According to a report from Fernando Palomo of ESPN FC, the federations of CONCACAF have all been sent a document containing a proposal for the confederation's 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying Format. This is just the first step as the National Federations will need to approve of the proposal before it gets forwarded to FIFA.
The final number of berths into the 2018 FIFA World Cup for each confederation has not been established yet but it is unlikely that CONCACAF will earn any more than the 3.5 berths they have been receiving. CONCACAF had received three berths ever since the World Cup expanded to 32 nations ahead of France 1998. The extra half-berth, a spot in the intercontinental playoffs, has been granted to CONCACAF since Germany 2006.
Palomo reports that the 2018 World Cup Qualifying Format for the CONCACAF region will be split into five rounds to wither the nations down to 3.5 from the original 35 eligible countries. The first qualification round would take place in the March 2015 FIFA International Window and would be seven two-legged knockout ties between the 14 lowest-ranked nations (#22 thru #35) in the confederation.
The seven winners of those match-ups would advance to the second qualification round which would be another knockout round. This round would take place during the June 2015 FIFA International Window where the seven first qualification rounds winner would be joined by the next 13 lowest-ranked nations (#9 thru #21) in the confederation. That round would not conflict with the CONCACAF Gold Cup which is scheduled to take place during the month of July 2015.
The final knockout style round would occur with the third qualification round taking place during the September 2015 FIFA International Window. The ten second qualification round winners would be joined by the 7th and 8th-ranked nations in CONCACAF for another two-legged knockout round.
Finally, we would reach the first of two group stages. The fourth qualification round would welcome in the top-six nations in CONCACAF along with the six winners of the third qualification round knockout ties. Those 12 nations would be split into three groups of four with the top two nations in each group qualifying for the final round of competition.
As always with the group stages, each nation would play every other nation in their group both home-and-away. Palomo's report states that this portion of the competition would take place between November 2015 and September 2016. It appears that timeframe would work comparing it to the FIFA Calendar. The first two group matches would take place in the November 2015 Window, the second set of group matches would take place in the March 2016 Window with the final set taking place in the September 2016 Window.
While there is a FIFA International Window between May 30, 2016 and June 7, 2016, that would not be utilized by the confederation due to the special Copa America Centenario taking place in the United States between June 3 and June 26 of 2016. The United States, Mexico and Costa Rica have already qualified for the competition; the other three available spots to CONCACAF in the tournament will likely be filled with nations that are still participating in World Cup Qualifying. Rather than force nations to choose one or the other, it appears CONCACAF will just push their qualification match days back one window.
Which brings us to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, the dreaded Hexagonal. The six-nation group would take place between November 2016 and October 2017 using all of the available match windows in that timeframe. Each nation would play a total of 10 matches, five at home and away with the top three qualifying for the FIFA World Cup and the fourth place nation facing a two-legged playoff in November 2017 against a nation from South America, Asia or Oceania.
That schedule would likely look like this:
Match 1 & 2: Between November 7 and 15, 2016
Match 3 & 4: Between March 20 and 28, 2017
Match 5 & 6: Between June 5 and 13, 2017
Match 7 & 8: Between August 28 and September 5, 2017
Match 9 & 10: Between October 2 and 10, 2017
Intercontinental Playoff Legs 1 & 2: Between November 6 and 14, 2017.
Overall it is a welcome change from the format from the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It featured just four rounds but included a very non-exciting second rounds in which 24 nations were split into six groups of four. Usually that can lead to some excitement but the format only called for the group winner to advance into the third round. Only one group was still being decided going into the final matchday as each of the other groups were won by at least five points, Antigua and Barbuda won Group F by two points over Haiti but entered the final matchday with a five-point lead.
This new format will mean that when the third round begins, there will still be 18 nations with a chance to make the World Cup Finals. On top of that, the two-legged knockout rounds will more likely bring more drama than the group stages from qualification cycles before it.
The first two qualification rounds take place before the Preliminary Draw for World Cup Qualification is held in Saint Petersburg, Russia on July 25th, 2015. We will likely see FIFA hold a smaller draw in the months before those rounds to determine the match-ups.
Here is a look at how the nations of CONCACAF are ranked within the confederation right now and which round they would enter with their current rank. It is unknown which ranking table will be used to determine the entrance points for each nation so this is just a preliminary list.
|Rank||Nation||Points||2014 Record (W-D-L)||Where do they join?|
|1||Costa Rica||988||5-5-3||Fourth Round|
|3||United States||936||6-2-3||Fourth Round|
|7||El Salvador||431||3-0-4||Third Round|
|8||Antigua and Barbuda||411||3-0-0||Third Round|
|9||Trinidad and Tobago||374||0-0-2||Second Round|
|11||St. Vincent and the Grenadines||301||5-2-1||Second Round|
|12||Dominican Republic||295||1-0-3||Second Round|
|13||St. Kitts and Nevis||276||2-1-0||Second Round|
|17||St. Lucia||256||4-1-1||Second Round|
|23||Puerto Rico||126||0-2-0||First Round|
|30||Turks and Caicos Islands||66||1-0-1||First Round|
|31||U.S. Virgin Islands||28||0-0-1||First Round|
|33||Cayman Islands||23||0-0-0||First Round|
|34||British Virgin Islands||13||0-0-3||First Round|
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