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.

Wenger: Timing of departure “not really my decision”

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Arsene Wenger has been speaking about his Arsenal departure and there are some intriguing details emerging.

Wenger, 68, announced last Friday that he would be leaving Arsenal at the end of the current 2017-18 campaign after almost 22 years in charge.

But when asked about the timing of his decision during his press conference ahead of the Europa League semifinal first leg against Atletico Madrid on Thursday, Wenger said it was taken out of his hands…

“The timing was not really my decision, the rest I have spoken about already,” Wenger said. “I focus on what I have to do every day. At the moment, I work like ever.”

Wenger added that he will “for sure” continue to work beyond this season but wasn’t giving anything away. The Arsenal boss also said he had a “high opinion of Luis Enrique” but that didn’t “want to influence the next manager.”

What do we make of all this?

Wenger still had one more year left on his current deal at Arsenal and it appears he was keen to be in charge next season. The growing notion that Wenger stepped down before he was sacked seems to be on point. After three Premier League titles and 10 major trophies in total in over two decades in charge, it appears Wenger didn’t get to decide when he called time on his Arsenal career.

The perfect end for Wenger at Arsenal would be to win the Europa League and then leave on a high, but these comments suggest the Frenchman may not be happy with some of the hierarchy at Arsenal.

These comments amid links to PSG and the French national team also suggest to rule out a role upstairs at Arsenal, at least for the foreseeable future, for Wenger.

Roma condemn violent scenes outside Anfield

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AS Roma have condemned an attack from some of its supporters on Liverpool’s fans before the game after a 53-year-old Liverpool supporter was injured outside Anfield before the UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg on Tuesday.

The Serie A side said that a “small minority of traveling fans brought shame on the club” as two men from Rome have been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after the attack on the Liverpool fan who is in a critical condition after suffering head injuries.

Below is the statement in full from the Italian club.

AS Roma condemns in the strongest possible terms the abhorrent behavior of a small minority of traveling fans who brought shame on the club and the vast majority of Roma’s well-behaved supporters at Anfield after getting involved in clashes with Liverpool supporters before last night’s fixture.

There is no place for this type of vile behavior in football and the club is now cooperating with Liverpool Football Club, UEFA and the authorities. The club’s thoughts and prayers are with the 53-year-old Liverpool fan in hospital and his family at this time.

Salah’s sensational season in context

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Mohamed Salah is having a season on the same level as Lionel Messi.

Some* will even say it’s better.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

There are few ways to overstate how well the Egyptian has performed for Liverpool this season, and few matches have been as strong as Tuesday’s destruction of AS Roma.

Make no mistake about it: Destruction is the right word. I Lupi isn’t dead thanks to the Reds right side of the defense and James Milner‘s arm, but it was fading out of consciousness when Salah departed the game.

It’s not crazy to draw the connection. Just ask Jurgen Klopp:

“If anyone wants to say it is my mistake that we concede the two goals because I change the striker, I have no problem with that,” he said. “Mo was running all the time and it would not have helped us if he gets an injury. What a player. If you think he is the best in the world, write it or say it. He is in outstandingly good shape, world-class shape, but to be the best in the world you need to do it over a longer period, I think. The other two are not bad.”

No, no they are not, but Salah is on their level.

The aesthetics of his first goal were first-class, dinging off the bottom of the cross bar like a vicious swish of a Steph Curry three. When the night ended, Salah had two more goals and two more assists to bring his total to 43 goals and 15 assists in 47 matches. In three more matches, the best player on the planet has 40 and 18 (Ronaldo has 42 and 7 in 39).

[ MORE: LFC supporter in critical condition after Roma attack ]

The reason not to overreact is Luis Suarez’s 2013-14, in which he posted posted 31 goals and 24 assists in 37 games and would’ve arguably made Salah’s season look just “pretty great” if the Reds were in European football (or, one could argue, Suarez wasn’t slowed by the demands of a more congested adventure).

