World Cup qualifying
Challenges await the USMNT in its path through the Octagonal
June 16, 2021
THIS WEEK, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying was set and for the first time since 1994 when the U.S. team hosted, its path to the tournament will not run through the Hexagonal. Instead, it will run through an Octagonal, or “The Ocho.” With eight teams now participating, it will present its own set of challenges and opportunities.
The eight teams making up the final round accurately reflects the eight top teams in terms of quality and depth. It won’t be easy for any team. Of course, the United States is coming off a infamous run in 2017 when it failed to qualify. Similarly, Mexico is coming off a brutal run in 2013 when the only thing that separated it from failing to qualify was a miraculous strike from Graham Zusi in a meaningless qualifier for the U.S. team against Panama. In a more likely scenario, either the U.S. or Mexico would have failed to qualify for the World Cup in each of the last two cycles.
Heading into this round, however, is different due to the different format.
In addition to eight teams, there is the new feature of triple-game windows where teams will play three games in a condensed period, not just the traditional two. What that means is that teams will be forced to rotate squads – and that will present decisions.
Here are some thoughts on the journey ahead.
- United States
- Costa Rica
- El Salvador
The top three qualify for the World Cup
The fourth-place team heads to an intercontinental playoff against an opponent in a region to be determined.
September 2, 2021: at El Salvador
September 5, 2021: hosting Canada
September 8, 2021: at Honduras
October 07, 2021: hosting Jamaica
October 10, 2021: at Panama
October 13, 2021: hosting Costa Rica
November 2021: hosting Mexico
November 2021: at Jamaica
January 27, 2022: hosting El Salvador
January 30, 2022: at Canada
February 2, 2022: hosting Honduras
March 24, 2022: at Mexico
March 27, 2022: hosting Panama
March 30, 2022: at Costa Rica
Depth is huge for the USMNT in triple windows
The biggest asset the U.S. team has for World Cup qualifying is its depth. The U.S. team is likely to travel with more than the usual 23-player rosters for the triple windows. What we saw from the team in June should be encouraging for U.S. fans. Against Mexico, the U.S. team was able to win without Tyler Adams and subpar efforts from Sergino Dest. Even Christian Pulisic was mostly quiet until extra time.
Then against Costa Rica, the team was able to insert Brenden Aaronson, Daryl Dike, and Yunus Musah into the starting lineup and neither of those three players played a minute in a win over Mexico.
All the talk right now over who comprises the “Best XI” is still premature and almost elusive. There will almost surely be injuries, suspensions, and fatigue sitting in.
The big question is how many players can be rotated in and out without the level dropping and the ability to win these games meaningfully compromised?
Level of CONCACAF is unclear
Compared with the past, we don’t yet know how strong CONCACAF will be this cycle. The U.S. team and Mexico will enter as the favorites due to the Nations League.
Canada is dramatically improved and will make its first appearance in the final round since 1997. The Canadian team boasts players such as Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David who are young and key players on teams that are champions in Europe’s Big Five leagues.
Honduras and Costa Rica are big questions marks as teams that have been among the regions best the past decade. Costa Rica appears to be coming off a golden generation and whether or not the next generation is as good remains to be seen – although it is a tough bar to meet.
Meanwhile, Honduras was a tough out for the United States at the Nations League and it took a late winner from Jordan Pefok to get it done. Honduras was then able to claim third place after defeating Costa Rica on penalties. This past week, Honduras played Mexico to a 0-0 draw in Atlanta which showed just how compact its defense can be.
Both Costa Rica and Honduras will be tough – especially on the road.
Jamaica is in the process of capitalizing on dual nationals which remain eligible for the Reggae Boyz. Should Jamaica add Michail Antonio, the team’s starting lineup would be quite strong and Antonio would probably be the best forward in all of CONCACAF at the moment.
The remaining question is El Salvador and Panama – which, on paper at least, are likely the seventh and eighth teams in the region – but still tough to face at home. Racking up points against these two teams will be key towards ensuring a smooth qualification.
Gold Cup needed to build up depth
The recent friendless and Nations League games consisted of a large component of the team’s core and it was successful. But more players are still going to be needed for the World Cup qualifying push.
The upcoming Gold Cup tournament should only help add more pieces to the puzzle while testing them against CONCACAF opponents.
The U.S. team is far from set – it will continue to change in the Gold Cup and throughout World Cup qualifying. If the team qualifies, the roster won’t be set until Gregg Berhalter submits the team to FIFA.
How will opponents treat the U.S.?
Most teams in the Octagonal won’t have the depth the United States or Mexico have. After these teams lose a few key players, their level drops off quite a bit.
How these teams treat the triple windows will be revealing. Will they attempt to ride their best team through fatigue for all three games, or will they rotate? If they rotate, will they opt for their best possible lineup against the United States and Mexico – or will they save their best lineups for the other teams in the region as the best way to accumulate points?
The U.S. team has to be ready for anything but watching how other teams treat the U.S. and Mexico in the triple-window format is going to be interesting.
How will youth respond to road qualifiers?
This tournament can’t be taken lightly and it will always be hard. What happened to the United States in 2017 wasn’t necessarily a fluke. With the one exception of 1990 when they were suspended, Mexico has reached the knockouts of the World Cup in every tournament since 1986 – and yet they still struggle in qualifying from time to time. This region produces ugly soccer which often neutralizes solid talent.
The U.S. team won the Hexagonal in 2009, 2013 (and was the first to qualify in 2005) but the best players were savvy veterans who really knew how to play in the region.
Now it is up to a bunch of very talented young players and the U.S. team will likely have very few players who have ever played a road World Cup qualifier in CONCACAF before. Typically, veteran experience in these games are tough and this could be where the lack of veteran experience hurts the team.
Road qualifiers in this region are very tricky. The fans are raucous, the conditions are poor, the games are chippy and lack flow. Even in the days of Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey, Bocanegra, Altidore, and Cherundolo all in their prime – it was never easy. These talented players will be walking into something quite a bit different.
Tough final window
The final takeaway from the schedule and the draw is that the United States needs to be very solid and methodical early in qualifying.
If the United States is in a position where it needs more than three points heading into the final window, it could be in trouble. The final window consists of a visit to Mexico and a visit to Costa Rica. The U.S. team has never won a qualifier in either of these countries.
People like to point at the U.S. team’s loss at the Couva in Trinidad as to why failed to qualify. The truth is that upsets on the road happen. The U.S. team being in that position of needing a result on the road is why it failed to qualify. Losing at home to Mexico and Costa Rica and other lackluster results created a dangerous situation.
In this edition it will be the same. If the U.S. team wins its games at home while picking up a draws with a few wins on the road, it will be fine heading into the final window.