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CONCACAF unveils 2026 World Cup qualifying format with co-host Canada on sidelines

Three co-hosts will qualify automatically for the expanded 48-team field
Canada players celebrate their win following second half CONCACAF World Cup soccer qualifying action against Jamaica, in Toronto on Sunday, March 27, 2022. Qualifying in the CONCACAF region for the 2026 World Cup will kick off in March 2024 with co-hosts Canada, the U.S. and Mexico watching from the sidelines. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Qualifying in the CONCACAF region for the 2026 World Cup will kick off in March 2024 with co-hosts Canada, the U.S. and Mexico watching from the sidelines.

FIFA confirmed earlier this month that the three co-hosts will qualify automatically for the expanded 48-team field at the men’s soccer showcase.

On Tuesday, CONCACAF laid out the qualifying road map covering its remaining 32 FIFA-affiliated member associations. CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, actually has 41 member associations but only 35 are FIFA members.

FIFA has said CONCACAF could have up to eight teams at the 2026 tournament, with a further three direct qualification berths and two more possible berths via intercontinental playoffs.

As co-host, Canada will be free to set its pre-tournament schedule of friendlies.

CONCACAF sent four teams to the 32-team World Cup in Qatar last year. Canada, Mexico and the U.S. advanced by finishing in the top three of the eight-country final qualifying round-robin while fourth-place Costa Rica beat Oceania’s New Zealand in a playoff to join them.

The first round of qualifying will feature the four lowest-ranked teams in the region (based on the November 2023 FIFA rankings), with the highest-ranked team taking on the lowest-ranked country and the second-highest versus third-highest in home-and-away matches in the FIFA match window of March 2024.

The two winners advance to the second round, joining 28 other teams from the confederation. The 30 teams will be split into six groups of five teams for round-robin play in June 2024 and June 2025 with each country playing four games.

The six group winners and runners-up advance to the final round, which consist of three groups of four teams. After round-robin play that will see each team play six games in the fall of 2025, the three group winners will book their tickets to the 2026 World Cup, joining Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.

The two best second-place finishers will qualify for intercontinental playoffs.

CONCACAF also announced Tuesday that it is revamping the format for the 2023-24 edition of the Nations League, which is set to start in September. The new format will determine CONCACAF’s six entries in the 2024 Copa America.

The 41 teams in the region will be assigned to League A, B, and C depending on results of the previous Nations League.

League A and B will each feature 16 teams (with Group B increasing in size from 12 teams) with nine in League C.

For League A group stage play, the 12 lowest-ranked teams (based on the March 2023 CONCACAF rankings) will be split into two groups of six teams with each team playing a total of four games (two home and two away).

The top two teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals, where they will join the four top-ranked teams (based on the CONCACAF rankings as of March 2023).

The new quarterfinal round will feature a home-and-away format, with the aggregate winners moving on to the Nations League finals. And for the 2023-24 edition of the tournament, the quarterfinal winners will qualify for the 2024 Copa America.

Two more CONCACAF teams will join them at Copa America via a play-in — single-elimination matches between the four League A losing quarterfinalists to be played in March 2024 at a centralized venue.

The 2024 Copa America will be played in the United States in the summer with 10 teams from CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, and six CONCACAF teams.

League B’s Nations League format remains the same with the 16 teams divided into four groups of four teams. League C will feature nine teams divided into three groups of three.

CONCACAF says there will be promotion but no relegation in the current edition of the Nations League, due to the new format starting in 2023-24 that involves expansion of League A.

Promotion and relegation will resume at the conclusion of the 2023-24 Nations League, which will take place during FIFA Match windows in September, October, and November 2023, followed by the finals in March 2024.

The official draw for the competition’s third edition is scheduled for May 16.

The 2024-25 Nations League will serve as qualifying for the 2025 Gold Cup.

The Nations League was introduced in 2018 with the U.S. the inaugural winner, defeating Mexico in the June 2021 final in Denver.

The second edition of the tournament is underway with Canada due to visit Curaçao on March 26 before hosting Honduras in Toronto three days later in League A Group C play.

The four League A group winners will advance to the 2022-23 finals, to be played in June. The Nations League will also determine the 24 teams that qualify for the 2023 Gold Cup preliminary and group stage.

CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani, a Vancouver native, called the revamped formats and competitions “a tremendous platform” for men’s national teams in the region.

As part of the recent CONCACAF-CONMEBOL agreement, CONCACAF has invited the top four CONMEBOL women’s national teams to participate in the 2024 CONCACAF W Gold Cup, a new 12-team tournament.

The two CONCACAF teams that will participate in the 2024 Summer Olympics (the U.S. and Jamaica or Canada) will qualify directly for the 2024 CONCACAF W Gold Cup. The remaining six CONCACAF teams will qualify through the 2023 Road to CONCACAF W Gold Cup.

The four guest CONMEBOL teams to participate were determined based on the results of the 2022 Women’s Copa America: Brazil (champion) Colombia (runner-up), Argentina (third place) and Paraguay (fourth place).

—Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press