MIAMI (AP)Thirty-two Central American and Caribbean nations will start qualifying matches for the 2026 World Cup in March 2024 as part of a competition in which teams will play up to 12 matches to reach the tournament.
The United States, Mexico and Canada receive automatic berths as co-hosts of the World Cup, to be played in June and July 2026. The number of possible matches was reduced from the 20 Canada played to reach last year’s tournament in Qatar.
The Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Association Football said Tuesday that qualifying will start with a first round in March 2024 involving the four lowest teams in the FIFA rankings as of November 2023, who will play a home-and-home series in which the highest-ranked team meets the lowest-ranked.
If current rankings were used, No. 206 Turks and Caicos Islands would play No. 210 Anguilla, and No. 208 U.S. Virgin Islands would play No. 209 British Virgin Islands.
CONCACAF’s remaining 28 teams in qualifying will join in a second round to be played in June 2024 and June 2025. There will be six groups of five teams in a single round-robin, with each nation hosting two matches.
Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica, El Salvador and Honduras appear likely to be the highest-ranked teams in qualifying.
First- and second-place teams in each group advance to a 12-nation final round that includes three groups of four teams. A double round-robin will be played in autumn 2025, and each group winner will qualify for the first 48-nation World Cup.
CONCACAF also said the four quarterfinal winners from CONCACAF Nations League A this November will qualify for next year’s Copa América, the South American championship that was moved from Ecuador to the United States. The four quarterfinal losers will participate in a Copa América play-in in March 2024, to be held at a central site, and the two winners also will qualify for the 16-nation tournament, which includes 10 teams from South America.
Nations League A will be expanded to 16 teams from 12 for the 2023-24 tournament. The group stage will be played this September, October and November, with a new quarterfinal round added in a home-and-home format in November.
The 12 lowest-ranked teams will be in a pair of six-team groups that has each team play four games, and the top two nations in each group will advance to the quarterfinals along with the four highest-ranked teams as of March 2023, who have automatic berths. The highest-ranked teams are likely to be the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica and Canada.
Quarterfinal winners advance to the final round, to be played in March 2024.
League B will remain four groups of four and League C three groups of three. There will be promotion of the four League B group winners from the 2022-23 Nations League but no relegation, and League C group winners will be promoted to Group B.
After the 2023-24 tournament, the fifth- and six-place teams in League A will be relegated, the four League B group winners will be promoted, the four League B last-place teams will be relegated and the three League C group winners will be promoted along with the top second-place nation.
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