On CONCACAF Qualifying Changes…

This is a guest post by super columnist Nick Sindt

Disrupting rivalry is one of the tangential concerns...

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

(Proposal)

Teams Playing

(Nick’s Proposal)

2 3 0
6 13 0
8 3 3
10 0 20
12 8 0
18 6 2
20 2 8
22 0 2
Total 176 232

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.

Omar needs time in front of hostile fans, not just "friendlies"....

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…

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28 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brad on 2010/08/31 at 9:58 PM

    I always liked our setup best. Well, South America’s is best, but it works only ’cause there’s so few teams. But besides that, ours is the best because all the best teams have to play it out in the last round and there are no (insanely) easy games. The thing with, say, European qualifying is that the drama of the last rounds is diminished because one of the borderline teams gets to play San Marino or some-such. I wouldn’t mind a shakeup of the process to get into that last section – one that lets more teams get closer/play more games, unlike now where 2/3rds are 2/4-and-done. But I want the final-round all-in death-fest to remain.

    Reply

  2. Here’s the problem with your analysis and the issue CONCACAF is really trying to solve.

    In Europe, the minnows love playing WCQs because they make money when Spain and England and Germany come to town.

    In CONCACAF, the minnows can’t afford a long qualifying campaign, because they are mostly desperately poor countries and are never going to make money on qualifying games.

    The CONCACAF system is designed to eliminate those true minnows in the initial playoff round or the first true round. Otherwise, most of them wouldn’t enter.

    The new system is really designed to help the mid-level teams like Canada, Guatemala, and Jamaica by giving them a second group stage and a better shot at the “hex.”. These are the teams that need games.

    Your proposal does give these mid-tier teams more games; the problem is that it also gives teams like Montserrat games they can’t afford and don’t want.

    Reply

    • Chapka – very valid point about the minnows in CONCACAF not having extra cash sitting around to play these qualifiers which is probably the reason that CONCACAF went with the format they did. The minnows aren’t playing that many more than they are under the current scheme. When it’s all said and done this time around, I believe Canada and other lower-middle tier nations in our region will benefit the most because they’ll get a few more shots at the big boys.

      That being said, I have a couple of issues with money hindering a nation from attempting to qualify:
      A) Nothing ventured, nothing gained – If those nations want to be able to move forward (I don’t know whether they do or not), then they may have to invest some money with the short-term loss allowing for a long-term gain. A lot of very wealthy people in the US made their money by investing this way.
      B) If money is that tight for these nations they could always elect not to attempt to qualify for the World Cup and instead play in the Carribean Nations Cup and hopefully make it to the Gold Cup. There are examples of this from every Confederation in the world except for, I believe, UEFA and CONMEBOL. Every continent has a couple of nations that sit out the qualifying process.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Nick on 2010/09/01 at 6:11 AM

    This could also hurt coverage and viewership of qualification. ESPN would not hype any game the way it hypes US mexico.

    Reply

  4. I should’ve included this informaiton in the table as well:

    The Current CONCACAF Qualification is in this format
    – Round 1 – Lowest 22 Teams play Home and Away (2 games per team)
    – Round 2 – 13 Highest Ranked teams face off against 11 survivors from before in Home and Away (seeded to an extent) (2)
    – Round 3 – 4 Groups of 3, top 2 move on (6)
    – Round 4 – The Hex (10)

    Total number of games = 100. Either proposal is going to significantly increase the number of games.

    Reply

  5. I should’ve included this informaiton in the table as well:

    The Current CONCACAF Qualification is in this format
    – Round 1 – Lowest 22 Teams play Home and Away (2 games per team)
    – Round 2 – 13 Highest Ranked teams face off against 11 survivors from before in Home and Away (seeded to an extent) (2)
    – Round 3 – 4 Groups of 3, top 2 move on (6)
    – Round 4 – The Hex (10)

    Total number of games for the Federation = 100. The breakdown looks like this
    # of Games – Teams playing
    2 – 12
    4 – 11
    6 – 6
    16 – 6

    Reply

  6. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/01 at 8:17 AM

    That’s a lot of games. What are your thoughts about using all FIFA dates for competitive games rather than saving a couple for friendlies?

    Reply

    • “This format increases the number of competitive matches and uses every single FIFA Calendar date for official competition matches from September 2011 – November 2013.”

