Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shuffling the deck

Last week a story was picked up by Goal.com and a few other sites, but went relatively unnoticed by the bulk of US based soccer news networks. On August 31st CONCACAF released information on a plan to “shuffle the deck” for the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. The current format called “hexagonal”, which should remain merely on name alone, has the final 6 teams play a each other in a home and away series with the top 3 teams advancing to the World Cup and the forth place team entering a playoff with a team from CONMEBOL or other confederation depending on FIFA’s reorganization of bids. The new format shouldn’t change the number of teams from CONCACAF in the World Cup, but rather the way which they get there. The new format will break up teams into 2 groups of 4 with the winner of each group advancing automatically and the second place teams entering a playoff for the final automatic bid to the World Cup.

I know what you are thinking, “I can understand why this didn’t make news.” I would have to agree, but take another look at what this could mean for the next round of qualifying. The stand out issue is that the US and Mexico likely will be placed in different groups in the final round of qualifying, so the idea of mid-winter sub-freezing tussles in Columbus or 1pm starts in Mexico City midday smog are likely just fading memories. Honestly, the “home field advantage” strategies by both teams have led to some pretty boring matches in qualifying recently. The real glories in US-Mexico matches have been the friendlies held in Houston or other border location in recent years that see 80,000 fans in a tremendous soccer atmosphere. So if the US and Mexico follow suit in their qualifying efforts they will each receive the one seeds for their respective final groups and both will go onto the world cup, no need to worry.

The more interesting factor with this format change is at the other end of the spectrum with the two lowest seeded teams, allowing the final qualifying round to expand from six to eight teams. You can still expect Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Trinidad-Tobago to make the final round along with the US and Mexico, but those last two spots are open for a number of takers. Canada will be home to no less than 3 MLS franchises (and their youth development programs) by 2012, imagine the support from the soccer if the Leafs are able to make a run at qualifying? Group Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti into the “feel good” Caribbean nation category of potential suitors for a spot in the final round. Personally, I would like to see Suriname, Guyana, or French Guiana grab a seat at the final table, a coup no less considering they are located in South America but compete in CONCACAF.

The bottom line is that the new format will allow for small soccer nations in CONCACAF to get additional exposure and revenue to further their federations and improve the confederations product as a whole; this is a very good thing. CONCACAF will never be UEFA or CONMEBOL, but being able to make our teams competitive in the World Cup starts with spreading the money and further growing the sport within the confederation.

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