It’s also wildly entertaining. It’s almost flawless.

The cracks in the system hide in the early rounds. That’s where CONCACAF self-inflicts damage. Its foundation is fractured.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino (left) and CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani at the 2017 Gold Cup final. (Getty)

Let Montagliani, the confederation’s head honcho, explain: “We seriously need to look at our World Cup qualifying system that is a bit archaic,” he told the Associated Press last October. “We need to be a bit more all-encompassing. … You can’t have 85 percent of your members who are on the outside looking in two years before the World Cup. It doesn’t make sense. It’s great for those six teams … but how about the other ones?”

But nothing has changed – at least not yet. Any alterations would have to be approved by member associations and confirmed by the confederation before the beginning of the 2022 cycle – roughly three-and-a-half years before the World Cup.

The current five-round system of which Montagliani spoke is this: CONCACAF’s 14 lowest-ranked teams (Nos. 22-35) play one round of two-leg playoffs. The seven winners go into another playoff round with teams ranked 9-21. The 10 second-round winners join the seventh- and eighth-ranked teams in yet another playoff round. Those six winners join the region’s top six in three four-team groups for the fourth round. The top two in each group advance to the Hex.

The format’s problem isn’t that it eliminates World Cup-caliber teams early in the process. It still gets the four most deserving ones to the final round every four years. But it reinforces CONCACAF’s hierarchy, and maintains the region’s inequality. The 17 nations, many of them tiny, that get knocked out in the first two rounds don’t get the opportunity to glean revenue from meaningful matches. And they don’t have the clout nor the cash to organize money-making friendlies. They can’t attract sponsors. Thus, they don’t have the money to invest in facilities, coaching, player development, etc., that would allow them to grow the sport domestically and close the gap on the region’s elite.

Some CONCACAF minnows don’t have the ambition to do so anyway. But those that would like to better themselves as soccer nations are discouraged by the format. Four years of investment and improvement can be ripped to shreds by one unlucky loss in a two-leg playoff.

There are various factors that inhibit change. More early-round fixtures mean more travel costs for games that bring scant revenue to poor federations. And the likes of Mexico and the U.S., for both competitive and financial reasons, would much rather play high-profile friendlies than rout teams made up of amateur and semi-pro players. Plus, there are a finite number of international windows in which qualifiers can be played.

But surely there’s a middle ground to find here – one that is more equitable and opportunity-providing for the minnows, but one that remains flexible, and still selects the three or four best teams using on-field results. Here’s a suggestion:

  • First round: Bottom 22 teams seeded and drawn into four groups – two of five, two of six. Top two in each group advance. Third-place teams in the six-team groups advance. Third-place teams in five-team groups meet in a playoff for final spot in the second round.
  • Second round: Top 13 teams join 11 first-round survivors. The 24 are seeded and drawn into four groups of six. Group winners advance to Hex. Four second-place teams advance to playoffs for final two Hex spots.
  • Third round: The Hex, unchanged.

Such a system would add only four qualifiers to the calendars of the big boys, leaving six international breaks after the 2018 World Cup for friendlies. The first round would begin in September 2018. The second round would begin in October 2019. The Hex would be played on its current schedule, starting November 2020.

Such a system would make the early rounds more equitable. It would be less harsh on minnows who choose to invest in the sport. In other words, it would be more forgiving. Which, in the end, is not a characteristic to bemoan. It’s exactly what a World Cup qualifying system should be.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.