World Cup qualifying
The USMNT learns is qualifying path for 2022: here are the takeaways
August 19, 2020
CONCACAF HELD ITS draw for World Cup qualifying and the United States national learned most of its path that it hopes will lead to a berth in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. Most of the path was already known but the formal draw revealed some interesting tidbits – like a potential revenge match to open the campaign and a very difficult ending awaits in 2022.
Now, not all of the opponents are known yet. The U.S. teams is one of five teams already qualified for the Octagon that will replace the Hex. The remaining three teams will be determined in earlier rounds taking place before next summer.
With that said, here is the best guess for the 14-game qualifying schedule
- June 2021: @ Trinidad & Tobago/El Salvador*
- June 2021: Canada/Haiti*
- June 2021: @ Honduras
- June 2021: Jamaica
- September 2021: @ Panama/Dominican Rep./Guatemala/Curacau*
- September 2021: Costa Rica
- October 2021: Mexico
- October 2021: @ Jamaica
- November 2021: Trinidad & Tobago/El Salvador*
- November 2021: @ Canada/Haiti*
- January 2022: Honduras
- January 2022: @ Mexico
- March 2022: Panama/Dominican Rep./Guatemala/Curacau*
- March 2022: @ Costa Rica
* denotes the mostly likely opponents from the earlier round. There are “smaller” national teams with the potential to advance to the Octagon.
Here are a few thoughts on the draw
Welcome a Trinidad & Tobago opener
There is a very realistic chance the United States will open World Cup qualifying with a road matchup at Trinidad & Tobago. Everyone knows that it was the low-point of the program in October 2017. Despite all this, opening in Trinidad would be great news for the U.S. team. Yes, there would be all sorts of stories about having to relive that game but the “revenge” type theme plays into the U.S. team’s hands.
The U.S. team would not be looking ahead this time and this game would provide the opportunity to create a new narrative and turn the page from 2017. It would also then provide an opportunity to use the revenge for a winning start in the Octagon as opposed to the two losses that opened up the last Hex.
Tough end makes June 2021 Key
Two of the final three games are the hardest games the U.S. team historically plays – away at Costa Rica and away at Mexico. These are two locations which the U.S. team has never won a World Cup qualifier. The U.S. team can’t be at a stage where it needs more than three points heading into its final three games. The last home game is critical but any points it can get from the visits to Costa Rica and Mexico should be considered a bonus.
A big part of avoiding the stress of heading into Mexico and Costa Rica not needing points will come from a strong opening. The first four games in June are realistic and the goal should be nine points – winning both home games and winning at least one of the road games.
Winning home games is so important and the home losses to Costa Rica and Mexico were really the most noticeable declines last cycle compared with the successful campaigns in previous cycles.
In this cycle, the two games will be played in succession – home against Costa Rica to conclude the September window and home against Mexico to open the October window.
These two games will determine if qualifying is easy or hard. Six points and qualifying is surely going to be on the easier side. Four points, it is still probably okay. Three points, it could be dicey. Anything less, it is surely going to be a nail-biter heading into the final games – which are hard.
Many Venues in the mix
As always, the topic of where to hold these games will be intense and fans throughout the country will be hoping for the U.S. team to come to town for a qualifier.
There are the usual venues for World Cup qualifying and it is probably a safer bet to see the eight venues for the qualifiers come from smaller markets with the exception of Audi Field in Washington, DC and CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Seattle is a city that supports the U.S. team well and Washington, D.C. is a historical location for the U.S. team.
Bigger cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Miami, the Boston area, and the New York/New Jersey area are probably going to Gold Cup sites and typically don’t draw pro-U.S. crowds.
The best guess we can make is that the eight likely venues for the U.S. team in these qualifiers will probably come from the MLS venues in these 11 cities:
- San Jose
- Sandy, Utah
- Kansas City
- Washington, DC
- Commerce City, CO
Cincinnati is new to the mix and its new stadium is on the way. The U.S. team has played well in Orlando and Minnesota recently while Utah, Commerce City, and Kansas City are reliable options these days.
What will be particularly interesting is the home venue for the Mexico game in October. The last five cycles it has gone to Columbus and it very well might return to the Ohio capital. The U.S. team does not have many lasting traditions but one of the better ones is that the home Mexico qualifier is played in Columbus. It would be fun to see that continue.
But Mapfre Stadium is in its final full season of use in 2020 and the new stadium is set to open next summer. If the Mexico game returns to Columbus, would it be a farewell to Mapfre or a hello to the new stadium?
2021: Summer of Soccer
Next June and July is shaping up to be a massive two months in American soccer.
- June: four massive Word Cup qualifiers for the U.S. team
- June: U-20 World Cup (pending qualifying)
- July: Gold Cup
- July: Summer Olympics for the U-23 national team (pending qualifying)
How to balance the rosters will be tricky for Gregg Berhalter and Jason Kreis, especially if the U-23 team qualifies for the Olympics.
Without a doubt, the biggest priority will be placed on the World Cup qualifiers (and if any friendlies take place before those games). That will take up the most of June.
It is hard to see many (if any) clubs for top U-23 players who are also on the full national team also agreeing to release players for the Olympics. Between the qualifiers and the Olympics, that would mean players would play 8 to 11 games, not including tune-up friendlies.
As for the Gold Cup, that would also be heavily taxing on players to play in this tournament plus the World Cup qualifiers. Releases for this are mandatory, but is it wise for Berhalter to so heavily tax players over two months in one summer?
That being said, between the four tournaments (should the U.S. team qualify), there is a chance a huge number of players represent the United States next summer.
World Cup qualifying hiatus
When the U.S. team’s final World Cup qualifier of this cycle ends in Costa Rica, it’s hard to imagine but that will be the team’s final qualifier for approximately seven years. With it hosting the 2026 edition, the U.S. team will have an automatic passage into the tournament.
In addition, this is the final time the U.S. team will have to qualify for a 32-team tournament. The next time the U.S. plays a qualifier, for the 2030 tournament, it will be for a 48-team tournament and that will be even more forgiving than it already is.