The region known as Concacaf will conduct an eight-team final round, with three countries advancing to the World Cup and a fourth entering an intercontinental playoff.
The final slots were filled Tuesday night, when Panama, Canada and El Salvador secured passage out of the second round. They will join the five that received byes to the last stage: the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and Jamaica.
On paper, the Americans, along with the Mexicans, should always qualify from this middling confederation. And they almost always do. But as past qualifying tournaments — and the recent Concacaf Nations League — showed, it’s not a breezy exercise.
Opposing teams are only part of the challenge. There are fields unfit for proper soccer, ravenous crowds and brutal heat.
Then there is the chicanery that threatens to distract from the mission: hotel fire alarms howling in the wee hours and head-pounding music blaring from vans sponsored by radio stations.
John Brooks, a U.S. national team elder, said it’s hard to explain Concacaf’s idiosyncrasies to his Wolfsburg teammates in the German Bundesliga.
“They don’t really get it,” he said. “For them, it’s like, ‘Okay, Honduras is not a big nation [with] big players.’ But still it’s very hard to play against them. They fight for their lives. [Wolfsburg players] have to see it or maybe play in one of these games.”
Adding to the challenge this time is an expanded field of teams and more games packed into a tighter calendar.
Instead of six teams — the “Hexagonal,” as it was called — there are eight (“Octagonal”). Instead of 10 games, there are 14. Instead of playing two games in five days in each of five international windows, teams will mash three matches into seven-day periods on four occasions and have just one two-game stretch.
The number of teams that will qualify remains the same.
The United States will open against El Salvador on Sept. 2, host Canada on Sept. 5 and visit Honduras on Sept. 8.
El Salvador hasn’t been in the final round since the 2010 cycle, Canada since 1998′s. All others are familiar foes.
In October, U.S. home dates against Jamaica and Costa Rica will sandwich a trip to Panama. A two-game window in November will include a home showdown with Mexico.
The Americans will play three matches in late January/early February, then the last three in March. Per usual, they’ll play every team home and away.
Recently, U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter was able to mirror the qualifying schedule with Nations League matches June 3 and 6 in Denver and a friendly June 9 in Sandy, Utah. All were against Concacaf opponents: Honduras, Mexico and Costa Rica, albeit without the heavy travel and difficult settings.
To mimic the travel demands of qualifying, the team cut short its Nations League championship celebration to board a charter.
Before those games, the United States played a friendly in Switzerland, giving the European-based players a taste of traveling stateside immediately after a match. That is what they will have to do after league games before each qualifying window.
The next time Berhalter gathers his top players is late August for two or three days of workouts. He could’ve called them in for the Concacaf Gold Cup, July 10-Aug. 1, but because most need rest after long European seasons, he chose an MLS-heavy preliminary roster.
While Berhalter weighs roster options for the qualifiers, his bosses at the U.S. Soccer Federation will begin mulling home venues. Because many Latin American teams have large support in this diverse country, the USSF will choose carefully in furnishing home-field advantage.
The home opener against Canada presents few concerns. In between trips to El Salvador and Honduras, a warm-weather site, such as Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is almost certainly atop the USSF’s list. Florida would make sense for training camp throughout the three-game stretch.
The early front-runners for the Mexico game, according to one person familiar with the selection process, are Columbus, Ohio, which has hosted each of the past five final-round clashes between the rivals; St. Paul, Minn.; and another unspecified MLS stadium.
Aside from location, smaller MLS venues allow the USSF to better control ticket distribution. Priority typically goes to MLS season ticket holders. Columbus proved to be a U.S. stronghold: four consecutive 2-0 victories over Mexico before a 2-1 defeat.
Four years ago, U.S. home games were all in small MLS stadiums. Besides Columbus, there was San Jose (Honduras); Commerce City, Colo. (Trinidad and Tobago); Harrison, N.J. (Costa Rica); and Orlando (Panama). Still, Costa Rican fans made up a large share of the crowd at Red Bull Arena.
This time, MLS markets in Kansas City, Kan., Austin and Washington could enter the mix. The USSF is likely to stagger the venue announcements as each match approaches.
Home-field advantage, and winning at home, is vital to the cause. Four years ago, the United States dropped six of a possible 15 points at home and ended up missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
With perhaps the most talented squad in program history, featuring Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, the Americans will face heightened expectations no matter where the games are held. But as Concacaf has proven time and again, the road to a World Cup is pocked with peril.
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