“It’s a shame that we’re not going to be able to play [in June], but the most important thing right now is that people are staying home and staying safe,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said Monday in a statement via the U.S. Soccer Federation. “In this time, we all need to be following instructions and help as much as we can to stop the spread of this virus.”
All four matches fell inside official windows for international competition set by FIFA, the sport’s global governing body. The next window is not scheduled until Aug. 31-Sept. 8, when Concacaf, which oversees soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, is planning to begin the final round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The United States and five other countries will receive byes to that last stage, which awards three automatic berths. At the moment, Concacaf is planning to conduct the draw this summer and begin competition as scheduled.
However, with tuneups scrapped and uncertainty as to when sports will return, changes seem necessary.
Concacaf did not reply to questions about the status of the draw and the start of qualifying.
The decision to postpone the Nations League came after FIFA’s recommendation last week to call off all international matches in June. Previously, two prestigious tournaments slated this summer, the European Championship and Copa America, were pushed to 2021.
FIFA also announced efforts to organize “bilateral discussions with confederations concerning 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers in order to finalize a revised match schedule pending health and safety developments.”
Three continents are already having to adjust. In South America, the first two days of qualifiers (March 26 and 31) were postponed. The next set is in September. Europe is not scheduled to start until March 2021, but because the 2020 European Championship was delayed a year, two game days in June 2021 will have to change. In Asia, qualifying dates in March and June of this year were wiped out.
In the past, the absence of tuneups and week-long training camps would have been inconvenient but manageable for the U.S. team, which, until 2018, had played in seven consecutive World Cups.
In the wake of the program’s spectacular failure to qualify last time, however, Berhalter needs every opportunity to gather his players and make significant strides. Since that low point, culminating with a shock defeat at lowly Trinidad and Tobago, the team has bobbed through experimental waters and remains a work in progress.
Because the March and June matches were called off, Berhalter has been unable to summon his top players since November.
In what would have provided beneficial tests for four teams headed to the final round of qualifying, Concacaf last week postponed the Nations League semifinals June 4 in Houston — United States vs. Honduras, and Mexico vs. Costa Rica — and the third-place game and final June 7 in Arlington, Tex.
Jamaica and probably El Salvador are also headed to the final round of World Cup qualifying, known as the hexagonal.
Concacaf’s new qualifying format eliminated semifinal rounds for top contenders and added a second-tier competition: The winner will face the hexagonal’s fourth-place finisher in a two-leg clash for a berth in the intercontinental playoffs in late 2021, joining one team apiece from Asia, South America and Oceania.
Ideally, the Nations League matches would take place before the World Cup qualifying launch. One solution is to play in early September and bump the start of World Cup qualifying to October.
However, the world is waiting to see whether sports — not to mention daily routines — will return anytime soon. Even if it’s safe to resume competition, players will need weeks, if not months, to regain their fitness and form through activity with their respective clubs.
Concacaf does have flexibility. Currently, the six finalists are to play two matches apiece in September, October and November, then two more in both March 2021 and June 2021.
On that timetable, aside from the playoffs, Concacaf would finish the qualifiers 17 months before the start of the World Cup. (Because of heat concerns in Qatar during the summer months, when the tournament has always been staged, the World Cup will instead take place in November and December.)
As for the U.S. players, most have been inactive since mid-March, when the pandemic prompted leagues around the world, including MLS, to go dark. The canceled friendlies in March prevented, among other things, Giovanni Reyna, 17, from making his senior national team debut and Tyler Adams, 21, from returning from an extended injury absence.
“When the timing is right, the priority is to get the leagues back up and running and national teams will come next,” Berhalter said. “We have a close-knit group that continues to grow, and we are using this time to maintain our connections. When we do get back together, we’ll regroup and be as focused as ever.”