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What could the future of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying be?

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World Cup qualifying will change for CONCACAF. How will it affect the USMNT?

FIFA announced last week their proposed World Cup slot allocations for the 48-team World Cup that will begin in 2026, and with the 6 slots proposed for CONCACAF, it would likely bring an end to the Hexagonal qualifying round that has been popular among fans. So, the main question that will arise once the slot allocation is approved, as expected, is what World Cup qualifying will look like for the 35 FIFA-affiliated national teams in CONCACAF starting in 2026 and beyond, including a few possible scenarios that the United States could possibly see moving forward.

Currently, the USMNT enters the qualification process in the 4th round and, if they advance to the Hexagonal, they will play a minimum of 16 qualifiers over two years:

Current Format

First round: 14 teams (teams ranked 22–35) home-and-away over 2 legs. 7 winners advanced to the 2nd round.

Second round: 20 teams (teams ranked 9–21 and 7 1st round winners) home-and-away over 2 legs. 10 winners advanced to the 3rd round.

Third round: 12 teams (teams ranked 7–8 and 10 2nd round winners) home-and-away over 2 legs. 6 winners advanced to the 4th round.

Fourth round: 12 teams (teams ranked 1–6 and 6 3rd round winners) divided into 3 groups of 4 teams to play home-and-away round robin. The top 2 teams from each group advanced to the 5th round (Hexagonal).

Fifth round: The 6 teams which advance from the 4th round will play home-and-away round-robin matches (Hexagonal). Top 3 teams qualify for the World Cup, and the 4th-place team will advance to the inter-confederation playoff.

Now, how could the qualifying process change?

Format 1: Just eliminate the Hex

First round: 14 teams (teams ranked 22–35) home-and-away over 2 legs. 7 winners advanced to the 2nd round.

Second round: 20 teams (teams ranked 9–21 and 7 1st round winners) home-and-away over 2 legs. 10 winners advanced to the 3rd round.

Third round: 12 teams (teams ranked 7–8 and 10 2nd round winners) home-and-away over 2 legs. 6 winners advanced to the 4th round.

Fourth round: 12 teams (teams ranked 1–6 and 6 3rd round winners) divided into 3 groups of 4 teams to play home-and-away round robin. The top 2 teams from each group advance to the World Cup.

In this format, the current 5th round of qualifying (the Hex) would be eliminated and CONCACAF would otherwise keep qualification the same, essentially protecting their top 6 teams. Instead of the top 2 winners from the 4th round groups advancing to the Hex, they would qualify for the World Cup. The USMNT would only play 6 matches to secure their spot in the big tournament, leaving plenty of time for friendlies against high-quality opponents.

Format 2: Hex on Hex on Hex!

First round: 16 teams (teams ranked 20–35) home-and-away over 2 legs. 8 winners advanced to the 2nd round.

Second round: 22 teams (teams ranked 8–21 and 8 1st round winners) home-and-away over 2 legs. 11 winners advanced to the 3rd round.

Third round: 18 teams (teams ranked 1-7 and 11 2nd round winners) divided into 3 groups of 6 teams to play home-and-away round robin. The top 2 teams from each group advance to the World Cup.

Already missing the Hexagonal? How about 3 of them? Under this format, the final round of qualifying would be 3 groups of 6 teams to play a double round robin. Now, will the USMNT be in a group with Mexico? It’s possible, but unlikely. But, will we still have a grueling qualification process where games matter? Sure. With this format, it’s likely that teams like Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, Panama or El Salvador could be in our group, leading to tough away matches. The United States would play 10 matches to make the World Cup.

Format 3: The Undecagonal

First round: 18 teams (teams ranked 18–35) home-and-away over 2 legs. 9 winners advanced to the 2nd round.

Second round: 16 teams (teams ranked 11–17 and 9 1st round winners) home-and-away over 2 legs. 8 winners advanced to the 3rd round.

Third round: 10 teams (teams ranked 7–8 and 8 2nd round winners) home-and-away over 2 legs. 5 winners advanced to the 4th round.

Fourth round: 11 teams (teams ranked 1–6 and 5 3rd round winners) to play home-and-away round robin (The Undecagonal). The top 6 teams advance to the World Cup.

The Undecagonal doesn’t have the same ring as the Hexagonal, but it would undoubtedly be the most grueling process for the USMNT. It’s similar to the one that CONMEBOL does, but with one additional team: 11 teams, double round robin, 20 matches over 2 years. This would eliminate many opportunities for friendlies, but this would guarantee home-and-away matches against Mexico, Costa Rica, and Honduras. The top 6 teams who qualify through this format will definitely earn their spot in the World Cup field.

Format 4: U.S. hosts 2026 World Cup

First round: 16 teams (teams ranked 19–34) home-and-away over 2 legs. 8 winners advanced to the 2nd round.

Second round: 16 teams (teams ranked 11–18 and 8 1st round winners) home-and-away over 2 legs. 8 winners advanced to the 3rd round.

Third round: 18 teams (teams ranked 1–10 and 8 2nd round winners) divided into 3 groups of 6 teams to play home-and-away round robin. The winners from each group advance to the World Cup. The 3 2nd place teams advance to the 4th round.

Fourth round: 3 2nd place teams from the 3rd round to play home-and-away round robin. Top 2 advance to the World Cup.

If the United States hosts the World Cup, then naturally they would automatically enter the tournament and not have to go through the process of qualification. The other teams will be left to fight for 5 spots, since the host’s spot will come out of CONCACAF’s allocation of 6.

Qualifying is about to change, but there are ways for qualifying for the USMNT to be easier or even more grueling than the current setup. Which qualifying format would you like to see for World Cup 2026 and beyond?