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Beyond the duopoly in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying

In December 2020, CONCACAF announced the calendar for women’s senior national teams for the upcoming cycle. There were a few significant takeaways, including a new Nations League for teams in CONCACAF which will start after the 2023 World Cup - and a new format for qualification for the 2023 Women’s World Cup. With more competitive games, more home games and more unique matchups, this is a massive improvement over the old system.

CONCACAF Women's Senior National Teams Calendar
Source: Concacaf

What was the old system?

In a word? Horrible.

There are two pre-qualifying tournaments, one for Central America and one for the Caribbean. In the Central American tournament, there are two groups of four teams of which the winners advance. In the Caribbean tournament there were two stages, the first five groups from which the winner of each advances to the Caribbean final, and then a single round-robin where the top three teams advance to the CONCACAF finals. The CONCACAF final round of qualification was a localized tournament with two groups of 4, comprising the five teams from the earlier tournaments and the USA, Canada and Mexico who received byes.

Why is this bad?

Each of those group stages was a local tournament, meaning there was a host team and the rest of the teams visited and played all their games there. This means that there are some countries who have not seen their women’s teams play a competitive (i.e. not friendly) game on home soil in an entire World Cup Cycle.

Pie chart with 22/29 showing "Zero Home Games" and 7/29 showing "At Least One Home Game"
This pie chart shows how many teams don't get a home game over a four year span

The pie chart illustrates a startling fact - that 22 of the 29 teams which competed in World Cup qualification in the 2019 cycle did not have a single home game. (They also didn’t have a home game in the 2020 Olympic qualifying cycle). These games are rarely on accessible television. How can fans of these teams support a team they don’t see? They can't.

Another major flaw is that teams within CONCACAF may never play each - other unless they are a finalist. While CONCACAF is one of the larger regions, no other region does this. There isn’t an Eastern, Central and Western Europe mini-tournament, but we have pre-qualification tournaments from the Caribbean and Central American sub-regions. This lends itself to some very familiar fixtures happening every cycle. I have probably seen Trinidad and Tobago vs Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba almost every tournament, every cycle. The same matchups typically don’t lead to growth.

CONCACAF is three sub-regions, North America, Central America and the Caribbean, the “North American” tournament for qualification is the USA, Canada, and Mexico receiving a bye to the finals. It is understandable why the USA and Canada receive byes, they are consistently within the top 10 ranked teams in the world (often top 1 for the USA), whereas Mexico does not have this luxury. If we were to take the dubious metric of FIFA ranking points, we would see that Mexico is ahead of the rest of the region but is much closer to Costa Rica than Canada and it is odd that they bypass qualifying because of geography.

Line chart showing the FIFA rankings of Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica women's senior teams from 2003 to 2020
Mexico is more comparable to Costa Rica, especially in the last five years, than Canada

Does the new system address the issues?

In a word? Hopefully.

Starting in November 2021, the revamped WCQ (World Cup qualifying) system will have 30 nations in six groups of five, where each team plays two home and away games. Every nation except for the USA and Canada would be placed into these groups, which would lead to some never before seen matchups at previously unused locations.

Optimistically, this should grow the sport. But there are many hurdles which may still exist in the new system, including countries not supporting their senior women’s teams and frequently withdrawing from tournaments. However, we can hope that the new system with less local tournaments and more home and away games can lead to better support and better competition among the teams outside of the CONCACAF duopoly of the USA and Canada. Ultimately, we'll have to wait and see.