On Wednesday, CONCACAF officially unveiled the format and schedule of its FIFA World Cup qualifying tournament which implemented dramatic changes to its World Cup qualifying tournament format, including segregating its best teams from the rest from the very start.
With only three guaranteed places and one spot in the World Cup qualifying playoff (possibly against either an opponent either from Asia, Oceania, or South America), CONCACAF has to figure out a way to whittle down its 35 FIFA-affiliates member national teams to the 3 to 4 teams that would move onto the final.
Instead of retaining the format CONCACAF used from 2002 until 2018, it created an apartheid qualifying tournament that would take place from September 2020 to September 2021.
The top six ranked teams according to the FIFA rankings will play a double round-robin Hexagonal tournament going on throughout the entirety of the CONCACAF FIFA World Cup qualification period. From this Hexagonal, the top three directly advance to the FIFA World Cup.
The remaining 29 teams will play in a tournament in a multi-stage tournament whose champion can still qualify for the World Cup-/but only if they get past the fourth place team from the Hexagonal and either a South American, Asian, or Oceanian national team. That tournament will start with a single round robin group phase with eight groups going from September 2020 to November 2020. In 2031, teams will play knockout ties for each round to eventually determine the champion that the fourth place team might face.
But the new format also contains many items that have dramatically changed, including the FIDA rankings.
How do the FIFA rankings work?
Many who would have observed that we tried to explain the FIFA rankings formula before. That formula from the 2018 cycle is now obsolete and has been replaced by something completely new.
To start, rankings points are adjusted after every game by the following formula, which is based on the Elo system.
Points = Points(prematch) + I*(W – W_e)
Points(prematch) are the total rankings points the team obtained before the match. To start, after the 2018 FIFA World Cup, teams were reseeded by the following formula, where P0 is the ranking points that the teams would start with, and R is the team’s FIFA rank at the time of the reset and is the initial value for Points(prematch).
P0 = 1600 – 4 * (R – 1)
I is the importance factor, which is a weight as to how important the match was. I can take the following values for the type of game.
60 – World Cup final quarterfinal to final match.
50 – World Cup final game before the quarterfinal.
40 – Confederation Championship knockout games to final (quarterfinal and beyond) (The knockout stage games of the Gold Cup carry this importance factor.)
35 – Confederation Championship group stage to quarterfinal (Gold Cup group stage and first quarterfinal)
25 – Qualifying matches for the FIFA World Cup or for the confederation championships. Nations League knockout games (semifinal and final) also receive this importance factor.
15 – Nations League Group stage games before the final knockout phase.
10 – International friendlies played during the FIFA international calendar
5 – Friendlies or regional cups played outside the FIFA international calendar
W is the result of the game, which is 1 point for a regulation time or added extra time victory, 0.75 points for a penalty win, 0.5 points for a draw or penalty shootout loss, and 0 points for a regulation time or added extra time loss.
W_e is the expected result of the match, which is calculated by the formula W_e = 1/[10^(-(R – R_opponent)/600) + 1], where R is the team in question’s pre-match FIFA rank and R_opponent is the opponent’s pre-match FIFA rank. A match where the opponents’ FIFA rankings vary quite differently will produce a W_e of close to 0 for the lower ranked FIFA team and 1 for the higher ranked FIFA team.
Interestingly, in the final knockout phase of a major tournament (continental championship or World Cup), a negative score relative to its expected score will counted as a 0 change in the ranking points.
Enough of the arithmetic. What does this mean for El Tri?
“What the arithmetic means to El Tri” can be quite complicated. With the reseeding of teams after the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the entire past contribution history of the team is gone. The only games that matter are from August until June 2020. And even then, whether El Tri gets the easy path of the Hexagonal and the impossible path of the elimination tournament only depends its position relative to other CONCACAF teams. But with the reseeding formula, El Tri also stands a lot closer to its opponents. Below is the Top 11 ranking in CONCACAF before the Gold Cup along with their points and distance either to qualifying or falling out of the top six. (This piece will be updated once the July FIFA rankings are released.)
|Rank||Team||FIFA Rank||Points||Margin||Nations League Tier|
|10||Trinidad & Tobago||92||1260||-82||A|
A rocky end to 2018 for El Tri in the win/loss column but the friendly victories and its Gold Gup wins all should add points to El Tri and add to its margin of safety. But its margin of safety of +235 rankings points takes a lot of pressure away from El Tri should they lose against a weaker opponent.
In its Nations League group, Mexico will face two opponents who, as of the June 2019 rankings release, are on the outside looking in of the main Hexagonal. Mexico have an obligation to defeat both their opponents in and away from Mexico, but its opponents, which include a team that went to the last World Cup but would not qualify for the Hexagonal this year, have to do something. Because the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament could completely depend on the results of this current Nations League, relegation out of the A League by finishing in last place in its group could see El Tri or any other team’s path to qualify for the continental tournament and its high importance weighted games become much more difficult depending on how the format for that tournament remains.
Is this new format rigged too much in favor of Mexico and the United States?
Right away from CONCACAF’s announcement, many started wondering whether promoters and sponsors purposely rigged the format to make it easier for “the best teams”–coded particularly for the United States and El Tri–to qualify without being accountable to the rest of the region.
Given that the Gold Cup primarily has been played in the United States (and Mexico) since its debut in the 1990s, relative to the many different nations that hosted the CONCACAF Championship, some think that promoters that are involved with the USSF (and some with Mexico’s federation) structured the format of the tournament to favor the federations it worked for. In some ways, the aftermath of the #FIFAGate scandal put USSF, FMF, and Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) officials sympathetic to those sponsors in control. With the United States Congress and one presidential candidate now threatening to either investigate USSF over its discriminatory pay and contract terms to its women’s national team players or take direct control of the federation, the format could raise significant scrutiny over the federation’s dealings. But at the same time, the rules apply equally to everyone and a favorite with good players like Mexico or the United States could suddenly find its path to the 2022 World Cup a lot harder than it expected to be.
