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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.

Miazga Q&A, as USMNT defender is loving life at Chelsea

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USMNT youngster Matt Miazga joined Chelsea in January as the former New York Red Bulls star has joined one of the biggest clubs in the world.

So far, it’s all been a bit of a whirlwind but Miazga, 20, is settling in well and is already raving about the “more professional” setup in the Premier League and spoke of his dream to always move to Europe in the Q&A below.

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Sign up to the Chelsea Fan Club Plus now to read the full edition of this month’s Chelsea magazine. Members also gain access to Chelsea TV featuring behind-the-scenes action from the Chelsea training ground and exclusive interviews with Guus Hiddink and his players.

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Below is a Q&A with Miazga from Chelsea’s magazine.


It must be an exciting time for you, having just moved across the pond to start your Chelsea career.
This is a great opportunity. My goal was always to go to Europe to test myself against the best players in the world and against top-level opposition. This is the best league in the world so I’m looking forward to the higher level, getting better as a player and developing.

How would you describe yourself as a player?
I’m a defender so I like to win headers. I’m aggressive, I’m not scared to play out from the back and I like to use my passing range a lot. I try to communicate with the other defenders and be a leader on the field.

What do you expect from the Premier League?
Watching it since I was a young boy, everyone knows the league is very competitive and any team can beat any team, so the competition is very high and everyone is going all out to win their games. It is a very exciting league and I look forward to it.

Football really seems to be on the rise in the United States now…
It definitely is, especially after the World Cup in 2014 when we made it out of the group of death. Everybody became big fans and it is growing now, you can tell.

Coming from a Polish family must have helped your interest in the game along…
When my dad was younger, growing up in Poland, everyone played football so he gave me his tips and advice. Every year as I got older, I would play with different travel teams and different coaches would take control and help me, but my dad has always been there for me, giving me advice and keeping my mentality strong.

You have a full United States cap now and you also had an impressive tournament at the Under-20s World Cup, didn’t you?
It was a great experience. Playing with some of the best players your age is a great experience. Going past the group stage was another one – playing for your lives, everyone gives it their all, game are full of emotions and there’s a lot of passion. You are representing your country so you want to give it your best and everyone is watching back home. Obviously, it is not the full World Cup and that is definitely a goal of mine, but it is definitely a stepping stone in my career. We did fairly well for an American side, we got to the quarter-finals and lost to the eventual champions, Serbia, on penalties.

Is it fair to describe last year as your breakthrough season, given that you made 30 MLS appearances for New York Red Bulls?
Yes, I would say so. As a young player, to become a full-time starter and get all those significant minutes, that is a definitely a breakthrough season. From the start I wasn’t pencilled in as a starter. I talked to my manager and he wanted to slowly integrate me and establish me as I was 19 at the time, but there was an injury so I was forced into the line-up anyway. Ever since that first game I just played really well and stuck with it.

Kei Kamara, Columbus Crew SC

You played against Frank Lampard in a game against New York City, as well as David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. What was that like?
Yes, we played them in the Red Bull Arena. There were obviously some world-class players and every time you step on the field against them you want to do well. It was a good experience playing against top players like that – meeting them and competing against them. Lampard actually had some chances arriving at the right time in the box. He didn’t put them away and we were lucky he didn’t. He obviously had good quality on the ball.

What are your first impressions of Chelsea, having just arrived here?
It’s definitely more professional. It’s a huge club, so there are staff that take care of you and people within the club who try to make it an easy transition and make you feel comfortable. Your job, then, is only to work on the pitch and give your all. You can tell the magnitude of the club when you walk in, with the facilities here.

Everton 0-1 West Bromwich Albion: One shot on target, one goal, three points win for Baggies

during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and West Bromwich Albion at Goodison Park on February 13, 2016 in Liverpool, England - Getty Images
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  • WBA’s only shot on target goes in
  • Everton out attempts WBA 34-5
  • Baggies win despite 24 percent possession

Salomon Rondon’s early goal allowed West Brom to sit back and absorb Everton’s attack, and the Toffees couldn’t find a finish despite dominating in a 1-0 loss at Goodison Park on Saturday.

It was a trademark Tony Pulis win, as the Baggies blocked shot after shot in turning away a strong Ross Barkley performance that lacked finish.

West Brom’s 32 points are now eight clear of the drop zone, and just three back of 10th place Everton.

