Preview: Ready or not, Concacaf World Cup 2022 qualifying begins

More than six months after its original start date, Concacaf will kick off World Cup 2022 qualifying.

Thirty teams are entered in the opening stage, but only three teams will advance to the Octagonal, joining the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and Jamaica in the 14-game final stage that will send the top three teams to Qatar and the fourth place team to an intercontinental playoff in June 2022.

The 30 teams have been divided into six five-team groups. Each team will play four games, two in March and two in June, each during a seven-day window with five matchdays. The six group winners will then be paired off and meet in the second half of the June window to determine the three teams that will advance to the Octagonal.

COVID-19 weighs heavily over the opening phase. Just 11 teams are expected to open at home. The rest of the teams will play at neutral sites: seven in the Dominican Republic, five in Florida, four in Curacao and one in Guatemala.

The March qualifiers will also mark Concacaf's debut of Paramount+. Seventeen games will stream on the new ViacomCBS service over the first five matchdays.

If Concacaf had stuck with its original format, El Salvador, ranked sixth in Concacaf, would have joined the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and Jamaica in the Hexagonal. Instead, it needs to play six games, beginning with Thursday's game against Grenada at the Estadio Cuscatlan, where almost 10,000 tickets have been put on sale.

Mexican Carlos de los Cobos, who has been in charge of the national team since 2018, will be without six veterans, including former LAFC forward Rodolfo Zelaya, after they failed to reach an agreement with the Salvadoran federations on the terms of the bonuses for the first stage.

Watch out for ... Montserrat was once the worst team in the world, losing to Bhutan, 4-0, in "The Other Final," a battle of FIFA's two lowest-ranked teams played the same day of the 2002 World Cup final between Brazil and Germany. But former Scottish star William Donachie has turned the Emerald Boys around since arriving on the tiny island of 6,000 people.

Montserrat is a beneficiary of Concacaf's policy of adding competitive play to keep small national teams active. It reached League B in the 2019 Concacaf Nations League and over 10 games in qualifying and group play, it won five games, tied two and lost only three, all to El Salvador.

Covid impact ... U.S. Virgin Islands will have a lot of celebrate Saturday when the Dashing Eagles host Antigua & Barbuda in their Group A opener. The game will be the first sporting event with spectators allowed in the stands in more than a year.

The Bethlehem Soccer Complex on St. Croix is being set up to allow fans in one of the two bleacher sections at the 1,200-seat facility.

Both Antigua & Barbuda and Montserrat moved their home games to Curacao, where they will play at the Estadio Felix Sanchez in Willemstad.

March 24
Antigua & Barbuda vs. Montserrat, in Curacao
March 25
El Salvador vs. Grenada (Paramount+, Universo, 10:25 pm. ET)
March 27
U.S. Virgin Islands vs. Antigua & Barbuda
March 28
Montserrat vs. El Salvador, in Curacao (Paramount+, Peacock Premium, 6 pm. ET)
March 30
Grenada vs. U.S. Virgin Islands

GROUP B. Canada's World Cup campaign has been shrouded in mystery. It will host Bermuda in Thursday's opener at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, but the CSA didn't name its roster until Tuesday because it simply doesn't know who will be released.

Bayern Munich released Alphonso Davies, but French club Lille did not release Canada's other young star, Jonathan David. Eleven MLS players are in the squad even though they are in preseason.

The Canadians' first camp in a year was held in January when a mix of senior national team and under-23 players, many of them uncapped, trained at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. They will return to IMG Academy, where they will face the Cayman Islands on Sunday.


Watch out for ... Suriname has drafted wave of Dutch players of Surinamese descent following the decision of the Surinamese government to grant special sports passports.

FIFA has cleared 14 players from the Surinamese diaspora. Suriname coach Dean Gorre has called up 11 of them, including former Seattle Sounders right back Kelvin Leerdam, for the opening qualifiers.

Covid impact ... Four of the five Group B teams will play their home openers in Florida.  Besides the Canada and Cayman Islands home games, Aruba will host Suriname in Bradenton, then stay to face Bermuda.

