The long-expected demise of the CONCACAF Hexagonal World Cup qualifying process appears to be a done deal.
FIFA has approved a new qualifying format in which 3.5 teams will emerge from two final groups of four teams, according to Univision.
The new format will start with 32 CONCACAF member nations playing in eight four-team groups with each team playing the others in their group at home and away. The top two groups will then advance to four four-team groups with the top two again advancing. The final stage of qualifying will feature two more four-team groups with the winner of each group earning an automatic World Cup berth. The runners-up will then play for the third spot. The winner will earn the final automatic berth, with the loser playing the fifth-place team from CONMEBOL for a potential fourth spot.
The idea behind this new format is to add some unpredictability to a federation which has been dominated by the United States and Mexico. The dual powers have each qualified for the past five World Cups and six of the past seven. Costa Rica is the only other country to have qualified for more than one World Cup since 1986, having qualified for three in that time. CONCACAF has sent just seven different teams since 1986 and 10 different teams in the entire history of the World Cup.
The danger is in the inherent downside of this format. The chances of the U.S. and Mexico playing one another has been severely curtailed, potentially robbing those countries' fans of the much anticipated high-pressure matches between the bitter rivals. Matches between the two countries will more than likely be limited to friendlies and Gold Cup.
As much as U.S. and Mexico fans may not like this change, it's not hard to see why the other member nations voted this way.
This format would seem to at least offer the possibility for some change. Mexico and the United States will likely be the top seeds in the two final groups and would need to finish atop that group in order to be guaranteed a World Cup berth. Instead of having 10 games to secure one of the top three spots, they'll have six games to finish in the top spot, eliminating much of the room for error that existed in the past. More nations will also be given the opportunity to host matches against the region's two biggest draws, and share in those increased paydays.
The top two teams will play 18 matches during qualifying, the same number the Mexico, United States and Honduras played on the way to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. One key difference will be two additional teams being afforded the chance to play 18 games than in the old format. Among the nations that missed out on the most recent hexagonal were Canada, Guatemala and Jamaica, the last of which missed out via tiebreaker with Mexico.
Taking the long view, there is a chance this could strengthen CONCACAF. While it can certainly be argued that the best teams will play fewer games against other top CONCACAF teams the trade off is more teams playing more games. Those added games have real potential help those countries develop.
Even at the top, CONCACAF has never been one of the strong regions. Just one team has advanced as far as the World Cup quarterfinals since 1986 and that was only when the U.S. beat Mexico in the Round of 16 in 2002. No team other than the U.S. or Mexico has advanced out of the Group Stage since Cuba made the quarterfinals in 1938.
If this format — similar to the one used in Africa — is able to shake up CONCACAF and effect some positive change, the risk seems a reasonable one.