Concacaf World Cup qualifiers: five things to look out for

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today Sports

In the next seven days, Concacaf teams will play three matches that will go a long way to deciding who clinches a spot at Qatar 2022. With six games to go, Canada, the US and Mexico occupy the three automatic qualifying places in the table. Here’s what to look out for in the coming days.

Can the United States qualify in this window?

The short answer is, yes. Doing so would certainly make the USMNT’s final three matches in qualification – which take place at the end of March and include two formidable away matches against Mexico and Costa Rica – a lot less stressful.

First, they’ll need to win their next three matches. Beating an ascendant Canada in Hamilton won’t be an easy task. And US Soccer may have kneecapped itself by hosting El Salvador and Honduras in frigid temperatures, something that could nullify any advantage the USMNT hold.

If the Americans do take all nine points, the performance of their nearest contenders – Mexico, Canada and Panama – comes into play. Qualification in this window requires one or two of those teams to have an abysmal run, as in, losing all three games. It would also require the teams in fifth and sixth – Jamaica (seven points) and Costa Rica (nine points) – to have one or two stumbles themselves.

Will Canada prove to be Concacaf’s top dog?

Canada have had a meteoric rise to become a Concacaf contender. Their coach, John Herdman, may very well be the most compelling manager in the region. Herdman has worked diligently to develop a competitive, passionate soccer culture in Canada. Despite not making a World Cup since 1986, Canada look poised to not just qualify, but do so in first place.

But they have a few hurdles to navigate first. One is maintaining their performance on the road. Canada played five of their first eight matches in this round of qualification at home, meaning four of their final six games will be on the road – a tough proposition in a confederation known for its grueling away trips. That said, Canada’s two toughest away matches – on paper at least – have already been played: they drew in the US and Mexico.

The major test in this window is their home match against the US. They will be without their best player, Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies, due to Covid and the US will be out for revenge after conceding points in Nashville. A win or draw would put Canada firmly on the path to Qatar. A loss though, would be a major stumble with a number of tough away trips to come.

Concacaf adds VAR to remaining qualifiers

The first eight rounds of matches of this qualification cycle were played without VAR. After overcoming issues related to personnel, training, infrastructure, and Covid, Concacaf announced on 19 January the region was (finally) prepared to implement VAR in qualifying. Concacaf said VAR will also be used at other tournaments including the men’s and women’s U20 Championships and more importantly, this summer’s Concacaf Women’s Championship which will decide Olympic and World Cup places.

The story of this qualification campaign might have looked different if VAR had been introduced from the start. Jamaica had what many believed was a perfectly good goal ruled out in the 84th minute of the USMNT’s last qualifier. If it had stood, the Jamaicans would have been set for an upset win.

Tactical shifts since first qualification window

With more experience under their belt – and the evolution of tactics and roster since then – it will be interesting to see what changes Gregg Berhalter implements for his squad’s rematches with El Salvador, Canada and Honduras.

One of the starkest changes is the shift in who is in the roster to begin with. John Brooks, once a stalwart of the team, has been left out. Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson now seem to be the choice at center-back.

Berhalter’s deployment of players will also be of interest. The September window featured numerous players playing out of their expected position, to the exasperation of fans particularly in a disastrous first-half against Honduras. One hopes lessons have been learned. But there are positional deficiencies in the roster suggesting more experimentation could be in store.

Environmental impacts

This qualification cycle was delayed and adjusted due to Covid. That shift provides fans the unique opportunity to watch their teams attempt to qualify amid frigid January weather.

Of course, Concacaf covers a huge geographical expanse and Costa Rica, for example, isn’t quite as cold as Canada in late January. And while there are plenty of warm weather venues in the US at this time of year, US Soccer elected to play its January and February matches in Columbus, Ohio and Saint Paul, Minnesota, which have daily mean temperatures of 32F (0C) and 16.3F (-8.7C) respectively at this time of year.

US Soccer says it has chosen those venues because they reduce the amount of travel back and forth to the match in Canada. They are also away from coastal cities as part of the federation’s goal of choosing venues with “home atmospheres”. Those supposed plus points could be outweighed by weather that turns any USMNT technical advantage into a brutal battle for survival.