This is a guest post by super columnist Nick Sindt
Back in May, the US submitted its bid packets for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Per CONCACAF’s website (on May 14th of 2010) that bid packet also had a tasty little treat delivered with it; CONCACAF’s proposal for modifications to its current World Cup Qualifying format.
Recently it has come out (by way of La Prensa and USSoccerPlayers.com) that CONCACAF’s proposal is this:
• Round 1 – The 6 lowest ranked teams will compete in a playoff to pare the entire field down to 32 teams. (2 games pre team)
• Round 2 – The 32 teams will be divided up into 8 groups of 4 (6)
• Round 3 – The top 2 teams from each group are put into 4 groups of 4 (6)
• Round 4 – The top 2 teams from each group are then put into 2 groups of 4. Group Winners are automatically in the WC. (6)
• Round 5 –The two 2nd place teams in the groups will playoff for the 3rd slot, with the loser facing off against a country from another federation for the right to go to the WC. If we are granted 4 slots in the WC then the two 2nd place teams automatically go to the dance.
Others have opined on why CONCACAF is proposing this change; the best reason that I’ve read is that it’ll give the minnows (pretty much everyone outside the top 8-10 teams) in our region more World Cup Qualifying Games, which in turn improves their FIFA Rankings, thus improving the US and Mexico’s FIFA Rankings when they beat them in hopes of landing a seed at the WC Draw. Plus more games for these teams means more $$$ from gate receipts. The nations that are consistently in the Hex will see no real financial windfall due to these changes.
Given the format changes, it seems that progress to the WC would be much easier for Mexico and the US, unless the seeding for being drawn into groups (Rounds 2-4) is completely thrown out the window. Eschewing seeding for a more open, and fair, path to the World Cup would possibly see the US and Mexico set up to face each other much earlier than previous qualifying cycles with the possibility that one may not even make it to the final round of qualifying much less the WC; something I highly doubt FIFA and CONCACAF wish to see.
This all leaves me with the following questions:
Why this format? Will this format change help or hinder the USMNT’s growth down the road?
First we’ll tackle my issues with the format. If the goal is to give more WC Qualifiers to the lesser nations, admittedly we never know what CONCACAF is scheming thinking, then why not something along these lines:
Round 1 – 6 groups of 6 with the top six teams being “top seeds” for the 2014 cycle this would involve those who were in the Hex last time around. (10, though one group only has 5 meaning they’ll play 8 games). Top two move on.
Round 2 – 2 groups of 6 with the top two teams earning their WC tickets. (10)
Round 3 – 2nd place teams possibly play off for the 3rd WC slot, or this is decided by Pts & GD similar to how UEFA decides the best second place teams.
This format increases the number of competitive matches and uses every single FIFA Calendar date for official competition matches from September 2011 – November 2013. In order for a playoff to be done for the two second place teams, CONCACAF would have to schedule some competitive matches on dates reserved for friendlies (not sure if that’s allowed). Or, they could follow UEFA’s route and go on Pts GD against weighted opposition and determine which 2nd place finisher was better for the third automatic spot. This proposal increases the total number of matches played by the federation (see figure which includes , while giving the minnows at the very least 4 more games against better opposition instead of the current proposal where some of them get beat up and going home after two games.
|# Games||Teams Playing
This proposal will see more teams playing in the tougher games, thus upping their FIFA Rankings, increasing their gates, and giving the US, Mexico, Honduras, etc. more teams to work out the kinks against before squaring off against each other. The downside of my proposal is that adding two more mediocre/minnow teams to the final group takes away a lot of the drama that the current Hex, or CONCACAF’s current proposal, has. The Hex is a nail-biting affair for the US and Mexico because a bad result or two makes qualification a little less guaranteed, plus your nation has sees one of the other Hex opponents 4 times over the span of two years making a result a little less likely as they get to know your flaws. Can the new proposal or mine live up to the drama that causes? Probably not.
Looking at the two proposals against other federations that have more than 10 countries, shows that the big dogs are routinely placed into groups with sacrificial lambs (England, Germany, and Spain routinely get paired up with teams like Armenia, Liechtenstein, and Andorra), which should result in guaranteed points. So it’s not as if CONCACAF is going completely off the reservation here, but it must be taken into consideration that Europe’s minnows are presumed to be better than CONCACAF’s.
Now to my second question: Will this format change help or hinder the USMNT’s growth down the road?
First the Good – By removing some of the trickiness currently associated with qualifying for the World Cup, the US coaching staff will have more opportunities to try out untested players, which can only help us improve by bringing players like Ale Bedoya, Eric Lichaj, Freddy Adu, Omar Gonzalez, etc. along at whatever pace we want. A qualifying format like the one proposed has not kept teams like Italy, Spain, Germany, England, and Holland perennially in the “Best teams in the world” club; though, it needs to be noted their players are also playing their club ball in better leagues and coming up through youth academies designed to produce professionals.
Now the Bad – Removing some of the trickiness currently associated with qualifying for the World Cup will have the following negative effects:
♦ The head coaching position of the USMNT will become less attractive. Think about it, putting less emphasis on qualifying means that any new coach must blow out the minnows, qualify first in their group in each round. Win the Gold Cup to assert our dominance over Mexico, and ensure we play in the Confederations Cup every four years because we won’t have too many friendly dates open to test ourselves. And, begin progressing farther and farther every World Cup. All this while consistently testing yourself and your team in mostly tepid environments and against pedestrian opposition; how can the team actually improve by beating up on Barbados 8-0 a couple times every four years.
♦ Continuing the thought from the last point, our player pool will find it extremely tough since they go from winning 8-0 to playing in games that actually matter. Avoiding the nasty environs in Saprissa, Mexico City, and San Pedro Sula will deny our players a chance to grow and perform outside their comfort zone. Despite literally fearing for their lives in some of these situations, they become better and stronger for having that experience.
♦ Lastly, we lose those two vital games against Mexico every four years. Meeting once every two years in the Gold Cup and a few friendlies, all on this side of the border, will see this rivalry reduced to almost nothing. Sure there will still be bad blood the few times we do meet, but all games will be on this side of the Rio Grande (Gold Cup will always be here, as will friendlies unless USSF decides to seriously shake some things up), where we hold a decided advantage. Either we’ll continue our dominance (I realize I’m ignoring the 09 Gold Cup with this statement) and Mexico will become a shadow of themselves (again, not good for the long term development of the USMNT and the region), or Mexico will start kicking our ass up here and turn every match up here into Azteca Jr., thus reducing our only chances to beat them to playing in Columbus or New England in February in a friendly. Also, let’s be honest with ourselves, that day we get a win in Azteca will let us know we’ve really arrived.
In the end, CONCACAF, thanks but no thanks. Go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to restructure this so everyone benefits and the region doesn’t lose out on its most tantalizing matchups every four years. Maybe try to get the Gold Cup to be viewed as a more important shindig in FIFA’s eyes…