For Tim Howard, the United States need to get points when they open final round World Cup qualifying in Honduras on Wednesday, though the difference between one and zero points in the first match of a 10-round, double round robin format can’t be that vital. At least, it can’t be that crucial mathematically. While three road points may prove huge, the effects of losing in Honduras are more likely to be psychological than mathematical.
In the four final round tournaments CONCACAF has held since going to the current format ahead of World Cup 1998, a qualifying spot has only once been decided by a point: last cycle, when Honduras pushed Costa Rica into a playoff after the two nations finished on 16 points. To subscribe to the view that the U.S. needs a point in Honduras, you have implicitly predict some major slips over the tournament’s final nine games.
The top three finishers in The Hex make Brazil, and since 1998, the tournament’s third-place finisher has averaged 15.75 points. The highest total was the U.S.’s 17 in 2002 while Jamaica managed to qualify for France 1998 when their paltry 14 points claimed third place.
All those numbers support the popular refrain about home and road performance. That version of conventional wisdom holds that taking care of business at home while scrounging road results will get you to Brazil. If a team were to win all their home games, they’d be at 15 points, right next to the average total that’s qualified teams for World Cups. Swipe a couple of draws on the road, and you’re in.
If you happen to lose one at home, it’s probably not that big a deal. After all, you’re a team that’s good enough to win four out of five at home. You’re probably capable of getting more than two points on the road.
Looking at fourth place
If you’re examining at qualifying from the U.S.’s point of view, focusing on the third place numbers may exaggerate the hurdle they’re trying to leap. Obviously, the U.S. has finished in the top three in each of the last four tournaments and are expected to do the same this cycle. Their question isn’t whether they can beat out the team likely to finish third; rather, can they stay ahead of the team that will probably finish fourth?
Since 1998, The Hex’s fourth place finisher has averaged 13.75 points. The highest total was Costa Rica’s 16 last cycle, while the Ticos also have the low total: their 12 points in `98.
Conceivably, just “taking care of business” at home should keep you ahead of fourth, though assuming you don’t actually take 15 at home and get none on the road, the approach’s success may depend on whom you get your road points against. If you draw away from home versus the teams that finish fourth and fifth, being awesome at home and terrible on the road would still work. You wouldn’t be giving your direct competition valuable three-point results.
Winning at home
The win at home theory might be born from the fact that no team has been able to qualify without some modicum of success at home. Jamaica’s 1998 was the worst home qualifying campaign for qualifiers of the last four cycles, and they still went 3-1-1. The average top-three finsher takes 12.5 points at home, though there have been a number of teams that matched Jamaica’s 10 without cracking the top three.
In 2006, both Trinidad and Tobago as well as Guatemala took 10 points at home, yet they finished fourth and fifth. Trinidad and Tobago later qualified for Germany via a playoff. In 1998, Costa Rica had 11 home points but only 12 overall and finished fourth. Last cycle, the Ticos took 12 at home yet finished fourth before losing in a playoff.
The two Costa Rica examples hint that winning at home may not be enough. Or more readily, no team has been able to secure a top three finish in CONCACAF without some minimal success on the road. Of the 12 teams that have won top-three finishes since the `98 cycle, nobody has failed to win at least four points on the road, and only those `98 Jamaicans failed to record a victory away from home (their four road draws helped to keep the barrier to qualify low, points-wise).
Interestingly, while third place finishers have averaged 4.25 road points per tournament, fourth place finishers have averaged a near-identical four (a number skewed by the eight road points Honduras accumulated in 2002 while failing to qualify).
Twelve of the 14 teams that got to four road points ended up qualifying for their World Cups.
The games, and the order, matter
The aggregates and averages help describe the landscape, but it’s important to remember that individual games make up those totals, and when you’re talking about a tournament like CONCACAF’s, sometimes the order of the games influences the numbers. In 2006, Mexico won five of their first six games. With qualification all but assured, El Tri could afford to cruise to a second place finish. That same year, Panama collapsed to a Hex-low two points, their insignificant closing matches contributing to a seven-game losing streak. Had the order of their games been different, their tournaments could have played out differently, with late-Hex matches having a completely different, more competitive context.
At some point, it’s more helpful to sit down, consider each game and its circumstances, and factor in the historical data when assessing not only how the States will probably perform but what they’re most likely to need to get to Brazil.
Going through that exercise so also helps maintain perspective on the U.S.’s has to opening schedule. With three out of their first four games on the road, the States could be sitting with a superficially disappointing three-to-five points come their June 11 game hosting Panama. But if you play out the rest of the tournament’s results, you see that kind of slow start won’t necessarily sidetrack the U.S.’s qualifying hopes.
Break out the pencil and paper, check out the full schedule, and play along for yourself. We’ll spare you our individual match predictions, but here’s one wild guess at how things might stand come November:
1. Mexico – 25 pts.
2. United States – 18 pts.
3. Costa Rica – 13 pts.
4. Panama – 12 pts.
5. Honduras – 10 pts.
6. Jamaica – 9 pts.
That no Hex has ever played out like this is reason to complete disregard the entire prediction. Mexico at 25 points would be the most a team’s ever accumulated in final round qualifying, a prognostication which makes sense if you think this Mexican team is the best we’ve seen in the last 16 years. Their quality plus the lack of a truly weak team means points could be more spread out than usual between the second through sixth place teams. You may not need to get to 16 this year.
But it’s way too early to know, just like it’s way too early to be taking these kind of projections seriously. After Wednesday, 90 percent of The Hex’s matches will still be on the calendar. Neither a loss nor a draw in San Pedro Sula will have much of an effect on the U.S.’s qualifying hopes.