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Off a Stephane Sessegnon corner, Jonas Olsson rose above his mark to push a header back post. Everton keeper Joel Robles couldn’t meet the arcing ball before Rondon’s chest pushed the already en route offering over the line.

The Toffees had controlled the early goings leading up to their concession, and picked up where they left off after Rondon’s goal. But the Baggies sank back into their preferred pack of defenders, and Everton had to get creative. Ross Barkley was especially dangerous, but Goodison Park was left waiting for the final ball.

The Baggies barely got to halftime, as the Toffees’ fantastic, desperate work rate had them buzzing inside the box and winning several corners by the time three minutes of stoppage time reached their end.

The second half was more of the same, with Everton finishing the day with nearly 30 more shot attempts, but one less goal.

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Norwich City 2-2 West Ham United: Payet drags Irons out of first half hole

NORWICH, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 13: John Ruddy (L) of Norwich City catches the ball under pressure of Michail Antonio (C) of West Ham United during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and West Ham United at Carrow Road on February 13, 2016 in Norwich, England.  (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
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  • Payet shines again with goal, assist
  • Norwich blows 2-0 lead
  • Hammers move into fifth place

West Ham United overcame another sleepy first half, with goals from Dimitri Payet and Mark Noble leading the Irons back for a 2-2 draw versus Norwich City at Carrow Road on Saturday.

Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan scored to stake Norwich to a lead that looked set to boost them out of the drop zone, but the draw keeps them behind Newcastle on goal differential.

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It was Brady who punished West Ham’s lackluster first 45 with a 20-yard laser in the 55th minute.

And after Slaven Bilic made a pair of attacking substitutions, Steven Naismith and Hoolahan made the Irons pay dearly for a partially blocked shot.

Naismith’s shot deflected into the 18, and Hoolahan was within a hair’s length of onside as he buried a low shot past Adrian. 2-0 on two shots on target. Wow.

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A poor touch or bounce, your call, for Michail Antonio stopped West Ham from getting a breakaway goal as John Ruddy had time to parry Antonio’s rip in the 69th minute.

Payet pulled one back with a rebound goal 17 minutes in scheduled time, after Victor Moses caused a turnover and took a quick shot.

And the newly-extended Payet continued his season wizardry with great vision to spot Noble from the end line. It was 2-2 within minutes after Noble blasted his shot home.

Swansea City 0-1 Southampton: Sixth-straight shutout; Long’s header wins it

SWANSEA, WALES - FEBRUARY 13:  Southampton players celebrate their team's first goal by Shane Long (obscured) during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Southampton at Liberty Stadium on February 13, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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  • Saints now six games without conceding
  • Up to 6th, 1 point behind United in 5th
  • Swansea 3 points off bottom three

Southampton beat Swansea City 1-0 at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday with Saints recording their sixth-straight shutout and Shane Long heading home the winner 20 minutes from time.

A tight game played out in South Wales but the away team had the better chances and Long’s flick proved to be enough to seal a fifth win in their last six games for Ronald Koeman‘s side.

With the victory Saints climb to sixth place on 40 points, while Swansea remain on 28 points.

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The first real chance of the game fell to Graziano Pelle but his volley on goal was saved down low by Lukasz Fabianski after the goalkeeper initially missed a punch when he came charging out.

Saints had another chance early when James Ward-Prowse‘s teasing free kick was headed just wide by Jose Fonte at the back post.

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The game then calmed down as Gyli Sigurdsson had an effort from distance which flew over and Ryan Bertrand‘s effort looped onto the top of the net. Saints looked dangerous on the break with Long having a shot blocked and Oriol Romeu twice being denied by brave Swansea defending.

Alberto Paloschi’s flick-on found Sigurdsson but he volleyed way over and then Long should’ve done better when unmarked six-yards out but headed straight at Fabianski.

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In the second half Saints continued to push forward as Romeu glanced a header wide and then Pelle had a goal disallowed as Fabianski appeared to drop the ball under the challenge of Fonte but the replay showed it was a poor decision by referee Jon Moss.

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Saints did take the lead with 20 minutes to go as Ward-Prowse’s inch-perfect cross from the right found Long and he headed home into the corner as Fabianski failed to clear the ball away. 1-0 to Southampton and that’s how it finished with goalkeeper Fraser Forster keeping his sixth consecutive clean sheet since returning from injury.

A remarkable defensive run continues as Saints also continue to cement their spot in the top six.