      That statement maybe should’ve been a little more clear that FIFA Differentiates between Official Competition and Friendly dates. All in all the solution I proposed will actually only possibly dip into two friendly dates across the 2.5 years of qualifying, and it appears that CONCACAF’s proposal won’t have to dip into those at all.

      I don’t mind taking away two friendly dates over the course of 4 years IF doing so will help make the region better all around and possibly set Mexico and/or the US to be seeded at a World Cup. However, going with either of these proposals will force us to use our friendly dates for better competition and trotting out the A squad since they will be at a premium.

      As for the total number of games, it is equal to (roughly) South America, and a bit higher than UEFA. But if you look at the teams within UEFA they play more qualifying games over the span of 4 years than CONCACAF does, because only the minnows in CONCACAF are forced to qualify for the Gold Cup. If CONCACAF gets their proposal passed, the US will play 18 games over two years while Spain will play 24 games over 4 plus the European Championships which brings at least another 3 if they qualify, since they should we’ll call it 27+ over four years while CONCACAF is playing 18+ Gold Cup (since we usually send the A squad to one Gold Cup out of the two you’re looking at 21+)

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/01 at 8:43 AM

        Thanks for the clarification Nick.

        In UEFA, you generally play 8 or 10 qualification games for the Euros and World Cup, depending on whether you’re in a group of 5 or 6?

        Do you think the Round 1 of qualification should include more teams? I mean, what does the US gain in spanking the likes of T&T 8-0? And what does T&T take away in getting comprehensively over-matched? I know people are going to come back with “helping the region, improving quality etc”., but shouldn’t that be down to each FA?

        Reply

        • About the UEFA Qualifying, I looked at the Euro 2008 and simply doubled it, should’ve checked my facts better. (2008 Euros saw 5 groups with 7 teams and 2 with 8 teams; 2006 WC Qual had 3 groups of 7 and 5 groups of 6 where 2010 WC had 8 groups of 6 and 1 group of 5).

          As for the Round 1 of Qualification point – the US won’t gain much, and neither will Barbados (T&T is too good to get wholloped 8-0 by the US) if you’re talking about morale and learning to play. What they will gain according to some things I’ve read is more points toward FIFA rankings. Apparently a WC Qualifier is 2.5 times more valuable than a friendly. So if a nation like Barbados gets 6 (in CONCACAF’s proposal 8/10 in mine) games of WC Qualifying instead of 4 (like in the 2010 cycle) then they will “move up” in the rankings, thus making them more of a sacrificial lamb for the US and Mexico boosting their standing.

          I’d love to carve out some time to revamp the UEFA Qualifying structure, as you point out Barbados getting stomped by the US doesn’t make anyone feel good, and neither does Andorra or some similar Euro Minnow losing 13-0 to Germany’s A team. There’s got to be a better way for UEFA, AFC, CAF, and CONCACAF to qualify that doesn’t use slight of hand and parlour tricks to boots FIFA Rankings, while improving the competitiveness of the “final round” of qualifying games. No one wants to see Barbados getting into the Hex based on technicalities similarly no one wants to watch a European team fighting for its life on the last day of qualifying ultimately trumped on goal differential against Liechtenstein.

          Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/01 at 9:20 AM

          You’re 100% right about the likes of Andorra and San Marino – I wasn’t trying to belittle CONCACAF. The reason I didn’t mention the Euro minnows was because I didn’t want to hijack your fantastic article by switching talk to UEFA! Apologies.

          Reply

        • No need to apologize, I wasn’t taking offense, and didn’t intend to come off that way.

          I think it’s a great point regardless of the federation we’re talking about. Now that we’ve switched gears I almost want to take the rest of the day off and play with permutations for all of the federations. Watch out Sepp and Platini, I’m taking over!!!

          Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/01 at 10:08 AM

          I must admit, I do find it very frustrating seeing England playing the likes of Andorra, San Marino, Kazakhstan et al. They should have a play-off or preliminary round in order to qualify for the WCQ /ECQ proper like they do with the CL.

          And while I am ranting, FIFA needs to sort out the Asian Confederation – how can the likes of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia be in the UEFA zone and how was Australia allowed to switch Confederations because it’s easier to qualify for the WC?

          Reply

        • Posted by s44 on 2010/09/01 at 1:41 PM

          Those three countries are all west of Russia. How is Russia in UEFA?

          Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/01 at 1:58 PM

          S44 – I feel it’s all to do with the former USSR being in UEFA and when it split up, the members naturally falling into UEFA…

          Reply

  7. I didn’t even realize there were 35 teams in CONCACAF. This just means that the US has more games like the ones against Barbados instead of Honduras/Costa Rica. That’s not good for anyone except for the tiny countries.

    Will it even be that lucrative for them if they catch the US late in each round? With the new format, the US and Mexico SHOULD have qualified for the next round by the midway point or soon after, so a team like Monserrat who gets them after that is only watching players like Brad Evans and inexperienced young guys. Is that game still enough of a money-grab to change the whole system? I doubt it.

    Aesthetically I would have preferred to see the second tier teams get more chances at the US, Mexico, and Costa Rica. CONCACAF has 10 legit teams. After the big 3: Honduras, Panama, Jamaica, Canada, Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago, and El Salvador. IF you HAVE to change the current format, 2 groups of 5 in the final stage is the best options, imo. It would still be almost as tense as “The Hex” and would not be including the likes of Cuba and Grenada.

    Losing the US vs. Mexico should be the only impetus CONCACAF needs to NOT change the current format.

    Reply

    • The point that some are making is that Barbados and the other minnows playing more games against US is good for the region as a whole because it’ll up their FIFA Rankings as more weight is given to WC Qualifiers, which then makes it appear as if Mexico and the US are qualifying out of a better region, thus possibly earning them a seed at the WC in 4 years.

      I agree that changing the current format to the proposed one (mine of CONCACAF’s) doesn’t really benefit us all that much. The discussion on this post has given me an idea to revamp all of the Federations Qualifying formats to make them as fair, but as competitive (for the bigger/better nations) as possible.

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/01 at 12:08 PM

        Regarding the “FIFA Rankings Argument” – won’t FIFA have something in place to counter the fact that some countries play more games, thus the potential to earn more points? Look at what happening during the play-offs for the WC, Portugal and France weren’t seeded even though their rank warranted it, because they earned points from the 2 games that the group winners didn’t have to play…

        Reply

        • UEFA took all 9 second place finishers and created a table based on 8 games played (subtracting two for the groups who had more teams, thus supposedly levelling the playing field). The top 8 in this table went into a draw for the play-offs, but the teams were seeded into two separate pots, meaning that the 4 highest FIFA rated teams couldn’t play each other.

          The 9 team table ended up like this:
          Team – Pts – GD
          Russia – 16 – +9
          Greece – 16 – +7
          Ukraine – 15 – +4
          France – 15 – +3
          Slovenia – 14 – +6
          B&H – 13 – +7
          Portugal – 13 – +4
          Rep Ireland – 12 – +2

          According to FIFA, the top 4 teams out of this group were France, Portugal, Russia, and Greece. Ergo they were “seeded” by UEFA and drawn against the other 4 teams.

          As to whether or not FIFA would wise up to what CONCACAF is really trying to get away with…that’s asking a lot of an organization that isn’t exactly known for being on the up-and-up.

          Reply

        • Forgot to include Norway at the bottom of my table, irregardless they didn’t make it to the playoffs.

          Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/01 at 1:03 PM

          My point was that after the 2 play-off games, France and Portugal displaced the then 7th and 8th seeded teams. But FIFA said that they shouldn’t gain from the fact that they played more games.

          I think UEFA will be the ones to cry foul play as inevitably, if the US or Mexico gain “extra” ranking points this way, a European team will be displaced…

          I still think that the USA will qualify without any problems.

          Reply

        • I see what you mean now. I was thinking you were talking about seeding for the UEFA playoffs.

          Ok, now that we’re on the same page, I don’t FIFA can use the same precedent because the US, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina always play more qualifiers than the UEFA teams based on the current set ups. I think FIFA was saying that the total number of games used when determining the seeds for a WC ends at X date and doesn’t include the two games contested to even get access to the WC (so for 2010 FIFA could’ve drawn a line in the sand and said that all WC Qualifiers contested after October 19th which is my rough approximation on the last date of WC Qualifying before playoffs). A similar example in CONMEBOL (South America) is Uruguay wouldn’t be able to count its two games against Costa Rica if it were close to getting a seed.

