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.

Real Madrid to reject La Liga’s plans for USA games

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Real Madrid aren’t interested one little bit about moving La Liga games from Spain to the United States of America.

La Liga, along with clubs Barcelona and Girona, have asked the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to move their league game from Catalonia to Miami, Florida in January 2019.

Amid growing negativity towards the idea from FIFA president Gianni Infantino plus several other La Liga clubs, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has now stuck his oar in.

“We won’t go to the United States,” Perez said. “I don’t know whose interest it is in to play there but it is not in the interests of the clubs or the supporters, so we outright reject it.”

And there you go.

This idea seemed to be a decent one to start with but the more it has developed, the more it has become a bit of a PR disaster for the league.

With the Spanish FA, La Liga, U.S. Soccer, CONCACAF and others all having to agree on moving a regular-season game out of Spain, it seems like a lot of people will need a lot of convincing between now and November/December time when this will have to be confirmed or canceled.

Last week RFEF demanded more details on the game in Miami from La Liga and refused to give the green light to the game.

Javier Tebas, head of La Liga, seems desperate to make this happen after agreeing to a 15-year deal to play one league game a season in North America. But Tebas hasn’t received much backing from clubs, officials and pretty much anyone else in-between.

La Liga is trying to grow its global brand but moving regular season games across the Atlantic Ocean a la the NFL, NBA and MLB doesn’t seem to be the way fans and players in Spain want to go about it.

What other alternatives are there?

They could perhaps start by playing the Spanish Super Cup in the USA and see how that fares? Or maybe host a mini preseason tournament in the USA involved over half of the La Liga teams? Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona and others already spend pretty much every preseason in the USA playing in front of European giants in prestigious friendly games and fans accept it is a scrimmage but still show up in their thousands.

If La Liga’s brand is that strong, fans will want to travel from across the globe to watch Real, Barca, Atletico and others in action. That already happens, but can you fault them for trying to strengthen it by taking games elsewhere?

La Liga want to try something different and to close the gap between themselves and the Premier League. Throw in the growing popularity of the Bundesliga and Serie A, at least from a commercial standpoint, and it makes sense fo think outside the box, or the country in this instance.

But if the key stakeholders do not agree, it can’t happen. End of discussion.

VIDEO: Worst dive in history? Quite possibly

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Now, we’ve all become accustomed to seeing some of the ugly parts of the beautiful game.

Diving is undoubtedly one of the biggest problems we needed to clean up. And ridiculous videos like this one may help to do that.

Feyenoord’s Steven Berghuis got a little pat on his head from an opposition player at the weekend. It was a friendly ‘nice one, mate’ from Utrecht player Willem Janssen. That was it. Nothing more.

Yet this was how Berghuis reacted as he is being ridiculed across social media.

Now, we all know that ‘trying to win a free kick’ and other forms of embellishment are apparently part of the game. We don’t like it. But until VAR is commonplace at all levels of the game, players will continue to try and get away with whatever they can.

But incidents like this and some of Neymar’s antics this summer, coupled with the public ridicule that type of simulation has received, will surely act to dissuade future generations from attempting such outrageous levels of skullduggery.

We live in hope.

Word has it Berghuis is off to a swimming pool in Rotterdam on Monday to perfect his diving skills…

Women’s Ballon d’Or award launched

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PARIS (AP) A woman will win the most prestigious individual trophy in soccer for the first time this year.

Awarded every year by France Football magazine since Stanley Matthews won it in 1956, the Ballon d’Or for the best player of the year will be given to both a woman and a man on Dec. 3 in Paris.

Pascal Ferre, the magazine’s editor in chief, told The Associated Press women’s soccer has grown so much in recent years it was a logical step to create the new award.

“Women’s soccer is a booming discipline that deserves the same respect as men’s soccer,” Ferre told the AP. “It’s coming to maturity and growing bigger. More than 760 million TV viewers watched games at the last women’s World Cup in 2015, this did not happen by chance.”

France Football will make an official announcement in Tuesday’s edition of the magazine.

A list of 15 nominees for the prize will be announced on Oct. 8 alongside the 30-man selection. The players will be selected by France Football and a panel of international journalists specialized in women’s soccer will vote on a winner.

“The jury won’t be the same as the jury voting for the men,” Ferre said. “Only experts can vote. I’m confident we will get a jury of about 40 journalists, from countries where women’s soccer is growing.”

The Ballon d’Or merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year award from 2010-15, but the magazine and soccer’s governing body split two years ago. FIFA also awards a trophy to the best women’s player.

Ferre said most of the female players he spoke with about the new Ballon d’Or have been enthusiastic.

“They are thrilled and can’t wait for it,” Ferre said. “They are very proud to see that the world of soccer considers that women should be treated in the same respect as men.”

France Football is also launching a new award for the best young player of the year, the Kopa trophy, named after the late Raymond Kopa. The former Real Madrid attacking midfielder who became the first French player to win the Ballon d’Or back in 1958 died last year at 85. Only former winners will be entitled to choose the winner from a list of 10 under-21 players.

The award ceremony will be broadcast live in more than 120 countries.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

VIDEO: 7-year-old’s amazing national anthem at LA Galaxy

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Sometimes you see something which makes you stop in your tracks and marvel in the wonder of the world.

This is one of those occasions.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

Seven-year-old Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja stole the show before the LA Galaxy’s 3-0 win against the Seattle Sounders on Sunday, with the youngster performing an incredible rendition of the National Anthem ahead of the Major League Soccer clash.

Emma was the winner of the #GalaxySocial Day Instagram Anthem contest and her prize was to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the StubHub Center.

Take a look at the video below to see the youngster steal the show, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic declared her the MVP of the game.

Simply amazing.