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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.

Transfer rumor roundup: Man City after two backs; Zelalem to Holland?

NAPLES, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 17: Napolis player Faouzi Ghoulam vies with Bologna FC player Simone Verdi during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and Bologna FC at Stadio San Paolo on September 17, 2016 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images)
Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images
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Here are your transfer rumor headlines on a day when Gerard Deulofeu moves to AC Milan and Lazar Markovic heads to Hull City on loan.

[ MORE: Three players leave USMNT camp ]

Two Premier Leaguers could be heading down to help the Championship leaders. Newcastle United is said to be close to bringing Andros Townsend back from Crystal Palace after just a half-season, while Swansea City’s Mo Barrow is also on Rafa Benitez‘s radar.

An Arsenal blog says USMNT prospect Gedion Zelalem may have found his loan destination. The 19-year-old could be leaving the Emirates Stadium for a loan stint at VVV Venlo, with the Dutch side sitting first in the second tier and in a promotion push.

The Manchester Evening News brings reports of two backs on the radar of Manchester City. Rai Sport is the source for Man City’s interest in Napoli left back Faouzi Ghoulam, who has six assists in 21 appearances for Partenopei between Serie A and the UEFA Champions League. Pep Guardiola may also want to be reunited with Juan Bernat, though that story comes from the wild swings of The Daily Mirror.

Sunderland is going to lose one of its two brightest lights in a dark, dismal season. The Black Cats have taken a lot of calls on Jermain Defoe, but it’s Patrick Van Aanholt who is on the move to rejoin Sam Allardyce at Crystal Palace. The Dutch standout is said to be purchased for $15 million, and would be the equivalent of a transfer six-pointer in the Premier League’s relegation race.

Report: West Ham turns down another Payet bid

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14:  The Dimitri Payet of West Ham United sign is seen outside the stadium prior to the Premier League match between West Ham United and Crystal Palace at London Stadium on January 14, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
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West Ham United has rejected a third bid for wantaway midfielder Dimitri Payet, according to Sky Sports.

Marseille upped the ante to $28 million when it comes to the French midfielder, who has said he wants to go back to the club for “family reasons“.

[ MORE: Three players leave USMNT camp ]

Payet was given a $1.2 million loyalty bonus from West Ham earlier this season, but has continually tempted the rumor mill. He’s also winked at Arsenal.

He has 15 goals in parts of two seasons with the Irons, the same figure he boasted in two full years with Marseille. Payet has also played Lille, Saint-Etienne, Nantes, and AS Excelsior.

It’s been a rocky month for Payet, who could be doomed to purgatory at West Ham. Will any Premier League suitors come calling at the Irons’ $38 million asking price.

Serbia, Jamaican rosters weakened for USMNT friendlies

U.S. men's national soccer team coach Bruce Arena walks across the field during practice Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Carson, Calif. Coach Arena opens camp with the team in the same training complex where he spent the past eight years running the LA Galaxy. Arena returned to the U.S. team in November to salvage its run for World Cup qualification. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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The United States will not be at full strength for upcoming friendlies against Serbia and Jamaica, but who will take on the USMNT’s batch of MLS stars?

Both Оrlovi and the Reggae Boyz have announced their rosters for matches. The U.S. faces Serbia on Sunday in San Diego before hosting Jamaica in Chattanooga on Feb. 4.

[ MORE: Three players leave USMNT camp ]

If Arena was looking for a winning start, he couldn’t have asked for much more (or less). In terms of UEFA coefficient, Serbia has the 27th ranked professional league in Europe. Jamaica is bringing a second-choice team as well.

Serbia

Thanks to the non-traditional window, Slavoljub Muslin does not have many players who’ve helped his cause in 2018 World Cup qualifying.

Only eight of Serbia’s players in San Diego will have been previously capped, and only two — Ognjen Cancarevic (27) and Enver Alivodic (32) — are over 25.

Goalkeepers: Filip Manojlović (Crvena zvezda) Ognjen Čančarević (Radnik, Surdulica)

Defenders: Nikola Maraš (Rad), Lazar Jovanović (Borac, Čačak), Vladimir Kovačević (Vojvodina), Nemanja Ćalasan (Spartak), Marko Klisura (Bačka), Nikola Ćirković (Voždovac), Nemanja Miletić (Partizan)

Midfielders: Marko Jevtović (Partizan), Stefan Panić (Metalac), Jovan Đokić (Javor), Marko Gobeljić (Napredak), Aleksandar Paločević (Vojvodina), Enver Alivodić (Novi Pazar), Srđan Plavšić (Crvena zvezda).

Strikers: Marko Mrkić (Radnički, Niš), Saša Jovanović (Mladost, Lučani).


Jamaica

Jamaica’s unit is even less of a threat, traditionally speaking, as even MLS players like Andre Blake, Oniel Fisher, and Shaun Francis were not called up by coach Theodore Whitmore.

Jacomeno Barrett (Montego Bay United), Shaven Paul (Portmore United), Nicholas Campbell (Marverly United), Dicoy Williams (Arnett Gardens FC), Ladale Ritchie (Montego Bay United), Damano Solomon (Portmore United), Rosario Harriott (Harbour View FC), Romaine Brackenridge (Tivoli Gardens), Kareem Manning (Portmore United), Jamie Robinson (UWI), Ewan Grandison (Portmore United), Andrew Vanzie (Humble Lion), Dwayne Ambusley (Montego Bay United), Tevin Shaw (Tivoli Gardens), Owayne Gordon (Montego Bay United), Rohan Richards (Jamalco FC), Allan Ottey (Montego Bay United), Shamar Nicholson (Boys Town FC), Rodave Murray (Waterhouse), Javon East (Portmore United), Jamiel Hardware (Boys Town FC), Dino Williams (Montego Bay United).

AFCON wrap: Tunisia joins Senegal in knockout rounds (video)

Tunisia's Wahbi Khazri smiles during a press conference in Libreville, Gabon, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, ahead of their African Cup of Nations Group B soccer match against Zimbabwe. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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Half of the field is set for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations knockout rounds, as Group B completed his final day of group play on Monday in Gabon.

[ FIFA: World Cup draw date at Kremlin ]

Senegal will move onto play Cameroon on Saturday, while Tunisia will take on Burkina Faso.

Senegal 2-2 Algeria

Leicester City’s Islam Slimani scored twice, but it wasn’t enough to get Algeria into the knockout rounds of AFCON.

Papakouly Diop and Moussa Sow answered Slimani’s goals, and Senegal enforced its hold on the group it had already clinched after two matches.

Algeria needed a win and help, and looked to get it when Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani carried over their chemistry from the Foxes of England to the Fennecs of Algeria.

Zimbabwe 2-4 Tunisia

Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri scored of the fourth of Tunisia’s first half goals as the Eagles of Carthage emphatically clinched their knockout round spot. Tunisia lost in the quarterfinals in 2015.

Lille’s Naïm Sliti was also among the goal scorers for Tunisia, with Youssef Msakni (Lekhwiya) and Taha Yassine Khenissi (Esperance de Tunis) also netting markers.

Tendai Ndoro (Orlando Pirates) and Knowledge Musona (Oostende) scored for Zimbabwe.