By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 9, 2017) US Soccer Players - We’re in a hole. Behind the 8-ball. Honduras at home is now a must-win. Four points from the next two, at minimum. Don’t press the panic button yet, but… etc etc.
The USMNT’s winless start to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying has stirred much fear and fretting. Most notably, it prompted the federation’s decision to part company with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann despite its enormous investment in his tenure. The short-term danger of missing out on the planet’s biggest event, we were told, was simply too perilous to grant any further leeway he might have needed for long-term progress. Thus the quest for Russia 2018 has been placed in Bruce Arena’s safe, veteran hands before any further wobbles can sneak in.
Just how dicey might the rest of the Hexagonal be for the Yanks? Yes, they’re 0-2, but they’ve also gotten two of their toughest games – Mexico and away to Costa Rica – out of the way. You only have to finish in the top half of the six-team group to advance. There's the further safety valve of an intercontinental playoff for the fourth-place side. Mexico made light work of that playoff in the last cycle despite their historically woeful Hex.
So we took a look at every one of the six teams’ remaining schedules, considered their recent form and cross-checked for history with every other Hexagonal campaign of the current century. We also bear in mind the old chestnut about “win at home, draw on the road” being the path to the World Cup. That led us to several well-studied, but non-scientific, scenarios of how things might unfold as each country plays eight games between now and mid-October.
We’ll focus on the US, but check in on their Hex mates where needed – because if there’s any soccer event that supports the validity of chaos theory, it’s CONCACAF qualifying.
0 pts to date, 3 dropped at home; best possible points total = 24 pts
Remaining matches vs. HON, at PAN, vs. T&T, at MEX, vs. CRC, at HON, vs. PAN, at T&T.
LEVELHEADED TAKE: beat HON, draw @ PAN, beat T&T, lose @ MEX, beat CRC, draw @ HON, beat PAN, draw T&T = 3+1+3+0+3+1+3+1 = 15 pts
Key games: @ MEX, @ HON, home to CRC
Arena has said that four points from the two March qualifiers will get the US back on track. It’s hard to argue with that outlook. Extending that approach over the rest of the year will probably get them to Russia as an automatic qualifier. Even budgeting for a loss either at Mexico or at Honduras, two traditional houses of horror for the Yanks, this would see a final finish of 15 points. In our “levelheaded” scenario, that gets them third place, behind Mexico and Costa Rica but a nose or two ahead of Honduras.
However, it’s not hard for jolts and jitters to sneak in here. That model reckons that the US will take a road point from either Mexico City or San Pedro Sula, two testing trips that could quite easily turn out empty-handed. If both El Tri and Los Catrachos beat the yanquis there, Honduras pull to within just one point of the US in the final standings. “Squeaky bum time” is the British term of choice here.
It also includes a home win over Costa Rica. Given Los Ticos’ strong outings to date, they might just fancy their chances of snatching a point in the States on Sept. 1. Conversely, it includes a road draw at likely Hex doormats Trinidad & Tobago on the final day of qualifying. The Soca Warriors held the US to a draw in Port-of-Spain in the last round of qualifying but may well struggle to do so again.
Speaking of T&T, they might just be this Hex’s prediction-wrecking free radical. The islanders have been a hot mess lately after losing their first two games in this round. They fired coach Stephen Hart, then fell out with his replacement Tom Saintfiet after barely a month. That span included a grisly defeat in a qualifying playoff for this summer’s Gold Cup and public clashes with a few star players.
T&T may have righted the ship with the recent hiring of respected former player Dennis Lawrence, who previously worked under Roberto Martinez and has brought in England great Sol Campbell as an assistant. The road ahead is rough. They could easily finish the Hex winless, as they do in more than one of our models. So if Lawrence does manage to put things together, the men in red and black could well turn into a point-stealing banana peel for others.
At the other end of the table, Mexico and Costa Rica look quite capable of continuing their undefeated starts, even if history suggests they won’t. Their decades-long track records of impressive qualification have been built upon rock-solid home form. Costa Rica in particular have only dropped eight points at home in the last four Hexagonals, out of 60 points on offer. That adds up to a 16-2-2 record in home Hex games this century. It’s a level that El Tri once maintained, only to nearly miss out on Brazil 2014 by winning just one of their five home games during that Hex. CONCACAF teams with that degree of home futility almost always wind up watching the big event at home on television.
In that light, any points the US can take away from their June 11 visit to Estadio Azteca will be a bonus. On the flip side, the visits to Panama City and Port-of-Spain are “can’t-lose” occasions, despite the complicated travel – and occasional gamesmanship – involved in such fixtures. Remember, every single point counts. Panama’s Canaleros are off to a great start after November’s round-opening upset win at Honduras. In our levelheaded model, that result could see them past their Central American rivals in a razor-thin race for fourth place and a playoff with an Asian side.
Win at home, draw on the road. That traditional advice is now practically a mandate for a USMNT side with precious little wiggle room.
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