First-ever octagonal promises thrillers
Final round of Concacaf qualifying for Qatar 2022 has arrived
Eight teams will compete in home-and-away fixtures
Three direct qualification slots for the World Cup up for grabs
Qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ in the North, Central America and Caribbean region (Concacaf) has reached a new era. For years fans have been used to the "Hexagonal" round - or famously known as the "Hex" - but that chapter has closed with the page turned to the expanded "Octagonal" format.
Over the next few months until the end of March 2022, eight nations will play 14 matches (seven home and seven away) for three direct qualification tickets to the biggest international tournament on the planet for the world's most popular sport. The fourth-place finisher will compete in an intercontinental play-off against an opponent from either the AFC (Asia), CONMEBOL (South America) or OFC (Oceania), scheduled for June 2022.
FIFA.com previews the first set of matches in September in the region as the first-ever "Octagonal" sets up a bevy of mouthwatering fixtures.
Schedule: First three matchdays
2 September Canada-Honduras El Salvador-USA Panama-Costa-Rica Mexico-Jamaica
5 September USA-Canada El Salvador-Honduras Costa-Rica-Mexico Jamaica-Panama
8 September Canada-El Salvador Honduras-USA Panama-Mexico Costa Rica-Jamaica
Mexico under pressure
Mexico and the World Cup are practically synonymous. El Tri have qualified for seven consecutive finals and 16 of the 21 in total. However, 2021 has not gone to plan so far for coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino and Co. Two defeats by regional rivals USA in two finals - an unprecedented occurrence - means Mexico have plenty they want to put right. A confident opening victory over Jamaica in front of their home fans at the famous Azteca will go some way to improving the team's overall mental state. With several players coming off a bronze-medal finish at Tokyo 2020, they will bring a necessary positivity to the group as well.
USA hungry to return to the big stage
Ever since 10 October 2017 when the US failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ they have been preparing to rectify their mistakes and have hit the reset button. Coming off winning the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup this year, Gregg Berhalter's young and predominantly European-based team - the average age of the squad is just over 24 years old with 16 players plying their trade in Europe - begin the final round on the road to Qatar 2022 full of confidence with considerable momentum.
"We have spent the last two years building the foundation and culture of the team for this moment," said Berhalter. "World Cup qualifying is a gruelling challenge that demands a complete group effort in order to be successful. We are confident in our ability to respond to the challenges that are presented along the way."
Trio eager to prove doubters wrong
Canada, El Salvador and Panama have already navigated a long and winding road to get to this stage. The three teams' journeys began back in March where they won their groups in Round 1, and eventually were the winners of Round 2. Canada defeated Haiti 4-0 on aggregate, El Salvador brushed aside St. Kitts and Nevis 6-0, while Panama had a more nerve-wracking experience, edging Curacao 2-1. All three sides will be eager to prove they deserve to be competing in the final round, and they could prove to be the more dangerous opposition for the Concacaf elite if they play with a nothing-to-lose, brave approach.
Other notable storylines
Costa Rica are aiming to qualify for a third consecutive World Cup, which would be a first for Los Ticos. Luis Fernando Suarez's squad is one of the most experienced in the competition with Keylor Navas, Kendall Waston, Celso Borges, Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell all called up. A win over Mexico at home in their second match looks like a potential game-changer and one Ticos fans have had circled on their calendars for a long time. The same can be said for Fabian Coito's Honduras with the likes of Luis Lopez, Maynor Figueroa, Edwin Rodriguez and Anthony Lozano available.
Jamaica have qualified for the World Cup one time, back in 1998, but they are led from the back by one of the region's top goalkeepers in Andre Blake. The Philadelphia Union man has experience stopping Mexico, too.
The Reggae Boyz are led by none other than Theodore Whitmore, the scorer of two goals in the nation's only World Cup victory.
5 - Five World Cup cycles have passed since Canada took part in the final round of Concacaf qualifiers. The last time the Canucks participated at this stage was on the road to France 1998. The last time Canada qualified for the World Cup was in 1986.