Over the past two decades, soccer fans across North and Central America and the Caribbean have grown quite familiar with CONCACAF's format for World Cup qualifying – but that deck could soon be dramatically reshuffled.
Speaking to the Associated Press in London for a piece published on Sunday, confederation president Victor Montagliani revealed that he has ordered a wholesale review of the current qualifying process, wherein only 6 of the region's 35 member nations are still in contention for Russia 2018 despite that event still being nearly two years away.
“Something needs to change because you can't have 85 percent of your members who are on the outside looking in two years before the World Cup,” Montagliani told the AP's Rob Harris. “It doesn't make sense.”
“So we seriously need to look at our World Cup qualifying system, that is a bit archaic. We need to be a bit more all-encompassing. We're looking at how we balance competitions with our commercial [priorities], without putting too much stress on already-too-busy calendars as well."
Under the current format, which dates back to the 1998 cycle, smaller CONCACAF nations take part in three rounds of two-legged home-and-away matchups, with the survivors joined by heavyweights like the United States and Mexico in a 12-team fourth round consisting of three groups of four.
The top two teams from each group advance to the fifth and final, or “Hexagonal,” round, where six teams play one another home and away over the course of a year. The top three finishers in that final round will qualify automatically for Russia, while the fourth-place finisher will take part in an two-legged intercontinental playoff vs. the fifth-place finisher from the final round of Asia's qualifying process.
The 2017/18 edition of the Hex kicks off next month and features the US, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.
“It's great for those six teams over the next year and a bit, but how about the other ones?” said Montagliani, noting the particular challenges facing smaller nations in need of more international games and financial support. “It's hard.
“Can you imagine you are a country trying to find a sponsor and they say, 'I'm all for it, when's your next big game?' And it's three years from now.”
A Canadian who has served as president of his country's association since 2012, Montagliani said CONCACAF would compare a range of options, like the two-year-long, round-robin league format used in CONMEBOL and the UEFA system of nine seeded groups followed by two-legged playoffs for the best runners-up.
“Maybe it's like the Europeans or maybe it's like the South Americans with a league – or it's a hybrid of the two,” he said.
Montagliani also hinted at significant changes to the CONCACAF Champions League, the region's top club competition.
“The Champions League is a real opportunity for us to grow that product because when you look at the latter stages of it, it's quite good, really well attended and great TV audiences,” he said. “But the early stages are poor, not well attended and maybe not the best stadiums.
“So I think we need to rejig that so it really becomes an impactful event both for television and our fans and on the technical side so it is quality all the way through — from the group stage to the final.”