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Number crunching: How many points will get the U.S. to Brazil?

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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.

CONCACAF Qualifying – By The Numbers
Four tournaments give us very little data to crunch regarding CONCACAF’s final qualifying round, but if this year’s round robin plays out like years’ past, around 16 points should get you to Brazil, while 20 will likely take the group:

Place Avg. Pts STDEV “Span”
First 20.75 2.22 18.5-23.0
Second 18.75 2.37 16.4-21.1
Third 15.75 1.26 14.5-17.0
Fourth 13.75 1.71 12.0-15.5
Fifth 9.25 1.5 7.8-10.8
Sixth 5.25 2.5 3.8-7.8

STDEV – Standard Deviation
“Span” – A completely meaningless figure based on standard deviation and the place’s average points

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.

Breakdown – Home vs. Road
No surprise, the teams that have finished at the top of The Hex have had the most road success. While the second and third place finishers have enjoyed similar home field advantages, they have been unable to find the same success abroad.

Place Avg. Pts
Home
Avg. Pts
Road
First 12.5 8.5
Second 13.5 5.25
Third 11.5 4.25
Fourth 9.75 4
Fifth 7.75 1.5
Sixth 3.75 1

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.

Euro 2016 security concerns grow after French Cup incidents

The European soccer championships trophy is put on display before a press conference to mark the hundred days to go before the start of Euro 2016 soccer tournament, in Paris, Wednesday, March 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
AP Photo/Christophe Ena
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PARIS (AP) The French football federation opened disciplinary proceedings against Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille on Monday following incidents during the French Cup final that raised major concerns only a few weeks before the country hosts the European Championship.

Despite a two-meter high security wall surrounding the Stade de France and triple security checks, supporters smuggled flares into the venue in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis and ignited fires in the stands on Saturday. Some supporters also tried to invade the pitch.

[ MORE: Mourinho in talks with United ]   

Fans also complained about severe overcrowding at the security check points. PSG won the game 4-2.

Following a meeting on Monday, the French Interior Ministry said “it has been decided to correct dysfunction without delay in order to guarantee the fluidity of supporters entering sporting venues and to strengthen security checks by private companies and secure stadium exits.”

Seine-Saint-Denis area prefect Philippe Galli admitted there were serious security breaches during a match that was seen as the final test before Euro 2016, which will be held in 10 cities across France from June 10-July 10.

“The system was under pressure, and it gave way on some points,” Galli told Europe 1 radio, adding that police were overwhelmed by fans.

Galli said problems arose due to the limited number of access points to the stadium, reduced from 26 to just four under the new security plan.

He said body searches also need to be improved before the tournament starts.

[ MORE: Premier League money table 2015-16 ]

Trying to ease concerns, both the football federation and Interior Ministry insisted that security measures put in place during the Euros will be different.

The French federation said it did not consider the game a “test event” because it was a club match. Marseille and PSG fans have often clashed in their tense derbies.

In the wake of the attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead in November last year, France remains in a state of emergency which was recently extended by two months and will cover the ongoing French Open at Roland Garros, Euro 2016 and the Tour de France in July.

It expands police powers to put people under house arrest and allows authorities to forbid the movement of people and vehicles at specific times and places.

Louis van Gaal’s Man United tenure a strangely intriguing wreck

Manchester United v Cambridge United - FA Cup Fourth Round Replay
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Louis Van Gaal has left the building.

The 64-year-old Dutchman is out as Manchester United’s manager after the club confirmed the worst kept secret in sport on Monday with his three-year contract cut short after United’s failure to qualify for the UEFA Champions League next season.

[ MORE: Mourinho in talks with United ]   

Two years after arriving at Old Trafford, we are all still a little confused as to what actually happened as the allure of LVG had us bamboozled, disgusted and intrigued, while perhaps now even a little sad that it’s over.

Van Gaal divided opinion among United’s fans, former players, pundits and the media for most of his tenure at Old Trafford. Now the end has arrived we’re not really sure if United are better off, worse off or just in a similar spot to before LVG arrived in 2014.

[ MORE: LVG releases statement after exit ] 

Towards the end there’s been an inevitability about his departure but it’s worth noting that when the history books look back at his time in charge of one of the world’s biggest teams, history will likely be kind to him. Right now it seems like a failure but compared to David Moyes‘ time in charge, it’s not. He delivered two top five finishes and an FA Cup trophy even if he couldn’t get them back to the UCL for next season. From that point of view he failed to meet his targets but despite all of the unrest about the tactics, personnel choices and his character, he didn’t miss his targets by much.

[ MORE: Premier League money table 2015-16 ]

Despite the tedious, glacial rate of play he fostered among his team, there were flashes of brilliance throughout his reign which kept you interested, kept you thinking that maybe, just maybe, LVG’s boys would spark into life and deliver the goods. Anthony Martial‘s late goal against Liverpool this season. Marcus Rashford‘s double against Arsenal. The 4-2 home win against Manchester City and the win at City earlier this season. All of those moments gave you a notion that maybe the previous struggles were all part of Van Gaal’s masterplan.

