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CONCACAF announces starting dates for 2018 World Cup qualifying

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CONCACAF announced on Monday the starting dates for its 2018 World Cup qualifying process, which if you can even believe it, starts this year.

The “minnows,” if you will, kick things off in the first round of qualifying the week of March 23-31 as North and Central America’s bottom 14 teams, according to the August 2014 FIFA rankings, will be drawn into home-and-away series. The seven series winners will move on to the second round where they’ll again be drawn into a home-and-away series, this time among CONCACAF’s ninth- through 21st-ranked teams (June 8-16).

The first- and second-round draws will be held on Thursday, Jan. 15, in Miami.

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The 10 second-round winners will then be joined by CONCACAF’s seventh- and eighth-ranked teams in the third round, where six home-and-away series (Aug. 31-Sept.8) will determine the three teams who go through to the fourth round, which is where CONCACAF’s heavy hitters will be waiting.

As was the case in 2014 World Cup qualifying, the fourth round (to be drawn July 25, 2016, as well as the third round) will consist of three four-team groups with double round-robin competition (Nov. 7, 2015-Sept. 6, 2016). The top two teams from each four-team group (six in total) will move on to CONCACAF’s final round of qualifying, “The Hex” (Nov. 7, 2016-Oct. 10, 2017).

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The Hexagonal’s top three finishers will automatically qualify for the 2018 World Cup, while the fourth-place team will advance to an intercontinental playoff, a home-and-away aggregate series, for a bid into the 2018 tournament.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter also announced on Monday that the 2018 tournament, which along with the 2022 World Cup (Qatar) was controversially awarded, will still be held in Russia, despite numerous investigations into the legitimacy of the the two countries’ hosting bids.

CONCACAF team rankings (groups listed in alphabetical order)

First round (Nos. 22-35): Anguilla, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Curacao, Dominica, Montserrat, Nicaragua, St. Kitts and Nevis, Turks and Caicos and U.S. Virgin Islands
Second round (Nos. 9-21): Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Suriname
Third round (Nos. 7-8): Haiti and Jamaica
Fourth round (Nos. 1-6): Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago and United States

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