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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.

Southampton 4-2 Manchester City: Southampton carves up City behind Mane hat-trick, Tadic service

during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester City at St Mary's Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Southampton, England.
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Manchester City clearly had one eye on the Champions League semifinals. It came at the expense of their chances to remain in the competition next year.

The visitors at St. Mary’s had the opportunity to lock up Champions League play next season with all three points, but instead Manuel Pellegrini rested a number of starters including Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, and Southampton ripped them apart in a 4-1 win. Saido Mane grabbed a hat-trick and Dusan Tadic had a trio of assists as their attack swarmed a mistake-prone and clearly distracted Manchester City.

Both sides had spells in the opening 20 minutes, but Southampton appeared more dangerous. Shane Long made multiple appearances in front of the Manchester City goal, picking the pocket of Pablo Zabaleta to earn a corner on 15 minutes and shooting just wide of the near post in the 19th minute.

Frasier Forster was required to keep the game scoreless in the 20th minute as Kelechi Iheanacho stole the ball from Virgil van Djik on the touchline and found Raheem Sterling in space inside the box, but his shot was saved expertly by Forster.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It would be the in-form Long to take the lead in the 25th minute on a beautiful bit of play. A fantastic ball over the top of the City defense fell to a streaking Dusan Tadic, and his flick over the top met a sliding Shane Long, who beat Nicolas Otamendi for the opener.

They’d get a second just four minutes later on yet another sweet-looking goal, with Tadic getting yet another assist with a perfectly weighted ball for Saido Mane, who smacked it by Joe Hart from a tight angle.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Southampton continued to press and hold much of the meaningful possession, but Manchester City refused to capitulate, scoring a lifeline before halftime. With the ball in the Southampton penalty area, Cuco Martino saw the ball skip off his thigh and pop into the air, where Iheanacho latched onto it and headed it into the net.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

It was a tough way for the hosts to go into halftime, as they had dominated much of the first half, but no matter, as they made amends. Following the break, Southampton restored their two-goal lead off a corner in the 57th minute as Van Djik’s header was tipped by Joe Hart off the crossbar. Jose Fonte whiffed at the rebound but Mane was there from point blank range to give Southampton a 3-1 lead.

Mane would complete his hat-trick in the 68th minute. Van Djik won the ball in the Southampton half to start the break, and Tadic picked up his third assist of the match as he slotted Mane through on goal for yet another clinical finish.

Manchester City got another back as Iheanacho bagged his second in the 79th minute with a wonderful curler from outside the box, but it was too little too late for the visitors.

Both teams fought until the final whistle, and it could have cost Jesus Navas his fitness as the Argentinian seemingly picked up a serious limp in the final few minutes.

VIDEO: Claudio Ranieri says he might miss Leicester City winning the Premier League

MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 01:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City applauds the fans after the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on May 1, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Following Leicester City’s gritty draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford, the Foxes missed out on securing the Premier League trophy, but come tomorrow evening, they could still be celebrating.

With the point against United, their magic number is now two, meaning any dropped points by Tottenham wins Leicester City the league title. Tottenham travels to Stamford Bridge tomorrow to take on Chelsea, and should they fail to win, the trophy is Leicester’s.

But manager Claudio Ranieri, the hero in Leicester for guiding their beloved club to the unthinkable, might be the last to find out.

In his post-match comments, Ranieri said he could be on a plane during the Spurs game, therefore unable to find out the result until he lands. The reason? He’s going back to Italy to have lunch with his 96-year-old mother.

“I would like to watch to watch the match,” Ranieri said. “But I think I am on the flight back from Italy, and then it’s difficult for me to watch the match. Maybe when I landed, I will know the result.”

What a family man. No wonder his team plays like a close-knit unit.

AC Milan fights back for draw against Frosinone, but still falls out of European place

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 01:  Mario Balotelli of AC Milan reacts during the Serie A match between AC Milan and Frosinone Calcio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 1, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
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AC Milan fought back from down 3-1 to earn a point at home against relegation candidate Frosinone, but by dropping points they’ve also dropped out of a European position.

Frosinone got goals from Oliver Kragl and Luca Paganini in the first half, and Federico Dionisi struck in the 54th minute to go 3-1 up. But Luca Antonelli scored in the 74th minute – just a minute after coming on for AC Milan – and Jeremy Menez finished a penalty in added time to pull level.

The draw, coupled with a 1-0 Sassuolo win against Verona, dropped the Rossoneri to 7th in the Serie A table, out of the Europa League places. They sit on 54 points, with Sassuolo on 55.

Contributing heavily to the final result was Frosinone goalkeeper Francesco Bardi, who saved a Mario Balotelli penalty and produced a host of acrobatic first-half saves to keep the Milan attack at bay.

AC Milan hardly has time to lick its wounds, with just three matches remaining, two against Juventus and Roma to close out the year. Meanwhile, the point for Frosinone is important but likely not enough as they fall four points back of Palermo who Sampdoria.

Watch Live: Southampton vs. Manchester City (Lineups & Live Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28:  Raheem Sterling of Manchester City and Victor Wanyama of Southampton compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at the Etihad Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Manchester City has shuffled the deck, with five changes from last time out as Manuel Pellegrini and company travel to St. Mary’s to take on Southampton, live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

Sergio Aguero is on the bench, while Kevin De Bruyne is not selected at all for City as Wilfried Bony is the man up top along with Kelechi Iheanacho in support. Jesus Navas is also among the substitutes, with Samir Nasri and Raheem Sterling among the starters.

WATCH LIVE: Southampton vs. Manchester City live online at NBC Sports Live Extra

David Silva is not included in the squad having suffered a hamstring injury, and while Yaya Toure has returned to fitness, he is not among those named.

For Southampton, three changes from their 4-2 win over Aston Villa dot the map, with Cuco Martina, Jordy Clasie, and Saido Mane all coming into the side. Charlie Austin is on the bench having returned from a hamstring problem, but Shane Long gets the nod to start, while Graziano Pelle does not appear.

A win for Manchester City would put them firmly in fourth at 67 points, seven clear of Manchester United with two more games to play.

LINEUPS

Southampton: Forster; Martina, Fonte, Van Dijk, Bertrand; Clasie, Wanyama, S.Davis, Tadic, Manè; Long.
Subs: Stekelenberg, Yoshida, Soares, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Rodriguez, Austin.

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Otamendi, Mangala, Kolarov, Delph, Fernandinho, Nasri, Sterling, Iheanacho, Bony
Subs: 
Caballero, Sagna, Clichy, Demichelis, Fernando, Navas, Aguero