CONCACAF changes Gold Cup format; Qatar to participate in 2021

Regional giants United States and Mexico won't be kept apart until the final at the 2021 Gold Cup under a new format, while Asian champion Qatar will compete as an invited guest next summer and in 2023, CONCACAF announced on Wednesday.

A first-ever draw for the tournament will take place on Sept. 28 to decide the groups, with the U.S. and Mexico not automatically separated on opposite sides of the bracket. In recent editions, the two countries could only meet if both reached the final.

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"[I] believe that having a draw for this competition is a long time coming and fits with our objective to be a truly football-first organization," said CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani in a statement. "It will provide great anticipation for fans as they look forward to the return of international football in our region."

Qatar's inclusion sees a return of an invited guest nation for the first time since 2005, when Colombia reached the semifinal. Brazil and South Korea have also participated previously.

Qatar is the reigning Asian Cup champion after defeating Japan and South Korea on the way to the title in 2019. The 2022 World Cup host nation also competed in the 2019 Copa America, picking up a point against Paraguay, but losing to Colombia and Argentina.

The invitation for Qatar is part of a wider "strategic partnership" with CONCACAF that will provide an exchange of "knowledge sharing opportunities" between the 2022 and 2026 World Cup organizers.

"As the AFC Asian Champions, they will provide stern opposition for CONCACAF teams," said Montagliani. "The partnership we have entered into with the [Qatar Football Association] and [Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy] will be game-changing for the development of football at all levels in our region. It will also provide a great opportunity to share knowledge in a number of areas between the host of the FIFA World Cup 2022, and the region which will host the event in 2026."

There will also be a preliminary round for the Gold Cup from July 2 to July 6 in the United States to decide the final three teams to compete in the tournament.

Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Cuba, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Montserrat, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago will all compete for three places in the Gold Cup in a two-round knockout tournament to filter into the group stage.

Mexico, the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, Curacao, El Salvador, Grenada, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Panama and Suriname are all already qualified for CONCACAF's tournament due to them winning their Nations League groups.

El Tri is the reigning Gold Cup champion and is the most successful team in the region with a total of eight titles, followed by the United States on six. Canada is the only other team to have won the tournament.

The 2021 Gold Cup is scheduled to start on July 10, 2021, with the location not yet confirmed.