It has been said many times before in sport and I think United’s fans can vouch for this after the past two years: it’s not the losing, it’s the hope that kills you.

[ MORE: Cantona wants Guardiola over Mourinho ]

He arrived after success with the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup and a mystique surrounding his name after the decades he spent on the European continent. Under LVG, United were meant to return to a swashbuckling giant, a force to be reckoned with in England and Europe. Yet it became clear quite early in his reign that that wasn’t going to be the case.

From his bizarre player selections to his penchant for slow, possession based play, Van Gaal quickly ate away at any excitement United’s fans had for him. Every now and then he would deliver memorable moments like throwing himself to the ground in the technical area, an impromptu speech on the mic at the end of season awards dinner and blurting out something about sex masochism in the media to keep everyone interested.

[ MORE: Best moments of LVG’s bizarre tenure

He told his players to be “horny” for the win, called out Sam Allardyce‘s long-ball accusations and had a go at journalists most weekends. The LVG sideshow delivered. The play on the pitch didn’t and that’s what ultimately cost him his job as his three-year project to return United to greatness ground to a halt. There was so much to dislike about Van Gaal’s egotistic comments and brash demeanor but at the same time there were so many reasons to admire him.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 09: Louis van Gaal, manager of Manchester Uniited speaks during a press conference ahead of the UEFA Europa League round of 16 first leg match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Aon Training Complex on March 9, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images)

Van Gaal is a man who led the club like Sir Alex Ferguson did, someone who knew what it meant to be at the helm of a global team and treat the fans with the respect they deserve and foster a family environment throughout the club. He put everything into it, even if he didn’t show it as he sat in the dugout writing notes on his clipboard during games. That angered fans and pundits who wanted to see more aggression a la Jurgen Klopp. They wanted more excitement and LVG couldn’t deliver it.

United’s fans were simply bored of seeing their team play. They recorded their lowest ever goals tally in the PL era this season. They went 11 home games in a season without scoring a goal in the first half. They simply didn’t deliver an exciting product on the pitch.

Van Gaal pointed to his philosophy and way of playing and he certainly stamped that on the team, successful or not. They led the PL in average possession this season and in backwards passes and although he managed to get through his ideas clearly to the players, it just didn’t work in the PL.

Manchester United Press Conference

All the time, though, it was interesting to see the situation unfold.

Many times United’s fans didn’t want to look, just like when you pass a car wreck on the road but are guilty of rubber-necking. Everybody, no matter what team you supported, wanted to drive by and have a long glance at United’s issues and then have their say on the matter without being up close at the scene to deal with the injury crisis’, plus having to blood youngsters (somewhat successfully) early, help under-performing players recover and then deal with the pressure which comes with managing such an illustrious club.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 23: Louis van Gaal manager of Manchester United celebrates with winning goalscorer Anthony Martial of Manchester United after victory in The Emirates FA Cup semi final match between Everton and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on April 23, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most damning factor of his tenure was player recruitment. Van Gaal was given over $375 million to rebuild a team demoralized by Moyes and then decimated in the summer the Dutchman arrived. The only money he spent wisely was on Martial and Daley Blind plus helped the likes of Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson break into the team.

Mercurial talents such as Angel di Maria, Memphis and Radamel Falcao just didn’t fit into his system. Until the bitter end he spoke about the club’s failure to get in his transfer targets, the players he wanted and tried to defend his teams lack of cutting edge in the final third. In the end, his excuses fell on deaf ears. He tried to explain himself too much over the two years and his relationship with the media soured over time.

One of the most alluring things about Van Gaal is his personality. He is brash, confident and outspoken because he’s been there, seen it and done it. He’s won trophies in Holland, Spain, Germany and now in England after his FA Cup success. He is an Amsterdammer who believes in himself and his ability as a manager. That provided countless moments in press conferences where awkward silences would be conjured by LVG, all the time glaring at a journalist who dared to question his authority, his team selections or the mentality of his team. He continued that until the end and went at the media time and time again.

His last words to the media as Manchester United’a manager were at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, just as news was breaking from people in that very room that Jose Mourinho was set to take his job from him.

One last time he was bullish, combative and forthright.

Asking questions to Van Gaal over the past few years in crowded press conferences (they were never empty because, well, nobody knew what he would say next) myself and others always felt his eyes latch onto you as he sized you up and decided if you were worthy of an answer. He played the game. He always kept everyone guessing, just like the man he tried to replicate at United, Sir Alex Ferguson, did. His need for control seemed overbearing but he was old school, a former school teacher from Amsterdam who was the heir to Johan Cruyff at Ajax but never got the chance to break through and replace his idol.

If his playing career wasn’t anything special, his career as a coach has been. He built a dynasty at Ajax, won major trophies with huge clubs and led the Netherlands to the World Cup semifinals in 2014 with a team that excited the fans. His time with Manchester United will live long in the memory despite two seasons of mediocrity for a club of their size. Fourth-place and fifth-place Premier League finishes will not be celebrated in 10 years to come by United’s fans but they’ll be sat having a pint in a pub saying “do you remember when Van Gaal…”

His legacy won’t be glorious among United’s fans but it will be memorable. Van Gaal’s legend lives on as intrigue and mystique remain as he saunters out of the exit door at Old Trafford.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21: Louis van Gaal Manager of Manchester United salutes the fans after winning The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England. Man Utd won 2-1 after extra time. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

 

Liverpool sign goalkeeper Loris Karius. What is he all about?

