CONCACAF Expansion: How Much Could Change?

Posted on April 20, 2013 7:04 pm

Back in February, on the eve of the Hexagonal, I briefly addressed news from the previous week involving a meeting between CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb and the Francophone associate members. Unsurprisingly, the representatives from the latter voiced their interest in becoming full members of both CONCACAF and FIFA; importantly, the French Football Federation also expressed its approval and willingness to aid the process.

The result of their efforts played a clear second fiddle to the revelation of multiple instances of fraud, deception and outright embezzlement under the Jack Warner/Chuck Blazer administration in yesterday’s Ordinary Congress in Panama City, as well as the election of US Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati to the FIFA Executive Committee. In the official summary, though, CONCACAF also noted that the French overseas departments, along with Sint Maarten, had all been promoted to “full member” status, while the island of Bonaire joined as an associate member. Assuming no last-minute surprise objections from France or the Netherlands, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, Saint-Martin and Sint Maarten will be approved as FIFA members at the May 30 Congress in Mauritius, raising the number of CONCACAF members eligible to participate in World Cup qualifying to 40.

These developments are hardly expected to immediately impact the main competitions in our region, as associate members have always retained the right to enter qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League and the Gold Cup. As for World Cup qualifying, assuming no alterations in the format for the 2018 finals in Russia, the newcomers could be incorporated by simply expanding the first round to 20 teams. The likes of Nicaragua would probably not be thrilled to get dragged down into the early home-and-away playoffs; and if the Francophone members climb their way up the FIFA rankings through strong performances in the 2014 Caribbean Cup (and perhaps the 2015 Gold Cup), the US Virgin Islands and Dominica could face an uphill struggle just to match their elementary-round appearances from two years ago.

But what if the format has to change? With FIFA President Sepp Blatter in attendance yesterday, reporters made sure to inquire as to the possibility of CONCACAF gaining a fourth automatic berth in the World Cup finals. While avoiding any premature promises, Blatter did confirm that the issue would be resolved in the next year; given the anticipated increase in representation in the FIFA Congress, Webb will consider himself entitled to demand World Cup spots for at least 10 percent of his confederation, just as every other one (save Oceania) enjoys.

The number of overall World Cup berths is unlike to change anytime soon, though…nor should it: a 32-team tournament allows for a direct and simple elimination process, and the quality of the teams missing out does not warrant an expansion. With requests for extra World Cup spots thus taking place in a zero-sum context, which confederation could reasonably give up a half-spot in CONCACAF’s favor? From a competitive and political standpoint, there is absolutely no basis for demanding anything from UEFA or CONMEBOL; the OFC only has 0.5 spots to call its own; and with over 50 members in FIFA, the CAF is unlikely to face any opposition to retaining five spots.

That just leaves the AFC, whose 4.5 spots are difficult to justify. Since it gained an extra place for the 2002 World Cup on home soil, it has regularly sent at least one outright whipping boy to each finals (China and Saudi Arabia in 2002, Saudi Arabia in 2006 and North Korea in 2010), and the fifth-place team from Asian qualifying has not won a single Intercontinental Playoff in the last decade (including Bahrain getting eliminated 2-1 on aggregate by Trinidad and Tobago in 2005). Perhaps the strongest case that Webb could make before FIFA is that CONCACAF and the AFC should both have four spots.

Besides condemning the OFC winners to permanent playoffs with a CONMEBOL team (I’m sure Australia could share plenty of horror stories with their Kiwi brethren of trips to Uruguay), CONCACAF gaining four spots for Russia 2018 would also necessitate a new qualifying competition, since the Hexagonal would be rendered obsolete with more than half of the participants qualifying directly for the Finals. Based on the proposal drawn up by Blazer ahead of the failed effort to negotiate an extra automatic berth for Brazil 2014, I foresee one of two formats being adopted if Webb and General Secretary Enrique Sanz are more successful.

1. CONCACAF could simply take up the Blazer model (minus the name) with the following stages.

First round – The lowest 16 teams (based on FIFA ranking) get paired up for home-and-away playoffs.

Second round – The eight first-round survivors and the 24 participants with a first-round bye get drawn into eight groups of four; top two in each group move on.

Third round – The 16 survivors get drawn into four groups of four; top two in each group move on.

Final round – The eight survivors get drawn into two groups of four; top two in each group qualify for the World Cup finals.

2. In order to avoid having Mexico pound on the likes of Aruba and the Turks and Caicos Islands, CONCACAF could introduce multiple expansions to the current format.

First round – The lowest 32 teams (based on FIFA ranking) get drawn into eight groups of four; only the group winners move on.

Second round – The eight survivors and the remaining eight participants with a first-round bye get drawn into four groups of four; top two in each group move on.

Final round – The eight survivors get drawn into two groups of four; top two in each group qualify for the World Cup finals.

In short, while the introduction of five new full members in CONCACAF and FIFA will not significantly alter the competitive balance of power in continental (or CFU) tournaments, their presence in FIFA may provide the necessary backing for our region to obtain a fourth automatic spot in future World Cup finals. As CONCACAF revealed in 2011, though, the Hex’s demise would be an immediate consequence of such a political conquest. We have been warned.

Lastly, another Central American Apertura winner could grab a top seed in the next Champions League this evening.

Down in Guatemala, Comunicaciones took advantage of the irregular start to the Clausura regular season for archrivals Municipal and 2012-13 CCL quarterfinalists Xelaju to build up a significant lead in the full-year table; and heading into this weekend, only Heredia could catch up to them, with 60 points to 78 for the cremas with seven matches left. At the time of writing, Heredia have just rescued a 2-2 draw against Universidad San Carlos; thus, they would only be able to reach a maximum of 79 points. The assignment for Comunicaciones, then, is simple: all they have to do is defeat Suchitepequez at home at 8:00 p.m. (all times EDT), and they will enter the next CCL as the head of their group. Then again, with only two points needed from the next seven games, Comunicaciones claiming the GUA1 berth appears a matter of when rather than if.

CCL 2013-14 Qualifiers

1. Sporting Kansas City [USA4]
2. San Jose Earthquakes [USA2]
3. Houston Dynamo [USA3]
4. LA Galaxy [USA1]
5. Toluca FC [MEX2 or MEX3]
6. Club Tijuana [MEX1]
7. Árabe Unido [PAN1 or PAN2]
8. Isidro Metapán [SLV1 or SLV2]
9. Olimpia [HON1]
10. Comunicaciones [GUA1 or GUA2]
11. LD Alajuelense [CRC1 or CRC2]
12. Real Estelí [NCA]
13. Belmopan Bandits [BLZ] *

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