CONCACAF announced on Monday a new qualifying format for the 2022 World Cup that will involve eight teams in the final round as part of a newly revised international calendar.
The new calendar also accommodates the CONCACAF Nations League and the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The revisions were necessitated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has wreaked havoc with the international schedule due to match cancellations during the March, June and September international windows.
The new World Cup qualifying format comprises three rounds, with the five highest-ranked teams in CONCACAF based on FIFA's rankings on July 16 -- Mexico, the U.S., Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras -- progressing directly to the final round.
"Many communities across the CONCACAF region continue to face very difficult circumstances due to the current public health situation and my thoughts and prayers go out to them," said CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani. "Given the suspension of the March, June and September FIFA match windows, and with so many of our Member Associations unable to complete a full FIFA rankings cycle, the previous CONCACAF Qualifiers were compromised, and a new approach was required."
On a conference call with reporters, Montagliani added there was some flexibility built into the calendar in case there are additional waves of COVID-19 or increased travel restrictions that would result in more postponements. He said additional fixture windows could be added, or a double fixture window could become a triple fixture window. But Montagliani added that CONCACAF has a limited ability to utilize such mechanisms.
"I'm knocking on wood here as I say this, but if 2021 starts mimicking 2020, then I think it's not just CONCACAF that's [headed back to] the drawing table, it's the entire football world."
The previous format involved a six-team final round involving the six highest-ranked teams, three of which would qualify directly for the World Cup. The fourth-place team would advance to a playoff against the winner of a CONCACAF tournament involving the remaining 29 teams. The winner of that match would have advanced to the intercontinental playoff.
In the revised format, the first round will involve the 30 teams ranked outside the top five. The teams will be split into six groups of five teams each, with the winner of each group moving on to the second round. Each team will play four games in the first round -- two home and two away -- with the matches played in the October and November FIFA international windows.
The six group winners will then advance to a playoff round, with the winner of Group A playing the winner of Group F, the Group B winner playing the top team from Group E, and the Group C winner squaring off against the top team in Group D. Each matchup will be contested over two legs, with the three winners advancing to the final round to join the five top-ranked teams.
The final round will see the eight teams play each other home and away for a total of 14 games. The top three finishers will qualify directly to the World Cup, with the fourth-placed finisher moving on to the intercontinental playoff. The matches will begin with the FIFA match window in June of 2021, and will continue all the way through March of 2022.
"All teams now have the chance to compete for direct access to Qatar 2022 and dream of playing at a World Cup, while we have also respected the positions of those nations which had already mathematically qualified for the Final Round under the previous system," said Montagliani.
The semifinals and final of the CONCACAF Nations League, originally scheduled for June of 2020, will now take place in March of 2021 at a U.S. venue to be determined. The semifinal matchups are Mexico against Costa Rica, and the U.S. against Honduras.
CONCACAF also announced that the 2022-23 Nations League will begin in June of 2022 and conclude in March of 2023.
As for the 2021 Gold Cup, the 16-team tournament will begin on July 10, with the final being played on Aug. 1.
The qualifying tournament for the Gold Cup was due to be played in the March 2020 and June 2020 FIFA match windows which were suspended. CONCACAF will now work towards creating a centralized Gold Cup preliminary round for teams that had been due to play in that competition.