US could open WCup qualifying in Trinidad, site of ’17 loss

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Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the FA Cup final soccer match between Arsenal and Chelsea at Wembley stadium in London, England, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. (Adam Davy/Pool via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — The United States could start qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Trinidad, where the Americans flopped on the final night three years ago and failed to reach the 2018 tournament.

“We know what happened last time around, and it could just be an opportunity for us to go out, start really strong right away and obviously get some revenge there, as well,” star attacker Christian Pulisic said after Wednesday’s draw. “So that would be a really big game.”

The Americans open their 14-match round with four games next June and close in early 2022 with a difficult stretch. They are at Mexico on Feb. 1, 2022, probably in the altitude of Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca; play at home on March 25, most likely against Panama or Curaçao, then finish March 29 at Costa Rica, where they have lost seven straight qualifiers.

“You have 11 games before that to get the group used to playing in these qualifying games and then you have two of the harder opponents away from home,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “The other way to look at it is if you can take care of all your business beforehand, you could be a very good position going in those games.”

The U.S. qualified for seven straight World Cups before missing the 2018 tournament. The Americans are among five nations with direct berths in the final round of North and Central American and Caribbean qualifying — known as the octagonal — joined by Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and Jamaica.

A much transformed team is headed by Pulisic and could include goalkeeper Zack Steffen, defender Sergiño Dest, midfielders Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Gio Reyna, and forward Josh Sargent.

Defender Tim Ream recalled the opening home loss to Mexico followed by a 4-0 defeat at Costa Rica in the last hexagonal and predicted the new group will handle qualifying more adroitly. Even though he was 30 at the time of the October 2017 defeat at Couva, Trinidad, Ream remembered being one of the younger American players on the bench.

“You look at these guys who are 21, 22 years old, and they’ve brought a youthfulness, an exuberance into the team and with the youthfulness brings legs, it brings energy, it brings excitement,” he said. “First time around, we didn’t get off on the right foot, obviously, in the beginning of qualifying and we were always playing catch up. So I think with these young guys now, we’re looking to be on top from the very first game.”

The top three nations in the octagonal qualify for the 32-team tournament in Qatar that starts Nov. 21, 2022, the first World Cup shifted from its traditional late May-June start in an accommodation to the region’s summer heat. The fourth-place team advances to a two-leg intercontinental playoff in June 2022.

Berhalter estimated 26 or 27 out of 42 points would be enough to qualify.

In a draw held Wednesday at FIFA’s office in Zurich, the U.S. was picked out of a bowl to start at the winner of the playoff between teams from Groups A and F, whose seeded nations are El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago. The opener will be around June 3, and the Americans will be home approximately four days later against the winner of the playoff between Group B and E, whose seeds are Canada and Haiti.

The U.S. then has another tough road match at Honduras around June 11, before closing the June double window at home against Jamaica.

When qualifying resumes around Sept. 3, the U.S. will be at the winner of the playoff between Group C and D, whose seeds are Curaçao and Panama, then host Costa Rica. The October window has a home game against Jamaica and a road match at Jamaica, and the November window a home game against A/F and a road match at B/E, which could mean a chilly game in Canada.

FIFA’s new window at the end of January 2022 has a home game against Honduras followed by the road game at Mexico, a jarring trip for players who will be in the middle of their European club seasons.

European club seasons are scheduled to end the weekend of May 22-23, except for the Europa League final on May 26 and Champions League final on May 29. Major League Soccer spokesman Dan Courtmanche said the league is reviewing whether to take breaks during the international windows.

CONCACAF had used the hexagonal for the final round of qualifying for the World Cups of 1998 through 2018. This year’s hex was to have started next month and included the region’s six highest-ranked nations, with Canada just missing out to El Salvador. Canada would have been among 30 teams competing to earn a berth in an intercontinental playoff.

But the coronavirus pandemic caused CONCACAF to announce a new format on July 27 that put the top five-ranked teams in the hex and gave the other 30 nations a chance to compete for three berths in the final round. Canada headed six teams seeded into first-round groups that play a single round robin, with two games each in October and November.

A: Antigua, El Salvador, Grenada, Montserrat, U.S. Virgin Islands

B: Aruba, Bermuda, Canada, Cayman Islands, Suriname

C: British Virgin Islands, Cuba, Curaçao, Guatemala, St. Vincent

D: Anguilla, Barbados, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Panama

E: Belize, Haiti, Nicaragua, St. Lucia, Turks and Caicos

F: Bahamas, Guyana, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago

Group winners advance to a two-leg second round in March that determines which teams join the octagonal: The A winner plays F, B meets E and C faces D.

Fox, the U.S. English-language rights holder, did not televise the draw on any of its networks or online. NBCUniversal’s Telemundo, the U.S. Spanish-language rights holder, streamed it digitally only.

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