It might not have been your first thought when the ball dropped in Times Square Friday night, but there’s a reality that should put an early 2022 smile on your face.
It is a World Cup year!
That’s right, the global sporting event/party, which comes around every four years, is just around the corner. It’s a bit different this year — a late fall/winter tournament staged in Qatar — but it is nonetheless something every soccer supporter, and most sports fans, can’t wait to watch.
We’re going to give you an early viewer’s guide, from a North American lens. We’ll break down who is already booked to Qatar, who is well on their way to reaching the World Cup, who has been knocked out and which MLS players you can expect to see there.
Speaking of Major League Soccer, the league’s 27th season will have the earliest start on record, with the earliest end in years to accommodate the start of the World Cup on Nov. 21.
The MLS regular season begins Feb. 26 — with Concacaf Champions League matches even sooner — and Decision Day is Oct. 9. The MLS Cup will be lifted Nov. 5, more than a month earlier than MLS Cup 2021, which was Dec. 11.
Of the 32 teams who will compete for the world’s most coveted trophy, 13 spots have been clinched. Joining Qatar, which earns an automatic bid as host, are some of the heavy hitters even the most casual sports fans are familiar with.
Germany, Denmark, France, Belgium, Croatia, Spain, Serbia, England, Switzerland and the Netherlands are in from Europe, while five-time champion Brazil and Argentina are the first two South American sides to book their spot.
While there’s no MLS representation on those teams, there’s plenty who ply their trade in North America who have large roles in their country’s possible inclusion in the World Cup.
Twelve European teams are vying for that region’s final three berths, including Italy. By the time preseason opens, there’s a good chance Toronto FC have signed one or two Azzurri forwards.
The rumor mill is swirling with reports Italian national team forward, and current Napoli captain, Lorenzo Insigne is set to sign with Toronto FC and join the squad during the summer. More recent reports also link fellow Italian forward Andrea Belotti to Toronto FC.
If Toronto are able to get the Insigne deal across the line, it will be one of the biggest and most important signings in league history.
Who won’t you see in Qatar from Europe? That list includes Ireland, Greece, Finland, the Czech Republic, Norway and Israel.
South America have four automatic bids, with the fifth place team advancing to an inter-confederation playoff.
Who joins Brazil and Argentina? Ecuador are currently looking the most likely to lock down one of the final two automatic spots, third among South America’s 10 teams with 23 points from 13 matches.
Orlando City SC midfielder Jhegson Mendez, Seattle Sounders defender Xavier Arreaga, Charlotte FC midfielder Alan Franco and LAFC midfielder Jose Cifuentes are among those playing pivotal roles for Ecuador.
Two points separate the next five teams — Colombia, Peru, Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia.
Sounders defender Yeimar Gomez is a regular for Colombia, Peru is captained by Orlando City goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and features NYCFC defender Alex Callens, Marcos Lopez from the San Jose Earthquakes, D.C. United midfielder Edison Flores and forwards Raul Ruidiaz from Seattle, Andy Polo from the Portland Timbers and Yordy Reyna from expansion side Charlotte.
Ten teams in Africa will compete for that region’s five berths. Among them is Cameroon, who count Philadelphia Union defender Olivier Mbaizo and Seattle Sounders defender Nouhou as players called up to compete in the Africa Cup of Nations.
The Oceanian winner meets the fourth place team from Concacaf for a berth in the World Cup.
In Concacaf, the region with the largest MLS representation, Canada are the frontrunner with six matches remaining. Nine MLS players were part of the squad that beat Costa Rica and Mexico in November qualifiers, including midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye from the Colorado Rapids.
While many of the stars of the United States side, like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Sergino Dest compete in Europe, the country’s domestic league also has many important cogs on Gregg Berhalter’s side attempting to put the disappointment of a failed World Cup bid four years ago in the rearview.
That includes New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner, Nashville SC defender Walker Zimmerman, Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson, Rapids midfielder KellynAcosta and FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi, who is reportedly on the verge of a move to Wolfsburg in the German Bundesliga.
Mexico are third in the standings, an uncomfortable spot for a soccer-crazed country used to regional dominance. But LA Galaxy defender Julian Araujo, who recently made the one-time switch from the United States to Mexico, could play a big role in returning El Tri to the World Cup.
Panama are level on points with Mexico, but are fourth on a goal differential tiebreaker and a full five points clear of fifth place Costa Rica. Nashville SC midfielder Anibal Godoy is a key cog for Los Canaleros, with 23-year-old Houston Dynamo midfielder Adalberto Caarrasquilla one of the rising stars.
The next round of World Cup qualifiers is later this month, with additional matches scheduled for late March.
“Our league will be proudly represented on both the United States and Canadian rosters and on national teams around the globe,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in his State of the League address last month. “We anticipate a record number of MLS players will be competing in the World Cup next fall.”