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What is the “four-year cycle” for the USMNT?

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A look at how the USMNT prepares for the World Cup every four years.

Serbia v United States Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images

At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, after surviving the group of death, the US Men’s National Team had successfully reached the Round of 16. Their opponent in the knockout stage would be a quality Belgian team that was back in the World Cup for the first time since 2002. All of their hard work had come down to this elimination match at the Arena Fonte Nova.

After 120 minutes under the lights in Salvador, the USMNT never gave up in a 2-1 loss. Goalkeeper Tim Howard was so incredible he was named Man of the Match. His 15 saves is a World Cup single match record and it was a performance the entire country was talking about long after the final whistle. He single-handedly kept the team alive in their final game of the 2014 World Cup cycle.

After that gut wrenching loss on July 1, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil, a new four-year cycle began.

The 2018 World Cup in Russia is the new goal. Everything that is done since that final match against Belgium is in preparation for the tournament in Russia beginning on June 14, 2018.

Throughout those 1,444 days the task is to find, develop, and prepare the most talented group of 23 players available. The story that is written over that four-year cycle is what makes the World Cup such a special event.

Here’s what happens during each four-year World Cup cycle.

Friendlies

These are the type of matches the USMNT will play the most. A “friendly” match is often used to help the coaches select the players they believe can best help in a competitive match. These matches are also an opportunity for the players to learn how to work together since they all come from different teams.

The team played 36 friendlies during the four-year cycle leading up to the 2014 World Cup. That number of matches is more than double what they will play in other competitions.

January Camp (“Camp Cupcake”)

Every year, during the doldrums of the MLS off-season, the USMNT coaches put together a list of 30-something players they want to take a look at. Some players, such as Clint Dempsey (irregular heartbeat) and Kekuta Manneh (citizenship) are brought in strictly to see where they are at. Others, such as Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi, and Juan Agudelo, are given another chance to prove they belong again.

The January Camp is something that no other international soccer team does. Because the rest of the world is playing their league matches in January, our European players are not able to participate in this camp. The squad is mainly made up of players who play in MLS and Mexico.

While it is stressful to imagine most of the players in this camp actually representing our country at the highest level, the camp does seem to provide at least a couple players who end up making the World Cup roster.

CONCACAF Gold Cup

Held every two years, the Gold Cup determines the champion of CONCACAF. It is the main soccer competition for the men’s national teams of North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

The CONCACAF federation is the governing body for soccer in this part of the world. Every tournament since 2002 has been won by either USA or Mexico.

CONCACAF Cup

Beginning in 2015, the winners of two successive Gold Cups will face each other in a playoff to determine the CONCACAF entrant to the next Confederations Cup. If the same team has won the Gold Cup on both relevant occasions, there will be no playoff and that team will automatically qualify for the Confederations Cup.

The Rose Bowl hosted the first edition between the USMNT (2013 winner) and Mexico (2015 winner). In front of a sell-out crowd, Mexico earned CONCACAF’s spot with a 3-2 win. Fans will remember the 118th minute Paul Aguilar volley that crushed our ambitions and any chance we had at calling ourselves champions of the confederation.

Confederations Cup

Held every four years, the Confederation’s Cup comprises the champions of each of the six regions (UEFA, CONMEBOL, CONCACAF, CAF, AFC, OFC), along with the FIFA World Cup holder and the host nation. This tournament can be very beneficial as a rehearsal for the larger World Cup one year later.

The USMNT last attended this tournament in 2009, prior to the World Cup in South Africa. After a semi-final win over Spain the team went up 2-0 in the final against Brazil, only to end up losing 3-2. The next year at the World Cup, the team won their group over England and bowed out with a loss to Ghana in the Round of 16.

Olympics

The United States has not sent a men’s soccer team to the Summer Olympics since 2008. Under the current format, teams at the Olympics are restricted to players under 23-years-old, with an additional three who can be any age. Because of these restrictions, this tournament is looked at as an opportunity to expose young players to a high level.

Across the world, it’s used as a barometer for the youth development within national federations. While the United States has not made a significant impact at this tournament since the 2000 games in Sydney (fourth place), their rival Mexico won the Gold Medal in 2012.

Copa America

Held one year after each World Cup, this tournament is the oldest international continental football competition. Determining the champion of South America, since 1993 it has featured 12 teams (all 10 from South America, Mexico, and one additional team usually from North America).

The USMNT has participated four times (1993, 1995, 2007 and 2016), with their best result being fourth place in 1995 and 2016. As regularly scheduled, the tournament was held in 2015 but as a special celebration of the 100-year anniversary the “Copa América Centenario” was held again in 2016 with an expanded field of 16 teams. This was also the first time the tournament was outside of South America.

The tournament in the United States was a huge hit across the country and was an opportunity for many to root for their heritage in their own backyard. Different reports are out about the future of the event but after the success of the expanded tournament the USMNT could be a mainstay.

World Cup Qualifying

While the World Cup is set to expand to 48 teams starting in 2026, under the current format, 32 teams make the tournament. The qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil saw a total of 204 entries across six continents. For the 2010 tournament in South Africa, 200 teams played a total of 853 matches.

Every four years the FIFA World Cup offers a total of 3.5 slots to the 35 qualifying teams of CONCACAF. Over two and a half years there are 88 matches played to determine who the lucky ones are to represent the North American, Central American and Caribbean sections of the world.

The first round includes teams such as the Bahamas, Curacao, and Bermuda. The second and third rounds will have teams like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Canada.

The fourth round is where most of the action begins as 12 teams remain. Those remaining from round three are joined by the big boys in a group stage format that lasts 11 months. The teams are broken up into three groups of four teams: Groups A, B, and C. The top two teams from each group will advance to what’s known as “The Hex.”

“The Hex”

The hexagonal is the fifth and final round of qualifying for the teams of CONCACAF. A total of six teams that advanced from the fourth round (the three group winners and the three group runners-up) will play against each other home-and-away in a round-robin format. The six national teams will get their chance to prove they belong with each playing 12 matches over 11 grueling months.

CONCACAF has three sure-thing spots at the World Cup with a possible fourth spot. The top three teams of the “Hex” will advance to the tournament in Russia with the fourth placed team heading to a playoff with the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) fifth place team. With the final qualification matches being played on October 10, 2017 that will leave just a short 247 days before kick off in Russia.