USA's path to Qatar 2022

The USA, which has not played a men's international match in more than six months, doesn't have to start World Cup 2022 qualifying for almost another 10 months, but it already knows its schedule, if not all its opponents, for the eight-team final round of qualifying in the Concacaf region.

FIFA held the draw on Wednesday in Zurich, placing teams in the six five-team groups to kick off the preliminary round, as well as the schedule for what is being called the Octagonal.

Concacaf, Final Round (U.S. schedule):
June 2021. 1. At Group A/F Winner. 2. Group B/E Winner. 3. At Honduras. 4. Jamaica.
Sept. 2021. 5. At Group C/D Winner. 6. Costa Rica.
Oct. 2021.  7. Mexico. 8. At Jamaica.
Nov. 2021. 9. Group A/F Winner. 10. At Group B/E Winner.
Jan. 2022. 11. Honduras. 12. At Mexico.
March 2022. 13. Group C/D Winner. 14. At Costa Rica.
Format: Fourteen games, seven at home and seven away. The top three teams advance to Qatar 2022; the fourth-place team plays in the intercontinental playoffs in June 2022.

The secret to any qualifying campaign is to win at home and take points here and there on the road. That was the USA's success when it won the Hexagonal in 2005, 2009 and 2013. It won 14 of 15 games with one tie at home and split on the road each time with two wins, two losses and a tie.

But that all unraveled in 2016-17 when the USA dropped home games to Costa Rica and Mexico and only managed to take three points on the road, ending with a 2-1 loss at Trinidad & Tobago in October 2017 to exit the 2018 World Cup.

Qualifying for the USA will kick off in June 2021 with four games over a double FIFA window. It will be the start of a busy summer with the Gold Cup (and potentially Olympic men's soccer competition) in July 2021, requiring all hands on deck. 

If form holds, the USA will open at the winner of a qualifying matchup between El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago.

“Certainly the potential to play Trinidad in the first game away from home is a nice storyline," U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter said on a Wednesday conference call with the media, "but we’re focused on things much bigger than that game."

Four games over two weeks after a crammed European club season -- the Bundesliga and Premier League, where the best European-based Americans will be playing, won't resume until September while the UEFA Champions League group stage won't begin until October -- will be a challenge, in particular the third game at Honduras, one of the most brutal environments in which to play in Concacaf.

The USA's toughest road games will be at the end of qualifying with matches at Mexico (where it has never won in 17 qualifiers) in January 2022 and at Costa Rica (where it has lost nine qualifiers in a row) in the final match in March 2022. Berhalter said the closing matches don't put extra pressure on the USA.

“For us, every game is pressure,” he said. “You have a lot of pressure to win your home games. Hopefully, towards the end we’ll be in a good position to qualify.”

How many points will it take? The USA averaged 2.2, 2.0 and 2.2 points per games when it won its three straight Hexagonals. Just over 1.5 points per game was the average point total for the third-place team in the six Hexagonals, which would translate to about 21 points in the new Octagonal.

Berhalter's take: “26, 27 points pretty much gets you in there.”

Between now and then? On Wednesday, FIFA officially called off all international play for the September window except in Europe. That leaves the October and November 2020 FIFA windows for the USA to schedule international matches as well as the March 2021 window when Concacaf plans to schedule the final four in its Nations League, originally scheduled to have been played two months ago.

“Right now," Berhalter said, "we’ve been focused on trying to compete in the United States, trying to find a safe environment where we could play games. We’ll switch focus in November and try to play two high-level games in Europe. I’d expect a domestic-based side for October and a European-based side for November.”

Concacaf, First Round:
Group A El Salvador, Antigua & Barbuda, Grenada, Montserrat, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Group B Canada, Suriname, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Aruba.
Group C Curacao, Guatemala, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Cuba, British Virgin Islands.
Group D Panama, Dominican Republic, Barbados, Dominica, Anguilla.
Group E Haiti, Nicaragua, Belize, St. Lucia, Turks & Caicos Islands.
Group F Trinidad & Tobago, St. Kitts & Nevis, Guyana, Puerto Rico, Bahamas.
Format: Four games, two at home and two away, in the October 2020 and November 2020 FIFA windows. The six group winners advance.

Concacaf, Second Round:
Group A winner vs. Group F winner
Group B winner vs. Group E winner
Group C winner vs. Group D winner
Format: Two games, home and away, in the March 2021 FIFA window. The three series winners advance.

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