Should CONCACAF persist with the W Championship format?

MONTERREY, Mexico — It was 16 games in 15 days. One host city, two stadiums.

The parameters of the CONCACAF W Championship 2022 seem familiar. A top-heavy region known for having two global heavyweights — and then everyone else — has long held short, four-yearly qualifiers for the World Cup and Olympics. There’s a catch this time: double jeopardy.

Canada and the United States each qualified for the 2023 World Cup by reaching the semifinals of the tournament in Monterrey, but only the winner of Monday’s final will secure a spot at the Paris 2024 Olympics. The loser will wait a year before going into a playoff against the winner of Monday’s third place match, either Costa Rica or Jamaica (both already World Cup qualifiers).

“I think it’s a double-edged sword,” Canada head coach Bev Priestman said this week. “For players, for coaches, the stakes are high.”

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A Canada-USWNT final is almost inevitable when both teams are in the tournament. When World Cup and Olympic qualifiers are split, the final is a formality to show off as both teams are already qualified. Monday’s Tournament Championship at least means something, but the judges aren’t sure if that’s a better tournament format.

The grouping of World Cup and Olympic qualifiers puts CONCACAF in line with other parts of the world – and that’s not necessarily a positive thing. In Europe, Olympic qualification is determined by placement in the previous World Championship. CONMEBOL (South America) has long grouped World Cup and Olympic qualifiers based on placement at the Copa America, also taking place this month.

Europe’s position has more to do with a packed schedule with already significant games. Held every four years, the UEFA Women’s Euros (stream games now on ESPN+) is the biggest continental competition in the world. UEFA has been running qualifiers for both the Euros and the World Cup for many years.

In other regions, on the other hand, the combined qualifying competition creates dormant women’s teams whose associations hardly invest in them. Ecuador, for example, took part in their first Women’s World Cup in 2015. The team lost all three games there, then went almost three years without an official game and reunited ahead of the 2018 Copa America, which doubled as World Cup and Olympic qualifiers. They lost every game at that tournament, finishing with a goal difference of -13 in four games.

CONCACAF proactively tried to combat this problem and encourage its smaller member nations to invest in their women’s teams and stay active by setting up new non-qualifying competitions. A Nations League like the men’s competition is scheduled to begin in September 2023 and a first Gold Cup will be held in the summer of 2024.

CONCACAF, when announcing the sweeping calendar changes last year, said they will “double the number of official matches played by the women’s senior team compared to the previous cycle”.

In theory, this creates more meaningful games for programs ranging from those who have never qualified for the finals of a CONCACAF event, to Jamaica and Costa Rica, teams who have now qualified for multiple World Cups and hope USA to better be able to challenge Canada in the future.

Creating those opportunities is positive, but the contrast between the progress made towards pre-qualification and CONCACAF’s doubling to the two-week finals is confusing. Despite all the attempted hype about the region’s most important competition, the USA and Canada qualified for the World Cup with two wins each. Tournament hosts Mexico, after some impressive results in friendlies (including a win against Canada) last year and victories in pre-qualification, saw their World Cup hopes for a second straight cycle in three games scuppered in the closing stages.

Combine all of that with embarrassing crowds (save for the 20,000 fans for USWNT-Mexico) throughout the tournament for the undermarketed competition — one that’s also being held in a city suffering from a severe drought that led to local water shortages – and the whole tournament was disappointing. Acting as Olympic qualifiers, Monday’s final and third-place games are intentionally generating some interest.

“Personally, I don’t like the format,” said Jamaica coach Lorne Donaldson. “But again, that’s what we have. Everyone has to play through the same rules and the same tournament. The deeper your bench or squad, the better off you are in a tournament like this. [Canada and the U.S.] have done well and they have a very extensive list but we need to try to come in and take some and see if we can drop someone off.”

The big question is whether there will ever be a proper, balanced qualification plan for women. The men’s World Cup expansion will undermine the drama of “The Hex” – the final round of six-team, ten-game World Cup qualifiers in which each team played the other five once at home and once away. That has already expanded to eight teams. The format provided drama on every matchday, including in back-to-back cycles when Mexico barely qualified for the intercontinental playoffs on the final day (for the 2014 World Cup) and the United States was eliminated entirely on the final day of the World Cup in the subsequent qualifying session.

Just as FIFA expands the men’s World Cup to 48 teams in 2026, expanding the women’s World Cup to 32 teams next year means six of the eight regional finalists will keep World Cup hopes alive from the CONCACAF W Championship. It’s difficult to find a format that would make this dramatic, but there are options that would allow any nation to host finals games and have greater hopes for a longer period of time.

For better or worse, each CONCACAF nation offers unique challenges that make playing there difficult for visiting teams. From a flooded field in Trinidad to a noisy crowd in Mexico to hotel alarms going off in the middle of the night in Honduras – these are all stories told on the men’s side – life on the streets is fraught with serious challenges connected that can test the mental toughness of even the best teams.

Canada and the US – especially as more professional teams with resources like home cooks – just don’t face that kind of adversity in big games. Not until the World Cup or the Olympics themselves.

How would the USA have dealt with early pressure from Haiti in the first game when the Americans almost conceded three times in the first half playing to a full house in Port-au-Prince? How much harder would it have been for the USA to beat an organized Costa Rica side in a competitive game if the Americans couldn’t communicate in Saprissa? And how much better would it be for everyone from USA gaining valuable experience in adversity to challenger nations’ growing interest in their women’s teams?

“It’s absolutely crucial to have games like this,” said US captain Becky Sauerbrunn after Monday’s narrow 1-0 win over Mexico, recalling the US defeat by Mexico in Cancun 12 years ago that almost led to it would have that world No. 1 would have missed the 2011 World Cup.

“It’s really difficult to repeat these types of games with this type of crowd in front of your home crowd.”

US head coach Vlatko Andonovski parried earlier in the tournament when asked about the format. On the eve of the semifinals, Priestman said she sees both sides but embraced the added pressure.

“For me personally and for this group, it’s probably the reach that we want,” Priestman said. “I think setting the bar high and striving for it is something that the best players in the world want to do. So I think it’s important to have both on the line. I think that kind of safety net if you don’t finish this tournament first to then qualify is great too. What you’re seeing in this tournament is the gap closing. This makes it even more difficult and there is even more at stake.

“There are pros and cons but I think everyone knew what they were getting into and we’re here to make sure we get to those Olympics.”

Canada’s star Christine Sinclair, the world’s top scorer, echoed much of what her coach said about the tournament format before ending with a laugh: “We’ll see if we win then we’ll love it.” Should CONCACAF persist with the W Championship format?

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