MEYRIN, SWITZERLAND - JULY 22:   Loris Karius of 1. FSV Mainz 05 in action during the pre-season friendly match between 1. FSV Mainz 05 and AS Monaco at Stade des Arberes on July 22, 2015 in Meyrin, Switzerland.  (Photo by Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)
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Liverpool have announced the signing of German goalkeeper Loris Karius, 22, from Mainz 05.

[ MORE: Mourinho in talks with United ]   

The former Manchester City academy product has excelled in the Bundesliga over the past four years, keeping 19 clean sheets in 67 games over the past two campaigns as he became the starting goalkeeper for Mainz, the team Jurgen Klopp used to play for and manage.

In a statement on the club’s website, Liverpool announced that Karius will become their player on July 1 and reports claim the transfer fee is $7.5 million for the Germany U-21 international.

[ MORE: Premier League money table 2015-16 ]

Speaking after signing a five-year deal at Anfield, Karius is delighted to arrive in the Premier League.

“It’s a very good feeling and it’s an honour to play for a club like this. They have a special history and the fans are amazing here, so I look forward to playing at Anfield,” Karius said. “I know a lot about the club from watching them on TV. The history, everybody who plays football knows. There a lot of things in my head when I think of this club. I spoke to the manager and I had a good feeling afterwards because he told me what he wants to do with the club and with the players. It was a good talk with him and after that I was convinced this was the right decision.”

[ MORE: Conte slams MLS after leaving Giovinco, Pirlo out of Italy squad ]

Karius’ arrival will initially spark thoughts that Simon Mignolet‘s position as Liverpool’s first-choice goalkeeper is under threat, especially when you see that Karius has been handed the No. 1 jersey.

The Belgian international, 28, has made several high-profile mistakes during his time at Anfield but Klopp has routinely stated he’s happy with Mignolet and the former Sunderland stopper recently signed a new long-term deal with the club. Yet, when you look at the depth behind Mignolet they are struggling. Adam Bogdan has looked shaky when called upon and then you have youngsters Ryan Fulton and Danny Ward.

Judging by the clips and scouting reports you can find of Karius, he is a hugely energetic goalkeeper who will look to challenge Mignolet for the starting spot from day one.

He is also said to be aggressive in coming for crosses and is good with the ball at his feet. A future Manuel Neuer, perhaps? Liverpool’s fans will certainly hope so.

Take a look at these clips below. Impressive.

Cantona wants Guardiola, not Mourinho, as Man United’s manager

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Eric Cantona will cause quite a stir with these comments.

The eccentric Frenchman is a Manchester United legend so, naturally, whenever he says anything about the Red Devils people stand up and take notice.

[ MORE: Mourinho in talks with United ]   

Less than 24 hours after Louis Van Gaal was out as United’s manager, Cantona (who turned 50 today) has been speaking about the possibility of Jose Mourinho taking charge at Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Premier League money table 2015-16 ]

In true Cantona fashion he is a fan, but he’s not really a fan. What else did you expect from the man who said: “When the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will fall into the ocean.”

[ MORE: Conte slams MLS after leaving Giovinco, Pirlo out of Italy squad ]

Anyway, here’s what “King Eric” had to say about Mourinho in a lengthy chat with The Guardian:

“I love Jose Mourinho, but in terms of the type of football he plays I don’t think he is Manchester United,” Cantona said. “I love his personality, I love the passion he has for the game, his humor. He is very intelligent, he demands 100 percent of his players. And of course he wins things but I don’t think it’s the type of football that the fans of Manchester United will love, even if they win. He can win with Manchester United. But do they expect that type of football, even if they win? I don’t think so.

“Guardiola was the one to take. He is the spiritual son of Johan Cruyff. I would have loved to have seen Guardiola in Manchester [United]. He is the only one to change Manchester. He is in Manchester, but at the wrong one.”

The Frenchman was also asked if he would become manager of United one day if they asked him? Here’s his playful answer.

“I do many things and I’m very happy. But if they asked me to become the manager of Manchester United, I would,” Cantona said. “Because Guardiola is in Manchester City and they want someone to win things with wonderful football? It’s me.”

Cantona so often speaks season in a roundabout way and it is hard to argue with his assertion that Guardiola would’ve been United’s preferred choice over Mourinho.

Look at the legacy Guardiola has left behind at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Sure, he didn’t have to massively rebuild the entire squad like the new United manager is going to have to do, but he arguably improved both teams (okay, Bayern’s failure in the UCL muddies that argument slightly but they improved in many ways under Pep) and has left them in extremely strong positions.

Mourinho has left shipwrecks behind at Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid in the past and he is all about the short-term. He gets results but Cantona hit the nail on the head, his style of play may not win over United’s fans. However, they just want to win and even Cantona, one of the greatest artists the game has ever seen, knows how important that is.