I do not tend to feel, personally, that I have the credibility to attack people for being creatures of habit. Every week, I go into the grocery store and buy basically the same food to eat at work for snacks and lunch. I go out to eat at restaurants so regularly that it is my goal that the people at those restaurants can remember my order without my having to say it, and much of the time that is not an unreasonable expectation. As a person whose life fairly often follows patterns and habits, it is little surprise that I wound find it interesting that even in a year as crazy as 2020 has been for the world of sports that North America’s regional qualification system for the World Cup would remain as unchanged as possible even in the face of such massive change as the year has provided. Instead of the usual hexagonal, this year’s world cup qualification has been changed only slightly to the octagonal. Let us explore why it is that these shapes remain so important for this region and why it is that more drastic changes were not made.
For those who do not know, there are six continental confederations that together make up FIFA, which governs (however effectively) soccer as a whole. In terms of its prestige, CONCACAF ranks towards the bottom of the middle tier of the confederations. Europe is obviously at the top, and then South America, Asia, Africa, and North America are similar to each other in overall prestige, and Oceania ranks at the bottom without a guaranteed World Cup spot at all, having to qualify through a playoff system against a team from Asia, North, or South America . Each of the confederations has a particular pattern when it comes to qualification. One confederation, South America’s CONMEBOL, uses a home and away format for all of the teams in its confederation, in which 4 qualify directly for the World Cup finals and the fifth joins the continental playoff, potentially allowing half of its teams to qualify for the World Cup final. This is a demonstration of the continent’s overall strength and the fact that in any given year most of its teams have a good chance of fighting for a World Cup spot. Most continents use one or more rounds of group play, perhaps with some playoff rounds included as well to winnow out teams. North America, though, is unique in having a geometric shape as its last round where all of the continent’s powers fight it out for supremacy and for those important World Cup spots.
There are at least a few reasons why the competition has usually been a hexagonal and why it is an octagonal for this round of the World Cup. Generally, the region sends 3 or 4 teams to the World Cup finals (as is the case this year) and so it would make sense that the region would want a competition that allowed roughly half of its teams to succeed. Unlike South America, though, there is a wide variance in the quality of teams from top to bottom, and a fairly large number of teams overall, 35, which means that group play alone would not suffice to provide the requisite number of bids. Rather than doing a playoff where the US and Mexico might have to play each other for a single World Cup spot while Honduras and Canada played together for another spot, which would be universally agreed as an unfair potential outcome, there has always been a multi-tiered system by which the minnows, those lower-ranked teams, played each other and only the best teams from the lower ranked ones ended up playing the higher ranked teams. And so it is here, where the bottom 30 teams of the region are scheduled to play each other in six groups, and then there will be playoffs between the winners of those groups, with those three winners joining the top five teams in a 14-team tournament to decide who will get to go to the World Cup in Qatar in 2022. The five teams with guaranteed places are Mexico (ranked #11 in the world as of July 2020), the United States (ranked #22), Costa Rica (ranked #46), Jamaica (ranked #48), and Honduras (ranked #62). For the remaining 30 teams there is a wide spread in terms of their world rankings, with El Salvador (69), Canada (73), Curaçao (80), Panama (81), and Haiti (86) ranked in the top 100 and Aruba (200), the Turks and Caicos Islands (203), US. Virgin Islands (207), British Virgin Islands (208), and Anguila (210) ranked 200 or below.
Given the overall state of the region as a whole, it is not surprising at all that all of the continent’s finals from 1998 to 2018 were done via the hexagonal. What determines the shape of the region’s qualifying is the relationship between the number of teams in the region and the number of spots it send to the World Cup. Given that the region is scheduled to increase its number of WC spots to 6 in 2026 and beyond, that will likely change the shape of qualifying in the future. It is instructive to note that like many regions, North America used to have a series of small groups with individual playoff rounds to decide the qualification for the World Cup in 1994 and before, back when the region only had a single guaranteed spot. It is when the region got 3.5 spots that the hexagonal was viewed as a fair means of deciding among the best teams which would end up at the World Cup and by and large it is a format that has worked well to give the best teams a chance to increase their rankings by playing each other and not diluting their strength (and risking shocking setbacks) by having to play home and away games in obscure places against teams that were not very good. It is unclear in the future whether the change to give the region more spots will lead to a chance in design to make North America’s World Cup qualifying similar to that of Africa’s or Europe’s. In those federations, there are enough spots so that the winner of each group can gain a guaranteed spot in the World Cup, and with six spots, one could have five groups of six and one group of five with the winner of each group guaranteed a WC final spot where teams like Mexico, the USA, and Costa Rica would be favorites every time to go to the World Cup with room to spare, and a team like El Salvador or Canada would have a fighting chance to go to the World Cup depending on those last couple of games`. Time will tell, though.
In the meantime, though, we have an octagonal rather than a hexagonal, and for very straightforward reasons. For one, the Coronavirus scare has made it impossible to play any games during the spring and summer, and the next World Cup qualifying games are scheduled for early October in Africa and North and South America. This compression in schedule has meant that the previous lengthier qualifying process of four rounds was simply too long and there was only enough time for three rounds. This led to the decision to do a group for the first round, a home and away playoff for the second round, and the reasonable means of having eight teams play 14 games for 3 or 4 spots in the World Cup in a third round. And while that is not the trusty and traditional hexagonal, it is certainly a similar shape that responds to the general level of quality within North America as a whole. It should be noted as well that North America is the only region that appears to have required a change in its format, as the other continents still have enough time to run their traditional groups, and Asia had already begun their multi-round group qualifying format and simply delayed the last few games while their nations reached herd immunity. And so it was that North America was left as the only region which had to change its habits, but only changed them slightly as people are wont to do.
 It should be noted that the statements about qualifying only apply for 2022. The 2026 World Cup will have more teams, 48, and Oceania will, for the first time ever, be guaranteed one place in the final.