World Cup qualifying for the United States Men’s National Team could be completely different thanks to the sports hiatus brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. In comments made by CONCACAF president Victory Montagliani, who also sits on the FIFA Council, said today that because of the pandemic, qualifying for the 2022 World Cup may need to be adjusted.
Currently, CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is to be split into two separate formats. For the 6 teams from the confederation with the highest FIFA rankings in June, they would compete in a home-and-away double round robin format that we know as the Hex. For teams 7-35, they would compete in their own World Cup qualifying, with the winner of that qualifying round facing off against the 4th place team in the Hex for the right to compete in the inter-confederation playoff in March 2022. That would require CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying to be completed by November 2021.
With the March and June FIFA windows wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, teams like Canada have been blocked from attempting to gain the points necessary to move into the top 6. Canada, CONCACAF president Montagliani’s native land, is in a battle with El Salvador for that final spot in the current Hexagonal round. Montagliani mentioned that the September international window could also be postponed, which could throw the entire international calendar into chaos. Because of that, Montagliani believes “[it] brings in a little bit of an integrity issue when teams haven’t been able to play.”
So, CONCACAF must now figure out how to get World Cup qualifying done in 7 international windows from this October until November 2021. That would also need to include Gold Cup qualifiers, completing the Nations League playoffs, and ensuring that each of the 35 eligible CONCACAF teams have a fair shot at qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. There’s also the possibility that FIFA could change around the windows based on whenever domestic club soccer can resume safely.
When matches do eventually resume, a lot of factors will be at play, including travel between nations that each have their own temporary rules on incoming international travel. Montagliani also foresees that international matches will initially be played behind closed doors when they resume. “I think it’s going to be a phased-in approach,” Montagliani said. “I think that would be a prudent way to do it. And I think the likelihood of the first matches being behind with no fans is probably high.”
Montagliani said that decisions about the international calendar will largely be driven by how matters proceed with domestic leagues, with those leagues needing to open up before any international matches can be played. Travel considerations will also be a factor.
”You need to look at it through that lens of what is realistic in terms of allowing 40 people to jump on some form of transportation to go across an international border to play a football match,” he said.
Montagliani also anticipates that when games do begin again, they will initially be played behind closed doors. Certainly, teams like the United States and Mexico are not only huge draws when they play each other in the form of fans and eyeballs on TV, but they are the biggest home draws for other teams in the region. Whatever qualifying format CONCACAF will end up finalizing, these will be concerns that will be taken under consideration.
In any stretch, if there is no September FIFA window, as Montagliani suspects, it will be a minimum of 6 months before international soccer returns. Montagliani is cognizant of that but notes that the health and safety of everyone is the priority. “We all want it to start tomorrow,” Montagliani commented. “But the reality is we need to be prudent here and understand the most important thing is the health of our citizens. We need to be realistic in terms of when [soccer] will come back, and it will only come back when the health authorities say we are in position to have it come back.”
What is now clear is COVID-19 has already wreaked havoc on the international calendar, and it could have CONCACAF saying goodbye to the Hex for good.