Qualifying for the 2014 World Cup out of the CONCACAF could look different for its 35 member teams if the executive committee's proposal gets approved by FIFA officials next month.
The key change allows the region's top six teams, including the U.S., to join the festivities in the third round, rather than the second. Also, both the new way and the old way feature four stages of qualification, but the new version's second round would be a switched to a group stage (round robin format), rather than home-and-home games against another squad.
The old way: The region's bottom 22 teams faced off in 11 "play-in" games, with the winners advancing to the second round. There, the region's top 13 teams joined them for another series of games in which top-ranked teams were drawn against the first-round winners. Twelve winners emerged from those home-and-home matches (on aggregate scoring) and they moved on to the third round.
In that round robin -- three groups of four teams -- the top two teams from each group advanced to the final "hexagonal" stage. In an even larger round robin, the top three teams won berths in the World Cup, with a fourth qualifying for a play-in game.
The new way: The region's bottom 10 teams would play a "play-in game" against one other team, with the five winners advancing to the second round. There, the region's middle 19 teams would join them to make up six groups of four teams. A round robin ensues, and each group winner (6) qualifies for the third round, where the top six teams enter the competition.
This round, the third, is identical to the old format and the top two teams in each group advance. The final round, also like the old format, is a "hexagonal" round robin to decide the World Cup berths.
This, in reality, impacts the United States very little. In the last two World Cup cycles, the Americans have breezed through their second-round games with ease (6-2 over Grenada in 2006; 9-0 over Barbados in 2010). The format really just challenges the lesser teams to prove themselves a bit more in the early rounds. We'll see if this proprosal becomes a reality when FIFA officials meet in Zurich at the end of May.
Photo: United States head coach Bob Bradley (Getty Images)