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Expanded World Cups will dilute US-Mexico qualifiers

November 10, 2021 GMT

Taylor Twellman has played in and watched the U.S.-Mexico rivalry: intense, physical matchups in front of frenzied fans who savor the often bruising battles between the top teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Fervor reaches an apex in World Cup qualifying, but Friday’s game at Cincinnati and the return match at Mexico City in March are likely to be the last of these high-stakes meetings because of FIFA’s never-ending campaign to increase tournament fields and revenue, which dilutes the urgency of the matchup.

“It’s about the bottom line,” Twellman, a former U.S. forward and current ESPN analyst, said Wednesday, blaming FIFA and the European governing body UEFA for constant expansion. “More interest means more dollars. Those two organizations could care less about anything else.”

The U.S beat Mexico 3-2 in the CONCACAF Nations League final at Denver in June on Christian Pulisic’s 114th-minute penalty kick and then, with a roster of mostly backups, defeated El Tri 1-0 in the CONCACAF Gold Cup at Las Vegas on Aug. 1 behind Miles Robinson’s 117th minute goal.

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“I remember in the Nations League, the atmosphere of the game and the environment and the intensity of the game shows how much of a big game it is for us,” said midfielder Yunus Musah, who was on the bench in Denver. “The game’s going to be intense. It’s going to be hectic.”

Mexico, ranked ninth in the world, leads the eight-nation final round of World Cup qualifying with 14 points. The 13th-ranked U.S. is second with 11 points going into the match at TQL Stadium, which marks the halfway point of the 14-game schedule.

“It’s just a dogfight,” defender DeAndre Yedlin said. “It’s never the prettiest game, I would say. But it is usually quite an entertaining game.”

Yedlin entered in the second half of the 2-1 loss to Mexico in a November 2016 qualifier at Columbus, Ohio, the first stumble as the Americans’ streak of seven straight World Cup appearances came to an end. He started the 1-1 draw at Mexico City the following June and also in this year’s Nations League match.

But there won’t be future meetings like these. The U.S., Mexico and Canada co-host the 2026 World Cup and receive automatic berths. FIFA has expanded the World Cup field from 32 to 48 starting in 2026, and CONCACAF has been guaranteed six slots instead of three. That leaves little chance for a U.S.-Mexico matchup with World Cup-level pressure.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino has backed a plan to decrease the international fixture windows to reduce the amount of time players are with national teams for qualifying as part of his proposal to play the World Cup every other year. That plan stalled last month after opposition by European federations.

“I think it’s going to be difficult for the U.S. to find games of intensity to prepare for ’26,” Twellman said. “It puts the emphasis more on club teams to find the intensity for the American player after the ’22 World Cup.”

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