With Caribbean and Central American Olympic qualifying concluded, the field is now set for the 2020 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship, which is expected to be hosted by the United States and is expected to run from January 28 to February 9, 2020 (per the Washington Post‘s Steven Goff – Twitter).
Joining the USA, Canada, and Mexico are Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, and Saint Kitts & Nevis. Of these eight teams, two will claim a ticket to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
This article takes a quick look at how the teams will most likely be divided into pots for the yet-to-be-announced group draw.
Specific details and rules for the final qualifying tournament are not readily available, but based on previous Olympic qualifying tournaments, there should be two groups of four, with each group winner facing the other group’s runner-up in the semifinals. The winners of those two semifinals then qualify for the Olympics.
CONCACAF recently introduced their own ranking system for seeding senior national teams, as well as youth national teams in CONCACAF tournaments and competitions. (CONCACAF article explaining how the MNT index is calculated). This ranking index is similar to UEFA’s coefficient system for national teams (Wikipedia).
Based on the most recently available CONCACAF rankings for WNTs (CONCACAF.com), which are “as of 2017,” the eight teams would be divided into four pots as follows (rank, points):
Seeded Teams: USA (host; #1, 8024) and Canada (#2, 4851)
Pot 2: Mexico (#3, 3807) and Costa Rica (#4, 2895)
Pot 3: Jamaica (#7, 1919) and Haiti (#6, 2105)
Pot 4: Panama (#10, 770) and Saint Kitts & Nevis (#13, 731)
With the significant separation in points between each pot, it is doubtful that up-to-date rankings would change the pot pairings. Notably, if current FIFA rankings (FIFA.com) were used, Panama would be in Pot 3, while Haiti would drop to Pot 4.
PREFERRED DRAW SCENARIOS
Given the significant superiority of the USWNT over all of the non-seeded teams, the USA should both easily win their group and easily win the semifinal against the likely runner-up in the other group, thus discussion of “preferred” draw outcomes is fairly superfluous.
However, with that said, in order to reduce the likelihood of an upset in the crucial semifinal match, a draw that gives the USA a semifinal opponent who is (1) not Canada and (2) the easier of the two likely group runners-up would be preferred. Additionally, a relatively easy path to the Olympics is especially important this time, as the USWNT will be in a state of flux due to having a new head coach, if not an interim head coach should the search for Jill Ellis’ replacement take longer than expected.
On the first point, facing Canada in the semifinal is a low yet significant probability. The most likely scenario for this to happen is if Canada would muck it up in group play by dropping points to the eventual group winner, either in a loss or by a draw.
At the youth USWNT level, similar scenarios have happened with the USA being shut out of the 2010 and 2014 Under-17 Women’s World Cups. Both tournaments were hosted by CONCACAF nations, Trinidad & Tobago and Costa Rica, respectively, which reduced the number of at-large CONCACAF slots from three to two.
- In 2010, Canada lost to Mexico in their last Group B match, giving Canada the group runner-up spot to face the Group A winner, the United States. The scoreless USA-Canada semifinal match went to penalties, which Canada won. (Wikipedia)
- The situation repeated itself in November 2013 when the USA won their group which had Canada, while in the other group, Mexico finished second behind Jamaica. In the USA’s semifinal, they drew 1:1 with Mexico, but again, lost on penalties. Meanwhile, Canada handily defeated Jamaica 5-nil. (Wikipedia)
Regarding the second point, facing the strongest likely runner-up is a much more realistic probability. Historically, that has been Mexico, whom the USA faced in the semifinals of WWC qualifying in 2006 and more (in)famously in 2010, when the USA lost to qualifying host Mexico and had to play Italy in an intercontinental play-off. The USA again faced Mexico in the semifinals of qualifying for the 2015 WWC. But, in that tournament Mexico were the second-highest ranked team as Canada was auto-qualified for the WWC as hosts.
However, with the rise of Costa Rica in 2014 and Mexico’s failure to qualify for the WWC in 2018, there is no longer a definite answer to the question of which senior WNT in CONCACAF is the third-strongest. As it currently stands, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Jamaica all have reasonable arguments for why they should be considered the third-best team in CONCACAF.
The more important question is which of those teams is the most dangerous for the USWNT in the semifinal match. At the moment, that team is most likely Mexico. Thus, it would be better to have Mexico in the USA’s group, while Costa Rica goes into Canada’s group.
Of the expected teams in Pot 3, Jamaica is clearly stronger than Haiti, though neither squad should be a challenge for the USA. Thus, in order to reduce the likelihood of Canada being a runner-up, Haiti should be in Canada’s group, with the USA getting Jamaica.
In the bottom pot, Panama has to be considered the better squad over Saint Kitts & Nevis. Again, neither team should give the USA a significant challenge. So, having Saint Kitts & Nevis grouped with Canada should decrease the probability of Canada coming in second in their group.
One additional reason for not having Saint Kitts & Nevis in the USA’s group is to remove the possibility of a huge blowout win for the USA which could result in negative press and attention for the USWNT. (Cf. the coverage of the USWNT’s opening WWC 13:0 victory over Thailand.)
Scenario 1, below, would be the preferred draw outcome, based on the above discussion, while Scenario 2 would be the opposite and more difficult draw outcome.
Scenario 1: The Preferred Path
- Group A: United States, Mexico, Jamaica, Panama
- Group B: Canada, Costa Rica, Haiti, Saint Kitts & Nevis
Scenario 2: Easy Group, Tougher Semifinal
- Group A: United States, Costa Rica, Haiti, Saint Kitts & Nevis
- Group B: Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, Panama
Scenario 3: Drama in Group B
- Group A: United States, Mexico, Haiti, Saint Kitts & Nevis
- Group B: Canada, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama
Any scenario that has Jamaica and Panama grouped with Costa Rica or Mexico (e.g., Scenario #2 or #3, above) should be considered a toss-up for which of those teams are likely to win their group’s runner-up spot. In other words, that group would be considered a partial “Group of Death,” as any of those three teams could finish second behind either the USA or Canada.
If either Scenario 2 or 3 occur, a small but significant possibility is that the weakest team of the three, Panama, could squeeze past the others and claim the runner-up spot, which would give the other group’s winner an even easier than expected semifinal match-up.