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.

PSG signs American defender Alana Cook from Stanford

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PARIS (AP) Paris Saint-Germain’s women’s team has signed American defender Alana Cook from Stanford University.

The 21-year-old Cook, who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, has signed until June 2022. She was named the Pac-12 defensive player of the year this season for her performances with Stanford and has represented the U.S. at Under-20 level.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

She played 93 games and scored five goals for Stanford.

PSG’s women’s team is second in the French first division and sits two points behind five-time European champion Lyon after 15 rounds.

Cook says “I really wanted to play in a European club and to play against the best teams in the world.”

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

MLS notes: Zimmerman spurns Europe, Vazquez sold, DC youngster in remission

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Let’s sweep up some good, somewhat-expected, and wonderful news from around Major League Soccer.

DC United defender and Maryland product Chris Odoi-Atsem announced that he is in remission after a fight with Stage Two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

Odoi-Atsem was expected to undergo four months of chemotherapy, and the announcement comes just under three months into the journey.

At 23, Odoi-Atsem hopes to rejoin the team after his final round of chemo later this month. He was the 12th overall draft pick in 2017.

Another defender is extending his stay in Los Angeles.

USMNT center back Walker Zimmerman was a huge part of LAFC’s success as an expansion club following his arrival from FC Dallas, and was reportedly ready to test the waters of European soccer with interest from the Premier League, Ligue 1, and the Bundesliga.

But Bob Bradley pushed the right buttons and LAFC will have its 25-year-old mainstay back in the fold via a Targeted Allocation Money contract running through the 2022 season.

Finally, one of the key pieces to Toronto FC’s 2017 MLS Cup triumph is on his way out of Ontario.

Victor Vazquez is going to be sold to an unnamed Qatari club, pending a physical according to TSN’s Kristian Jack.

The 32-year-old scored posted 18 goals and 15 primary assists for TFC.

Transfer rumor roundup: Pellegrini to Man Utd? Dabbur wants Liverpool

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As Arsenal might be losing its head of recruitment, other Premier League movers and shakers are looking to bring big names to the Top Four fight.

If Northern Ireland is the hub for transfer movement, January is going to be a wild ride for one of the Premier League’s flagship clubs.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

The Belfast Telegraph is reporting that Manchester United is pursuing young Roma midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini in addition to the whispers linking the club to former Liverpool wizard Philippe Coutinho.

Pellegrini, 22, has two goals and six assists for Roma this season, having become a regular call-up for Italy. He reportedly has a $35 million release clause in his contract, though he is cup-tied in the Champions League (Roma next faces Porto).

His 2.6 key passes per game lead Roma and only AC Milan’s Suso and Atalanta’s Alejandro Gomez average more across Serie A. Pellegrini is second on Roma in crosses with 1.5.

How does $115 million sound for an elite 27-year-old defender? That’s what Napoli would reportedly accept from Real Madrid to bring Kalidou Koulibaly west to Spain.

The report, which also links Real with interest in Roma’s Kostas Manolas and Porto’s Eder Miliato, says United remains interested in the player despite the exit of admirer Jose Mourinho.

Anything more than $97 million, the fee Liverpool paid for Virgil Van Dijk, would break the world transfer record for a defender.

Meanwhile, Israeli striker Munas Dabbur is angling to bring his 20-goal season to Anfield.

Reports that Dabbur has turned down a move to Valencia in the hopes of joining Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino at Liverpool.

The Red Bull Salzburg striker has scored half of his 20 goals in the Champions League and Europa League, and has 11 Israel caps.

The cost for Dabbur is said to be $28 million, but is there any guarantee Dabbur can produce at a level that would demand playing time. Divock Origi has three goals in six matches and can hardly get time for the Reds, and Daniel Sturridge has only found 576 minutes in the first half of the season.

Arsenal to reportedly lose head of recruitment Mislintat

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The man expected to usher in an era of exciting new young talent at Arsenal may be leaving the club after less than 14 months.

Arsenal head of recruitment Sven Mislintat, 46, has been hailed as the man who discovered Christian Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang while at Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs Watford teen ]

Well-connected reporter Raphael Honigstein says Mislintat is frustrated by a change in recruitment policy since Ivan Gazidis left the Emirates Stadium. Gazidis hired Mislintat to use analytics and stats to find diamonds, whereas new head of football Raul Sanllehi prefers to work his own network for players.

Mislintat is considered the key to bringing in Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi, as well as clear connections like former BVB center back Sokratis Papastathopolous.

His departure would be a shot across the bow of an organization which enjoyed stability under Gazidis and Arsene Wenger for years.