You can almost set your watch by it: The twice-revised Concacaf World Cup 2022 Qualifying system has been drawn, which means it's time for our far-too-soon prediction of which teams will capture a golden ticket.
A lot can happen between now and next June, when the final-round teams will enter the Octagon (yep, no Hexagonal this time) to battle for three World Cup berths and one place in the last-chance inter-continental playoff. Players can get injured, other players can emerge and yet others can fall out of form. Heck, it's a fool's game just to predict how the line-up cards will fill out once the final round begins ... but when did we ever let such things stop us?
Before we start blowing your minds with prescience, check out full layout of the new qualifying set-up so you can follow along with the structure of the picks. Take a look at the first-round groups/standings, too
Before we even consider calling World Cup places, there are two preliminary rounds to cover. The first round is heavily populated by Concacaf's truest minnows, so I wouldn't expect a great deal of upset surprises.
El Salvador got a friendly Group A draw, and they should advance to the second round. Though they could be pushed by the upstarts from Bermuda, Canada are both the clear Group B favorites and the pick here. While some may favor Guatemala to move on to the second round, Curacao are easily the best team from Group C in my book. The last three groups may be the easiest picks of all, with Panama (Group D), Haiti (Group E) and Trinidad & Tobago (Group F) standing head and shoulders above a gaggle of Concacaf mites.
Well, that was easy enough!
It gets a little trickier to make calls with the six group winners locking horns for three spots in the final round. But, honestly, only a little.
I'll take Canada over Haiti and Trinidad & Tobago over El Salvador most any day of the week, but the Group C vs. D matchup between Curacao and Panama is a proper head-scratcher. As the Canal Men are growing a bit long in the tooth, I'm going to take the Dutch-tinged climbers from Curacao to move on
Finally, we reach the big dance. I could actually make convincing arguments for seven of the eight teams left in this scenario, so the easy pickings are all gone now.
Let's start with the one team whose chances I'm already discounting. Due to their aging defense, relatively green midfield and "meh" strike stable, I'm thinking Honduras will prop up the final round table. That brings us down to seven contenders, which barely helps with the degree of difficulty.
On the other end of the spectrum, there would need to be a spectacular set of events for Tata Martino's Mexico side to miss out. And yes, the same goes for the US men’s national team, who learned a lesson for the ages the last time around on this ride. That's not going to happen again, at least not for a while, and not solely because of several promising newcomers to the senior pool. Soul-crushing embarrassment tends to be a worthy deterrent to failure.
Here comes the hardest part of all: tabbing the third team that gets the invite straight into the World Cup field and the one that must tackle a drawn opponent (from either Asia, Oceania or South America) in the playoff round.
If you asked me everyday from Monday to Friday, you might get five different predictions. It's that tough to call. Let's just quickly sort through the remaining five teams to see what's what in a race that only two can survive.
Canada is a team on the rise, and they're not even close to done ascending. The backline represents their big vulnerability (especially on the left side when Alphonso Davies plays up the wing), but they'll often be rescued by functionality in midfield and quality in attack.
Costa Rica have been as near a sure thing as Mexico in recent years, but the squad is aging. Having Keylor Navas in goal can cover a lot of these issues, but maybe not enough of them.
Curacao have pace, teamwork, solid squad balance and a lot of savvy on the field. As impressive as they were at last year's Gold Cup, that run came without their best winger (Brandley Kuwas). This Cinderella side actually has another gear.
Jamaica went through some rough patches in the 2000s and early 2010's, but they've rallied steadily over the last five years. The combination of in-form backstop Andre Blake, a solid veteran backline, unnerving team speed and burgeoning match-winners like Leon Bailey and Shamar Nicholson means the Reggae Boyz should be feared by all in the region.
Finally, we have Trinidad & Tobago, who we all know have just enough talent and experience in the clubhouse to spring a timely, unwelcome surprise. That said, like Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama, the Soca Warriors are entering a bit of a rebuilding phase. I don't love their chances in qualifying.
Now that we've weighed up all the contenders, let's see how the big quadrennial Concacaf battle royale will shake out in my view.
Predicted third round standings
- United States
- Costa Rica
- Trinidad & Tobago
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go hide from all the Costa Rica and Honduras fans.