Bermuda planned to play at the National Stadium in Hamilton, but Bermuda Football Association said the late switch would “minimize travel fatigue and possible exposure to the virus."

March 24 Suriname vs. Cayman Islands
March 25 Canada vs. Bermuda, in Orlando, Florida (Paramount+, Peacock Premium 8 pm. ET)
March 27 Aruba vs. Suriname, in Bradenton, Florida (Paramount+, 8 pm. ET)
March 28 Cayman Islands vs. Canada, in Bradenton, Florida (Paramount+, Peacock Premium, 4 pm. ET)
March 30 Bermuda vs. Aruba (in Bradenton, Florida)

GROUP C. Guus Hiddink, the 74-year-old Dutchman who took the Netherlands to the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup and co-host South Korea to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, is coaching Curacao.

He inherits a team that reached the quarterfinals of the 2019 Gold Cup and has qualified for the 2021 finals. One of the stars of the 2019 team was goalkeeper Eloy Room, who won the 2020 MLS championship with the Columbus Crew.

Curacao has received a boost with the addition of 31-year-old forward Vurnon Anita, who has three caps for the Netherlands and was on its preliminary roster for the 2010 World Cup.

Watch out for ... Soccer in Cuba has been shut down since March 2020, so Pablo Elier Sanchez's squad of 23 players features 11 foreign-based players scattered in nine different countries. Sanchez's "legionarios" include Jorge Corrales, who has moved to Tulsa FC in the USL Championship after three seasons in MLS.

Cuba will be the underdog in Wednesday's opener against Guatemala, which has played six friendlies in the last six months, but it has done well against La Bicolor with wins in their last two official matches.

Covid impact ... All five March qualifiers will be played in Curacao or Guatemala. The British Virgin Islands and St. Vincent & Grenadines will play both games at Estadio Felix Sanchez in Willemstad. Cuba will stay in Guatemala and host Curacao at Guatemala City's Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores.

March 24 Guatemala vs. Cuba (Paramount+, Peacock Premium, 8 pm. ET)
March 25 Curacao vs. Saint Vincent & Grenadines (Paramount+, 6 pm. ET)
March 27 British Virgin Islands vs. Guatemala, in Curacao (Paramount+, Peacock Premium, 6 pm. ET)
March 28 Cuba vs. Curacao, in Guatemala
March 30 St. Vincent & Grenadines vs. British Virgin Islands, in Curacao

GROUP D. Panama is the only Concacaf representative at the 2022 World Cup finals that must qualify for the Octagonal. The Canaleros fell in the Concacaf rankings after they were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 2019 Gold Cup and finished last in their group in the 2019 Concacaf Nations League.

Panama once relied heavily on MLS players -- six were on its 2018 World Cup team -- but only two Panamanians currently play in MLS, and just one of them, Nashville SC midfielder Anibal Godoy, is in its squad for the March friendlies.

Watch out for ...  Head coach Jacques Passy missed Sunday's 4-0 loss to the United States in Olympic qualifying to take charge of the Dominican Republic, which opens against Dominica Wednesday at the Estadio Olimpico Felix Sanchez in Santo Domingo.

Sacramento Republic FC keeper Rafael Diaz is the lone U.S.-based player in a team that will rely heavily on players from Europe: four from Spain, two each from Germany and Italy and one each from Finland and Malta.

Covid impact ... Four of the the five games will be played in Santo Domingo. Besides the DR home game, Panama, Dominica and Barbados will play their home games at the Estadio Olimpico Felix Sanchez. The site of the Anguilla-Dominican Republic game will be the Inter Miami FC Stadium.

March 24 Dominican Republic vs. Dominica (Paramount+, 7 pm. ET)
March 25 Panama vs. Barbados, in Dominican Republic (Paramount+, Universo, 8 pm. ET)
March 27 Anguilla vs. Dominican Republic, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Paramount+, 6 pm. ET)
March 28 Dominica vs. Panama, in Dominican Republic (Paramount+, Universo, 4 pm. ET)
March 30 Barbados vs. Anguilla, in Dominican Republic (Paramount+, 7:30 pm. ET)

GROUP E.  The odds of playing all 30 Concacaf qualifiers in March without incident weren't great.

