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

CONCACAF’s new Nations League format benefits USMNT ahead of 2026 World Cup (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The US Men’s National Team will only need to win one of two playoff games against lower-ranked regional opponents to qualify for the America’s Cup 2024his truest potential litmus test up front World Cup 2026.

That’s one of several takeaways from a sweeping announcement Tuesday by CONCACAF, North and Central America’s governing body for soccer, outlining new formats and qualification procedures for most of its international men’s 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 are the USMNT’s roadmap to 2026.

How the new format of the League of Nations is brought into the Copa America

For the USMNT, Canada and Mexico, the most consequential adjustment is the CONCACAF Nations League, which will take place in 2023-24. double as a qualifier for that summer Copa America, a 16-team extravaganza which will bring 10 South American men’s national teams and six CONCACAF participants to the United States.

Starting this fall, instead of playing four Nations League group stage games, CONCACAF’s top four men’s teams — currently USA, Mexico, Costa Rica and Canada — will say goodbye to the new quarter-final round.

There, in November, each team will play a two-game playoff at home against a lower-ranked team that wins its place in the quarterfinals through group play.

The winner of those play-offs will also qualify for the semi-finals of the Nations League and, in 2024, the Copa America. The losers will advance to the second chance, where they will face the other quarterfinal loser in a one-game playoff, with the last two Copa America spots.

What does this mean for the USMNT and Mexico?

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

  1. Their path to the Copa America will be easier. Their home-and-away playoffs will likely be against teams in the Panama-Honduras-Jamaica bracket. Even if they lose – two games in total – they will get another chance, likely against a similarly inferior opponent.

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

Two sources told Yahoo Sports that US Soccer and its Mexican equivalent, the FMF, have sought that scheduling flexibility. They wanted open dates for high-profile friendlies against powerful European and South American opponents in particular. The previous World Cup cycle offered very few such opportunities. This one will offer more.

In those open windows, the two CONCACAF powers have allegedly discussed friendly relations with Germany. American football has too reportedly held preliminary talks with Argentina and Brazil. Whether or not these specific games come to fruition, the USMNT now has four open dates this year – roughly September 8th and 12th and October 13th and 17th.

What is the rest of the new League of Nations format?

Below the first four — which are determined in March CONCACAF standings; The USA and Mexico are guaranteed to remain in the top two — 12 other teams will fill out League A in two groups of six.

Each will play four games, two at home and two away, in September and October. The groups will follow the so-calledSwiss format” — incomplete round-robin play. The top two in each group will advance to the quarterfinals in November to join the four bye teams.

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

With the USA, Canada and Mexico having automatically qualified for the 2026 World Cup as co-hosts, CONCACAF developed a one-time format to select the rest of its qualifiers for the expanded 48-team field.

In Round 1, two play-offs between the bottom four ranked teams will reduce the remaining 32 members of the region eligible for the World Cup to 30.

In the 2nd round, those 30 will be divided into six groups of five. Each group of five teams will play in one round. After four games, the top two in each group will advance to the final round of 12 teams.

In the 3rd round, those 12 teams will be drawn into three groups of four. It will be a two-legged tie, with each group winner qualifying for the World Cup. The two best runners-up — based on points and, if necessary, ties — will earn a spot in the Intercontinental Playoffs. (CONCACAF will have a minimum of six teams in the tournament and a maximum of eight.)

What is the USMNT’s schedule between now and 2026?

Without a qualifying gauntlet, but with two Nations Leagues, two Gold Cups and a Copa America, the USMNT’s calendar appears finely balanced between regional competition and potential international flavor.

American football could try to organize or participate in unofficial tournaments instead of one-off friendlies. It could also run out of windows if the USMNT fails to qualify for the Nations League or Copa America finals. But for now, assuming they qualify, the teams for the next three and a half years look like this:

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

June 2023: League of Nations final
June-July 2023: Golden cup

September 2023: Friendly matches
October 2023: Friendly matches
November 2023: Quarter-finals of the League of Nations

March 2024: Nations League Finals OR Copa America Qualifying Playoffs

June-July 2024: America’s Cup

September 2024: Friendly matches
October 2024: Friendly matches
November 2024: Quarter-finals of the League of Nations

March 2025: League of Nations 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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