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CONCACAF limits direct Cup qualifying
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MIAMI (AP) — CONCACAF is limiting direct qualifying for the World Cup to only its six highest-ranked nations.

The regional governing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean announced a new qualifying format on Wednesday and scrapped the early stages that led to the six-nation final round in place since the 1998 tournament, known as the hexagonal.

Instead, the six highest-ranked nations as of next June will go directly to the hexagonal. The decision reduces the number of qualifying matches for the United States to 10, instead of 16 to 18.

Mexico (No. 18 in the FIFA rankings), the U.S. (30), Costa Rica (39), Jamaica (54), Honduras (61) and El Salvador (69) are the current top six, followed by Panama (75), Canada (78), Curacao (79) and Trinidad and Tobago (92).

The U.S. will be trying to rebound from its failure to qualify for last year’s tournament in Russia, which ended a streak of seven straight World Cup appearances.

Each team in the hex plays 10 qualifiers, which will take place in September, October and November 2020, and in March and September of 2021 — ending 14 months before the 32-nation tournament in Qatar kicks off in November 2022. The top three nations will qualify.

CONCACAF nations ranked seventh through 35th will compete to determine which nation meets the No. 4 team in the hex in a home-and-home playoff for the right to meet a nation from another region in a home-and-home playoff for a World Cup berth.

The United States started in the second round for 2006 and 2010, needing to win a home-and-home series each time to advance to the 12-nation semifinal round. For 1998, 2002, 2014 and 2018, the Americans started at the 12-nation semifinals.

In November 2000, the U.S. was 27 minutes from elimination in its semifinal finale at Barbados before rebounding for a 4-0 win, In 2012 and 2016, the Americans also entered the last semifinal match still needing to clinch advancement.