Washington (AFP) – The United States learned Wednesday the path it must take in continental qualifying to return to the FIFA World Cup after missing out on a 2018 trip to Russia.

A 14-match round-robin qualifying slate for the Qatar 2022 World Cup was unveiled by the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) including five automatic finalists and three play-in nations.

The first qualifying window for the final “Octagonal” series in June 2021 will see the Americans visiting an opponent to be determined while their final match will be in March 2022 at Costa Rica.

The top three finishers in the eight-team final CONCACAF group will qualify for Qatar 2022. The fourth-place team will play a home-and-away series with a team from another region to decide another berth.

“We have been developing this group for more than a year to get ready for World Cup qualifying and now we know the path ahead,” US men’s coach Gregg Berhalter said.

“This campaign presents some unique challenges, so the message is to be prepared for the unexpected and control what we can control. One thing is certain: this group of players is hungry for the challenge.”

The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out international matches in March and June and that forced changes to the usual North American format for qualifying, with five top-rated sides from July’s FIFA rankings — the USA, Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Mexico — automatically into the final round and three other spots settled in two preliminary qualifying rounds from October 2020 to March 2021.

Highlight matches for the Americans will include meetings with arch-rival Mexico on home soil in October 2021 and at Mexico in January 2022.

The United States could open at Trinidad and Tobago in their first qualifying match if the Soca Warriors advance from early qualifying.

It was Trinidad and Tobago that beat the visiting Americans 2-1 on October 10, 2017 in the final qualifying match to keep the United States from reaching the Russia 2018 World Cup, missing out for the first time since 1986.