USMNT's path to Copa America, schedule for 2026 World Cup cycle come into focus

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 28: USMNT starting 11 during the international friendly between USMNT and Colombia on January 28, 2023 at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, CA. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CONCACAF's new Nations League format benefits the USMNT ahead of the 2026 World Cup. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The U.S. men's national team will need to win just one of two playoffs against lesser-ranked regional foes to qualify for the 2024 Copa America, its truest potential litmus test ahead of the 2026 World Cup.

That is one of several takeaways from a wide-ranging Tuesday announcement made by CONCACAF, the North and Central American soccer governing body, which outlined new formats and qualification procedures for most of its men's international 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. Together, they outline the USMNT's path toward 2026.

How a new Nations League format feeds into Copa America

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

Beginning this fall, rather than contest four Nations League group-stage matches, CONCACAF's top four men's teams — currently the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica and Canada — will get byes to a new quarterfinal round.

There, in November, each will play a two-leg, home-and-home playoff against a lower-ranked team that earns its quarterfinal place via group play.

The winner of those playoffs will qualify for both the Nations League semifinals and, in 2024, the Copa America. The losers will go into a second-chance bracket, where they'll meet a fellow quarterfinal loser in a one-game playoff, with the final two Copa America spots on the line.

What does this mean for the USMNT and Mexico?

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

  1. Their routes to the Copa America will be forgiving. Their home-and-away playoffs will likely be against teams in the Panama-Honduras-Jamaica range. And even if they lose — on aggregate over two legs — they will get another shot, 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 U.S. Soccer and its Mexican equivalent, the FMF, pushed for that scheduling flexibility. They wanted open dates for high-profile friendlies against non-CONCACAF opponents. The previous World Cup cycle offered relatively few of those opportunities. This one will offer more. (European teams, however, will largely be busy with Euro qualification, their own Nations League and World Cup qualification.)

To fill those open windows, U.S. Soccer has also reportedly held preliminary talks with Argentina and Brazil. Whether those specific games materialize, the USMNT now has four open dates this year — roughly Sept. 8 and 12 and Oct. 13 and 17.

What is the rest of the new Nations League format?

Below the top four — which are determined by the March CONCACAF Rankings; the U.S. and Mexico are guaranteed to remain the top two — 12 other teams will fill out League A in two groups of six.

They'll each play four games, two home and two away, in September and October. The groups will follow a so-called "Swiss format," an incomplete round robin. The top two in each group will advance to the November quarterfinals to join the four teams with byes.

How will 2026 World Cup qualification work in CONCACAF?

With the U.S., Canada and Mexico automatically qualifying 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 playoffs between the four lowest ranked teams will whittle the region's remaining 32 World Cup-eligible members down to 30.

In Round 2, those 30 will be seeded into six groups of five. Each five-team group will be a single round robin. After four games, the top two in each group will advance to a 12-team final round.

In Round 3, those 12 teams will be drawn into three groups of four. These will be double round robins, with each group winner qualifying for the World Cup. The two best runners-up — based on points and, if necessary, tiebreakers — will earn berths in 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 the Copa America, the USMNT's calendar seems finely balanced between regional competitions and potential international flavor.

U.S. Soccer could try to organize or participate in unofficial tournaments rather than one-off friendlies. It also could be left with barren windows if the USMNT fails to qualify for Nations League finals or the Copa America. But for now, assuming qualification, the team's next 3.5 years look like this:

March 2023: Nations League group stage (at Grenada, vs. El Salvador)

June 2023: Nations League finals
June-July 2023: Gold Cup

September 2023: Friendlies
October 2023: Friendlies
November 2023: Nations League quarterfinals

March 2024: Nations League finals OR Copa America qualification playoff

June-July 2024: Copa America

September 2024: Friendlies
October 2024: Friendlies
November 2024: Nations League quarterfinals

March 2025: Nations League finals

June-July 2025: Gold Cup

September 2025: Friendlies
October 2025: Friendlies
November 2025: Friendlies

March 2026: Friendlies

June-July 2026: World Cup