Sure enough, the Nicaraguan federation confirmed on Monday that St. Lucia won't be traveling to face Nicaragua in Managua and Thursday's game is canceled.

Concacaf has not yet announced St. Lucia's withdrawal from World Cup 2022 qualifying, but its home game against Haiti on Sunday is not expected to be played.

Watch out for ...  With uncertainty about the availability of its large contingent of European-based players, Haiti called up 29 players, including 10 who are looking for their first caps.

They include Boston-born Ashkanov Appollon, who is seeking to make his international debut at the age of 29. Appollon plays for Sacramento Republic FC, the latest stop in a pro career that has taken him to teams in Thailand, Vietnam and France.

Covid impact ...  Haiti will open against Belize on Thursday, then the remaining Group D action will move to the Estadio Panamericano in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, where the Turks & Caicos Islands and Belize will play their home games.

March 24 Nicaragua vs. St. Lucia, cancelled
March 25 Haiti vs. Belize (Paramount+, Peacock Premium 5 pm. ET)
March 27 Turks & Caicos Islands vs. Nicaragua, in Dominican Republic (Paramount+, 4:30 pm. ET)
March 28 St. Lucia vs. Haiti, to be confirmed (Peacock Premium 8 pm.)
March 30 Belize vs. Turks & Caicos Islands, in Dominican Republic

GROUP F.  It's never a dull moment with Trinidad & Tobago.

After the Soca Warriors' 7-0 loss to the USA on Jan. 31, their first match in more than a year, English coach Terry Fenwick apologized to T&T fans for agreeing to play the hastily arranged game.

Last week, Fenwick had to issue another apology. It followed an altercation with the T&T Football Association media officer Shaun Fuentes. According to local media reports, Fenwick head-butted Fuentes for allowing Wired 868 reporter Lasana Liburd to attend a press conference held on the eve of the Soca Warriors' departure to the Dominican Republic for their home opener against Guyana.

(Robert Hadad, the FIFA-appointed head of the TTFA, denied there was physical abuse, and said Fenwick and Fuentes made up.)

The next snafu: The TTFA did not realize that U.S. COVID restrictions applied to the Puerto Rico, which hosts the Soca Warriors on Sunday, and needed the intervention of T&T Olympic authorities to secure waivers last week from the U.S. government for its European-based players to travel to Puerto Rico without quarantining.

Watch out for ... Puerto Rico is coached by former U.S. national team coach Dave Sarachan. El Huracan Azul has a heavy U.S. flavor. The 25-player squad includes Isaac Angking, who played for the USA at the 2018 Concacaf under-20 Championship, and five teenagers, including 17-year-old Wilfredo Rivera, who signed a Homegrown contract with Orlando City on Monday.

SA Confidential: Dave Sarachan rapidly prepares Puerto Rico for World Cup qualifying

Covid impact ...  St. Kitts & Nevis and Trinidad & Tobago will play their home games in the Dominican Republic (San Cristobal's Estadio Panamericano), but Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Guyana are scheduled to be at home.

March 24 St. Kitts & Nevis vs. Puerto Rico, in Dominican Republic
March 25 Trinidad & Tobago vs. Guyana, in Dominican Republic (Paramount+, Peacock Premium 7 pm. ET)
March 27 Bahamas vs. St. Kitts & Nevis
March 28 Puerto Rico vs. Trinidad & Tobago (Paramount+, Peacock Premium, 5 pm. ET)
March 30 Guyana vs. Bahamas

1 comment about "Preview: Ready or not, Concacaf World Cup 2022 qualifying begins".
  1. Santiago 1314, March 22, 2021 at 10:06 p.m.

    In the Immortal words of Monty Python; "My Brain Hurts.!!!"

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