USMNT’s path to Copa America, schedule for 2026 World Cup cycle come into focus

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 28: USMNT kicks off on 11 during the International Friendly Game between USMNT and Columbia on January 28, 2023 at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California.  (Photo by Rick Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The new CONCACAF Nations League format benefits the USMNT ahead of the 2026 World Cup. (Photo by Rick Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The US men’s national team will only need to win one of two playoffs against lesser-ranked regional opponents to qualify for the 2024 America’s Cup, its real potential litmus test ahead of the 2026 World Cup.

This is one of several takeaways from a wide-ranging announcement Tuesday by CONCACAF, North and Central America’s football governing body, that outlined new formats and qualifying procedures for most men’s international competitions over the next three-plus years.

The formats and calendar were approved by the CONCACAF Council at the confederation’s annual congress last week. And together they represent a blueprint for the USMNT path to 2026.

How the new format of the League of Nations affects the Copa America

For the USMNT, Canada and Mexico, the most significant adjustment is with the CONCACAF League of Nations, which in 2023-24 will qualify for that summer’s America’s Cup, a 16-team extravaganza that will feature 10 South American men’s national teams and six competitors. CONCACAF in the USA.

Starting this fall, instead of four matches in the Nations League group stage, the top four men’s teams in CONCACAF are currently USA, Mexico, Costa Rica and Canada – we will live to a new quarter-final round.

There, in November, they will each play a two-leg home-to-home play-off against a lower-ranked team that will earn their quarter-final spot in group play.

The winner of these playoffs will advance to the semi-finals of the Nations League, and in 2024 to the America’s Cup. The losers will advance to the second chance bracket, where they will face another loser in the quarter-finals in a one-game play-off, with the last two places in the America’s Cup on the line.

What does this mean for the USMNT and Mexico?

The new format benefits USMNT and Mexico in two different ways:

  1. Their path to the America’s Cup will be forgiving. Their home and away playoffs will most likely be against teams in the Panama-Honduras-Jamaica range. And even if they lose – on aggregate of two legs – they will have another chance, most likely against an equally weak opponent.

  2. They now have open windows in September and October to schedule friendly matches.

Two sources told Sportzshala Sports that US Soccer and its Mexican counterpart FMF pushed for this scheduling flexibility. They wanted open dates for high-profile friendly matches against non-CONCACAF opponents. The previous World Cup cycle offered relatively few such opportunities. This one will offer more. (However, European teams will be mostly busy with Euro qualification, their own Nations League and World Cup qualification.)

To fill these open windows, US Soccer also reportedly held preliminary talks with Argentina and Brazil. Whether or not these particular games materialize, USMNT now has four open dates this year – roughly September 8 and 12 and October 13 and 17.

What are the other elements of the new League of Nations format?

Below the first four – which are determined by the March CONCACAF ranking; The US and Mexico are guaranteed to remain the top two with 12 other teams filling out League A in two groups of six.

They will each play four games, two at home and two away, in September and October. Groups will follow the so-called “swiss format» is an incomplete round robin tournament. The top two teams from each group will advance to the November quarter-finals to join the four bye teams.

How will the qualification for the 2026 World Cup in CONCACAF?

With the US, Canada and Mexico automatically qualifying for the 2026 World Cup as co-hosts, CONCACAF has developed a one-off format to select the remaining qualifiers for an extended field of 48 teams.

In the first round, two play-offs between the four lowest ranked teams will reduce the remaining 32 World Cup participants to 30.

In the second round, these 30 players will be divided into six groups of five. Each group of five teams will go through a round robin. After four games, the top two in each group will advance to the final round of 12 teams.

In the third round, these 12 teams will be divided into three groups of four. These will be double round robin tournaments and each group winner will advance to the World Championship. The top two runners-up – in points and, if necessary, in tie-breaks – will qualify for the Intercontinental Playoffs. (CONCACAF will have a minimum of six teams in the tournament and a maximum of eight.)

What is the USMNT schedule until 2026?

With no qualifiers, but with two nations leagues, two gold cups and an America’s Cup, the USMNT calendar seems finely balanced between regional competition and potential international flavor.

US Soccer may attempt to organize or take part in unofficial tournaments rather than one-off friendlies. It could also be left with empty windows if the USMNT fails to qualify for the Nations League Final or the America’s Cup. But for now, taking into account qualifications, the next 3.5 years of the team look like this:

March 2023: Nations League group stage (in Grenada, against El Salvador)

June 2023: Nations League Final
June-July 2023: golden cup

September 2023: Friendly matches
October 2023: Friendly matches
November 2023: Nations League quarter-finals

March 2024: Nations League Final OR Copa América Qualifier Playoffs

June-July 2024: America’s Cup

September 2024: Friendly matches
October 2024: Friendly matches
November 2024: Nations League quarter-finals

March 2025: Nations League Final

June-July 2025: golden cup

September 2025: Friendly matches
October 2025: Friendly matches
November 2025: Friendly matches

March 2026: Friendly matches

June-July 2026: world Cup


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