Concacaf’s final round of 2022 World Cup qualifying fell into place on Tuesday night, and before the schedules had even been finalized, a bigger party already seemed like a better party.

Farewell, Hexagonal. You’ll be missed, but maybe not as much we thought. The Octagonal looks like loads of fun.

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For decades, the sacred (and occasionally profane) rhythms of a six-team round robin reigned around these parts. "The Hex" was demanding, sturdy – perhaps here I should refer you back to Houston Dynamo FC’s crest explainer – and about as balanced as it gets in the sharks-and-minnows world of Concacaf. The top half survived and advanced, and as easy as that might sound, it tripped up one North American giant in its last edition and very nearly claimed the other the cycle before that.

This time around we have "The Ocho." And it looks to be every bit as challenging as its forebear – probably more so, given that we’re about to squeeze a year-plus process into barely seven months – with six more or less usual suspects and some extra spice from the welcome inclusion of two participants who haven’t been involved in quite some time.

The Canada men's soccer renaissance is being well documented by this and other outlets, and it’s at last propelled them back into the final phase of WCQ for the first time in nearly a quarter-century. Now that they’ve navigated the narrow, nervy path of the first two rounds, a golden generation of talent and potentially chilling home-field advantage in a predominantly winter calendar should push some northern wind into their sails. Les Rouges are suddenly a menacing obstacle for the rest of the field to contemplate.

El Salvador are a small but proud footballing nation finally clambering back to this stage after a decade-long drought, and a US men’s national team legend, Hugo Perez, leads Los Cuscatlecos’ charge. They flash skill and steel beyond their size and hold the potential to turn steamy San Salvador into a tricky road trip for all seven of their Ocho counterparts.

Meanwhile Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States are ever-presents in the final round, providing ample sample size of their considerable strengths and likeliest vulnerabilities. All three will be favored in most, if not all, of their Ocho matches – on paper, at least – though none are immune from getting ambushed away from home.

Despite no small set of disadvantages, Honduras have just about proven their bona fides for that upper crust with the cultivation of their fierce, disruptive persona. They’re back again, and so are Panama, who reached their inaugural World Cup three years ago via a highly comparable blueprint. Blessed with potential (how about that dual-national-heavy player pool!) but prone to underachievement, Jamaica will carry the Caribbean flag for just the third time this century. All three will rely on MLS regulars to contribute.

Producing a more inclusive and compelling framework for qualification wasn’t necessarily Concacaf’s master plan, mind you. The current format is a consequence of multiple pandemic-imposed delays, with the confederation stating a year ago that "the challenges presented by postponements to the football calendar, and the incomplete FIFA rankings cycle in our confederation, means our current World Cup qualifying process has been compromised and will be changed."

That’s also the root of Ocho’s main drawback: The exhausting calendar that it imposes on the bodies and souls of the players. With 14 pressure-packed matches per team shoehorned into just five international windows, four of them featuring three games each per team, this figures to be a particularly brutal sprint towards Qatar.

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That’s due in part to the powers that be further up the chain, who first shifted to an unprecedented November-December tournament to sidestep the Gulf state’s searing summer heat, then for some reason declined to countenance pushing back that already-adjusted event despite the obvious knock-on effects from so much qualifying time lost to COVID.

The result is a compacted schedule that will reward depth – encouraging news for MLS’s two home associations – and savvy management of squads’ fitness and rest levels. So let’s all give the players a break, both literally and figuratively, and take care to appreciate their passion and commitment as they chase one of the biggest prizes of their footballing lives.

And of course, all this is a fleeting scenario as the specter of an expanded World Cup looms in 2026, which figures to transform this process all over again, and almost certainly save North American co-hosts Canada, Mexico and the USA the chore of qualification. So live for today and enjoy the Ocho, because its days look numbered.

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