The United States men’s national team has also failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, 2012 and 2016 summer Olympics, in either tournaments with relatively forgiving group stages or were entirely played in the United States with the Stars and Stripes automatically qualifying for the main “Olympic qualifying tournament”.
For El Tri, many will remember the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign where they needed help from the United States to defeat Panama just to get to the intercontinental playoff.
And so, to answer the question–the tournament at first doesn’t look like it passes “the eye test,” but it will hold even the most powerful teams and federations accountable if they slip.
Will Mexico need to call up its galacticos?
The summer of 2019 was a near apocalypse for El Tri in terms of the timing of injuries and players needing to take time out for important personal duties. In every situation, whether it was Hector Herrera going for Portuguese citizenship and a transfer pass to Atletico de Madrid, ‘Chicharito’ awaiting the birth of his son in England, and Miguel Layun’s cancer. Outside of Carlos Vela, who has always been fickle when it came to national team duty, there was not a lot that had to do with “personnel drama” and a lot due to luck.
This happens in football and the national team, for a long time, needed to get to a stage where it could avoid needing to take all its obvious “galacticos”. The situation El Tri found itself in with regards to player personnel was a situation that could happen anyway with either a new European Super League or a lot of talismen retiring from the national team close to each other, or any other risk out of their control. Luckily, the federation’s hire of Gerardo Martino turned into one where El Tri could actually survive such an apocalypse and meet its supporters’ demands.
When the question was first posed, it had been framed erroneously under the title of “we don’t need the Europeos” but actually following through has grave consequences for the national team. First, many fans who pay for the tickets to the games want to see their best players and the ones they think will give them a chance at the World Cup. Second, El Tri got lucky in some ways that its opponents in the Gold Cup knockout stages made their own mistakes at the wrong time. Even though the team continued to pressure and had a clear way to put the responsibility of keeping El Tri off the scoresheet on the goalkeeper, those games were a showcase of inefficient finishing from their opponents.
A miss of a clear chance or a moment of concentration from a player not expected in a World Cup squad could have easily gone the other way. El Tri has some room, but not enough to keep Chicharito, Hector Herrera, ‘Tecatito’, and others off the team for the entirety of the Nations League and the Hexagonal.
And there are now true home games and true away games which will bring the national team to Mexico (and not the United States) and to the home of their other rivals. The physics of the pitch, the climate, and atmosphere from the fans will differ significantly from what the team faced in its friendly and Gold Cup action to this point. Although much of the team will have experience from their CONCACAF Champions League games, those were often games without fully sold out stadia and did not carry national obligations to them.
Sure, there are good arguments for not running out your stars–galacticos–to 120, 130, 140 or more national team appearances by the time their footballing career comes to a close. But if the larger footballing cultures in Mexico, and the national team’s recruitment, continue to ever-improving footballers, then there is good reason to have competition and not always take the same core of players. What happens if any of them face a match ban for yellow card or red card accumulation? And the galacticos of old will, at some point, age out of the national team. Other national teams in the region, like Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras are struggling to either make a transition to a new, younger core, or have a strategy for identifying what that core is while still getting the obligated results.
There are other embarrassments by not sending the best players abroad. Mexico could entertain the wrath of CONCACAF for not sending an “A”-squad to games that lead into qualifying for an “A”-event. Mexico would find itself unable to recruit abroad if it made playing abroad a disincentive for being called into the national team. (Players for several national teams are made ineligible if they play in certain countries by policy–Surinamese in the Netherlands, or Cubans in the United States as examples.) There could also be a situation like New Zealand gambling on not monitoring a 24-year-old striker who played and scored for both Primeira Liga and Turkish Super Lig teams whom the United States identified as eligible and convinced to commit.
But even then, the tournament format and the new rankings formula show that El Tri cannot afford to lose by letting its “first team” stay with their clubs. It might seem that El Tri and other top teams got off easy, but underneath the surface there are still plenty of trap doors. And that’s enough to call in as many galacticos as possible.
What changes can I expect before the Nations League kicks off?
All 16 teams who participated in the CONCACAF Gold Cup will have three games of points with an importance factor of 35. In the knockout stage, every game is given an importance factor of 40. However, as a reward for advancing to the knockout phase, teams who receive a negative score from a final knockout game will see that game’s have no affect on the team’s ranking points—equivalent to if the team’s result perfectly matched its expected result.
Mexico and the United States will all see their points total rise or remain stable from their Gold Cup exploits, with El Tri‘s points rising more than that of the United States thanks to its final victory. However, for the purposes of qualifying for the Hexagonal, Panama and Curacao may have performed just well enough at the Gold Cup to move up into the Hexagonal places, while Honduras could find itself outside the top six by the time the Nations League comes around.
Where can I watch the CONCACAF Nations League?
Every game of CONCACAF’s Nations League will be available in the U.S. on FloFC. Although we expect El Tri games to also be available on either TUDN or another Univisa-badged network in Spanish or ESPN/Fox Sports in English, only the United States men’s national team has been guaranteed to air on a traditional TV network, which will not prevent the OTT subscribers from watching on FloFC’s feed. One benefit that users will have with FloFC, is that full replays of every game will be available at any time.
FloFC costs $29.99 USD per month, but the per-month cost dwindles significantly if subscribers purchase it on an annual basis ($149.99 per year).