Saying bye to the World Cup in Concacaf
The way forward for the 2026 host nations
It was just the third minute of the USA’s 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the Round of 16 in Qatar when Christian Pulisic found himself impossibly alone in front of the Dutch goal.
Since you are reading this, you likely know how it turned out. The Chelsea (for now) man failed to get the ball to the corner and instead put a shot towards Andries Noppert that was re-directed by a decent, but not particularly difficult for a world class keeper, save.
The USA would not get a better look on goal all game, including when they managed to claw one back on a fortunate bounce late in the second half.
Although that miss came in what turned out to be the last game of the cycle for the Americans, it epitomized the entire 4.5 years since Russia for Team USA.
A team that does a lot right, but ultimately cannot quite bring everything together to have a complete performance. There’s a reason that those who were watching the US play for the first time this cycle, were glowing in their praise of the team, while those of us that have closely watched them play were warning people that the exciting build-up play was never going to result in a goal.
The US team we saw in Qatar is what it is and what it is, is flawed. Many supporters of the US will hold on to the idea that it is a young team that will find that final piece in the next 3.5 years, but it’s hard to see where that clinical-ness is going to come from.
The truth is that the US isn’t alone in Concacaf in this regard. This was the worst World Cup performance by the region in the 32-team era.
Canada played naively and likely have to replace three key defensive players in Atiba, Milan Borjan and Steven Vitória before Mexicanus ‘26 kicks off. It’s hard to see where those players are right now.
Mexico is clearly going backwards right now. Years of mismanagement (if I’m being generous in description) at the federation and club level has taken what was a historically proud and strong program and turned it into a team that no longer feel confident in the region, let alone against the world’s best.
The rest of the region appears to be miles behind the top three teams now. Costa Rica may have some young players about to come through, but until we see them perform you can’t assume they can compete.
All of this comes as the region is about to host a World Cup. So, it’s not great.
What complicates the ability to get better as a region over the next 3.5 years is that they, as it currently stands, are pretty much only going play each other during that time.
As I reported last week, there have been preliminary discussions with CONMEBOL to include Canada in the 2024 Copa America and that, if that happens, there would likely also be invites extended to the US and Mexico (and possibly one other Concacaf team). Clearly, that would be helpful and at least give the host teams a chance to test themselves against more established teams.
However, until that is confirmed, there are very few chances. You can try to book some high-profile friendlies, but the interest in staging those games is at an all-time low. The European teams are so stretched with their play in Uefa that there is next to no room left to throw a Concacaf team a bone. They don’t see value in playing those games and, really, who can blame them. There isn’t much value for them.
So, that leaves the Concacaf Nations League and the 2023 and 2025 Gold Cup as the only chance to play meaningful games. Even there, you are probably looking at just the semi-finals and finals of those tournaments as having any edge to them.
That’s 12 meaningful games in total to play between then and now. It’s not close to good enough if the three teams want to be ready for Mexicanus ‘26.
The three federations need to address this issue
. As stated, getting in the Copa is a start, but if they are to truly address the situation, they should consider something a lot more radical.
They should turn down the host spots.
The format for 2026 is not yet set and with 48 teams there will need to be significant changes to how things are done. So, why not eliminate all byes to the tournament? They used to give the defending champion a bye, but they killed that and no one would argue for it to return now. There is no reason you have to give a spot to the hosts. The tournament is big enough that it would not suffer all that much if the host somehow failed to qualify.
Bluntly, if Canada, Mexico or the USA can’t capture one of the SIX spots that will be available for Concacaf at Mexicanus ‘26 then you really don’t want to see them get embarrassed at the tournament proper.
So, play in qualifying. Although it shouldn’t be a problem for any of the three teams to get into the top six it would benefit them immensely to face some jeopardy. There’s more value in putting yourself at a slight risk by playing in qualifying than there is in getting a direct birth.
If I’m the US, Mexico and Canada I’m going to FIFA now and asking for this change. Without it I fear that things are only going to be worse for Concacaf in 3.5 years’ time.
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