          UEFA will most definitely cry foul play if the US and Mexico gain an advantage, but as discussed previously it would be akin to CONCACAF splitting up into three groups (2 of 12 and one of 11) and just playing a home and away league style, which would be similar to UEFA’s current setup. Of course this is all dependent on FIFA’s ass-backward rankings actually boosting CONCACAF minnows based on the extra number of games being played in WC Qualifying, which there’s no guarantee that it would work that way.

          Again George, your points give me such good ideas, I think I’m going to have to write a whole series on this. Thanks for the commentary.

          Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/01 at 1:51 PM

          Sorry to side track – I am not the biggest fan of FIFA’s ranking but for the most part I agree with it. I think people look at the rank too much rather than what the points total is, eg the gap between 4 and 5 is not the same as say 9 and 10. Between 8 and 20 the points range is within 150… but there is a hang up at say X being ranked 15th etc…

          I guess at the end of the day, we all want to see the “best” teams qualify (fairly).

          Reply

  8. Posted by kaya on 2010/09/03 at 6:43 PM

    Haven’t had time to really read through this, but it sounds like a lot more games for everyone. Is that really a good thing for anyone.
    Re: Australia changing their qualification group, I thought they moved to Asia to make qualification more difficult in order to gain more in preparation for the WC finals. That’s the reason New Zealand made it this time…
    Re: US v Mexico, I didn’t see anything about how the groups would be decided. Surely CONCACAF would formulate the qualification process to guarantee this arrangement ;)

    Reply

  9. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/09/05 at 9:28 AM

    OFC winner goes into a play-off. Whereas you qualify outright through the AFC.

    Also, Wiki says increased competition and less travel time was the reason.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Jose on 2010/09/06 at 4:07 PM

    You really don’t get it, it seems.

    The “plump up the rankings” for the minnows bit is CONCACAF’s way of appeasing the Mexican and American federations, who are now losing their biggest drawing home match of the four-year cycle.

    The main advantage of this qualification system is consistency for the mid and lower tier CONCACAF teams. What you should be looking at as the prime example for why the system needed changing is Panama.

    Yes, Panama. A rising footballing program in CONCACAF terms. They had had great runs into the Hexagonal and the Gold Cup years prior, but for the 2010 qualifications they played two games. TWO games and just one home game, as they lost to El Salvador (IIRC) in one of the home and away ties. That meant that Panamanian football was set back years over a slip-up in one tie. Panama could no longer depend on the income from 3-8 more home games, had to let some technical staff go and was barely making by for the last two years.

    Now, they are practically assured 3 home matches and possibly 6 or 9! The difference in income from these matches is huge… but more importantly, the income is assured. Panama (and this goes for many of the other mid-tier teams in CONCACAF), can afford to higher better coaches, not to mention give better guarantees of matches.

    You should read up on how CONMEBOL changed for the better after introducing the league-style qualification. Every CONMEBOL team, from Argentina to Venezuela, was assured 9 home matches every four years. That’s how Uruguay was able to hire Oscar Tabarez, and Chile was able to secure the services of Bielsa. That’s how Venezuela–a baseball nation–was able to create millions of football fans where none were. Consistent matches, consistent money.

    Reply

    • Jose – You’re correct that I, as a US biased supporter, viewed this qualification change through my red, white, and blue tinted glasses, and did not choose to focus more of my commentary on the sad lots of the likes of Panama and Canada. So I guess you could say that I did miss that point.

      ***Canada by the way has consistently been ranked within the top 12 of CONCACAF but when was the last time they even came close to sniffing the Hex? And a nation like that will never get better under the old system. Canadad has also qualified for a World Cup, won two Gold Cups and finished third in two more (no official third place game was held in 2007); Panama has never qualified for the WC and only finshed second in one Gold Cup.***

      As for the point I was trying to make. There have been three different formats for CONCACAF for the past three World Cups and they’re all fairly confusing (2014 making a 4th and not being much clearer than the past iterations). CONCACAF is obviously trying to get the middle and lower tier teams more games, to boost their rankings and their bank accounts. I took one look at their proposal and within about 10 minutes came up with a system that accomplishes both of those goals (Panama will see roughly 8 more games, while Canada will get at least 2 more), while simultaneously being simpler and giving all of the teams an equal chance to face off against one of the big boys, which results in a bigger payday.

      Stay tuned, the discussion prompted by this piece hass given me a few ideas for another column.

      Reply

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