And we also won’t know Salah’s path next season. Take Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2007-08 season, the closest thing we have to Suarez or Salah in this generation. The then-23-year-old posted 42+8 in 49, but took a step back the next season before exploding into space upon debut with Madrid the following season (His second Real campaign, 2010-11, was the first real otherworldly CR7 campaign, with 53+18 in 54).

Salah is the Premier League Player of the Year, and he’s the front-runner for the Ballon d’Or (which is likely to be determined by this summer’s World Cup in Russia, with Argentina and Portugal possibly on a quarterfinal collision course and Egypt in an very winnable Group A with Russia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia).

Jurgen Klopp deserves much credit for Salah’s explosion. Even if the Egyptian began his ascent in Italy, there’s been nothing like this. And if he can do it a few more years, he has the chance to land amongst the generational names in soccer (perhaps as the best African player in Premier League history with Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba).

He’ll almost certainly become the all-time single-season Liverpool league goal scorer this season barring rest for the UCL, and he’ll be their top all-time according to Opta if he nabs four or more goals across 4-5 matches (Roma again, Stoke, Chelsea, Brighton, and probably Real Madrid or Bayern Munich).

The Reds were unbelievably good for 80 minutes on Tuesday — 75 of which were Salah-led — and the praise would’ve been flowing like a waterfall had they not switched off for 10 (in which it must be said Liverpool was fortunate to only concede twice!).

*By the way, Messi fans, you’ll be relieved to count me as not one of those who’d say Salah is having a better season. It’s closer than you think. Messi is better than Salah in league play, while Salah is having a superior UCL campaign. Given the general consensus top-to-bottom on Premier League vs. La Liga and Barca’s UCL competition vs. Liverpool’s opponents — which is drawing level now — we’d say it’s even.

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Messi 0.4-0.31
Key passes: Messi, 2.16-1.63
Chances created: Messi, 2.56-1.94
Attack score: Messi, 73.04-54.5
Possession score: Messi, 5.6 to minus-5.12
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-77
Shot accuracy: Even (62%)
Tackles won: Salah, 0.24-0.2
Take-ons won (%): Messi, 69.47-64.96

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Salah, 0.45-0.23
Key passes: Salah, 2.13-1.72
Chances created: Salah, 2.58-1.95
Attack score: Salah, 70.89-55.69
Possession score: Messi, 2.71 to minus-3.34
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-73
Shot accuracy(%): Salah, 73-69
Tackles won: Messi, 0.69-.45
Take-ons won (%): Salah, 76.4-61.4

How long is Sebastian Giovinco for Toronto FC?

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While Toronto FC’s CONCACAF Champions League success has largely been driven by Sebastian Giovinco — Wednesday’s final second leg not withstanding — perhaps the Reds’ brass isn’t convinced the diminutive 31-year-old can keep it up much longer (at least in terms of value).

[ MORE: Behind the scenes at NYCFC training ]

Toronto’s dynamic Designated Player says he wants to stay in Ontario, implying that he’d like to be there for the rest of his career, but TFC’s brass may not want to pony up DP dollars for the next stage of Giovinco’s career.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson:

“I already talk, but they said it’s not the moment (for contract talks),” Giovinco told the Sun. “For them, that’s not a problem, for me it is a little bit. I want to know my future. I have family. I’m 31 years old. For what I do for the city, I think I deserve it, no? … For them it’s not a problem, for me it’s starting to be a problem … I already said I want to stay here forever … If not, I have to think about other options.”

Let’s look into Seba’s success. The Italian has three goals and four assists in seven CCL matches (though scoreless through three MLS matches).

2017: 32 games, 20 goals, seven assists (6W-3L-2T w/o him)
2016: 37 games, 22 goals, 16 assists (1W-1L-4T w/o him)
2015: 35 games, 23 goals, 14 assists (0W-2L w/o him)

The assist numbers took a hit with the emergence of Victor Vazquez, but the ex-Barcelona man is also 31 years old. Michael Bradley turns 31 this summer, and Jozy Altidore is 29 in November.

Who will stay long-term? Who could general manager Tim Bezbatchenko have in mind as replacements, upgrades, or buttressing? Inquiring minds are