Qualifying for the FIFA World Cup is a difficult and exhausting process, a combination of regional rivalries, tricky road trips and brutal conditions over a stretch of several months. In the current World Cup cycle, the United States men's national team is finding all the above to be true, having played dangerous opponents in both searing heat and driving snow.
With that in mind, it is perhaps little surprise that qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has been anything but easy for the U.S. Through three matches, the Americans have collected four points and currently sit in fourth place having played one fewer game than group-leading Mexico. The top three teams qualify automatically for the World Cup.
Fourth place is not the goal for coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but finishing there would ensure the Americans reach a playoff for next year's Cup. A victory this Friday at Jamaica could see the U.S. leapfrog all the way into first place of the Hexagonal, the final six-team round of CONCACAF qualifying. But a loss could drop it to fifth, outside the qualifying spots.
Such is the tight margin for error in this year's qualifying group, which is perhaps the most evenly contested Hex since CONCACAF adopted the format ahead of the 1998 World Cup. With that in mind, we decided to investigate what the U.S. must do to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
The answers are below.
The magic number
Since CONCACAF went to the six-team format for the final round of qualifying, there have been four Hexagonals, not including the current group. Each time the group has sent three automatic qualifiers to the World Cup, and no team has qualified automatically with fewer than 14 points.
Jamaica accomplished that in the first Hex, per Planet World Cup, finishing with 14 points behind the U.S. (17) and Mexico (18). Ahead of the 2002 Cup, the U.S. qualified third with 17 points (Mexico was second, also with 17); for the 2006 Cup, Costa Rica was third with 16 points; and for the 2010 Cup, Honduras was third with 16 (Costa Rica also had 16 points but entered the playoffs).
This tells us that 16 points should be enough to qualify automatically, and 17 points will almost surely be enough. As few as 14 could work as well, but in such a tight Hex, that seems unlikely.
So, then, where will the U.S. pick up the 12-13 minimum points needed for automatic qualification? Let's look at the schedule.
The U.S. started the current Hex poorly, losing 2-1 at Honduras in both teams' first match of the final round. But Klinsmann's team responded with a victory over Costa Rica at home and a scoreless draw at Mexico. Four points from nine possible represented a decent return, especially after the first match, but Klinsmann and the Americans will be looking for more this month when they play Jamaica (away), Panama (home) and Honduras (home).
Jamaica is currently in last place, having taken only two points from four matches. That amounts to bad news for the Reggae Boyz, as ESPN's Paul Carr tweeted:
Under current CONCACAF format, no team has reached WC w/ 2 or fewer pts from 1st 4 final-rd games. Adios, Jamaica.— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) June 5, 2013
The above information could result in one of two scenarios for the U.S. First, Jamaica could be motivated to turn around its fortunes and play well Friday against the Americans, whom they beat at home in the semifinal round. Alternatively, the team could respond poorly to such odds.
The first option seems more likely, and considering Jamaica's success against the U.S. last year, this is not an opponent the U.S. should take lightly. But that was the Americans' first loss to Jamaica, and the U.S. has more talent overall. All things considered, this is a game the U.S. should not lose.
Next is a home date with Panama, a game the Americans should win on home soil if they expect to qualify. The final game of this month's three-match qualifying run is set for June 18, when the U.S. will host Honduras in Utah. After the loss in San Pedro Sula in February, the U.S. will be looking for revenge.
An optimist would claim nine points are there for the taking, but a return of seven is more realistic. A pessimist would predict a return of four points, but on current form, the U.S. should be capable of taking five off these three opponents.
For now we'll err on the side of optimism and predict seven points for the U.S. over the next three matches.
Make or break September?
The month of September could prove difficult for the U.S.—or it could prove decisive. Matches against Costa Rica (away) and Mexico (home) will provide a stiff challenge, and the Americans' response could speak volumes about the their prospects for qualification.
First is a trip to San Jose for a match Costa Rica will view as a chance for revenge. The Costa Rican federation appealed the "snow game," which the U.S. won 1-0 in Denver in March. That appeal was denied, but the Ticos will surely be motivated and the home fans will obviously do their best to create a hostile atmosphere.
Then the U.S. returns home for a rivalry match against Mexico. Jose Manuel de la Torre has arguably the best team in CONCACAF based on talent, but until Tuesday night, El Tri had not won a single match in 2013. That changed with the 1-0 victory over Jamaica, and if the Mexicans start scoring more consistently, they will be difficult to beat.
As commentator Andres Cantor told B/R's Karla Villegas Gama:
They are not playing bad. Mexico has found a style under “Chepo” de la Torre, they have played respectfully, in Honduras they couldn't hold the lead in a very hostile environment but they still managed to protect it for over an hour. Then with the USA, at the Azteca, they had several chances but the ball wouldn't go in. And with Jamaica, even when it’s true that “Chuy” Corona had a couple of very good saves, Mexico controlled the game. The best they did was against Honduras in a match under extreme circumstances, with a 110-degree weather, in the middle of the afternoon, it was very tough. When the ball gets inside the goal, I think Mexico will be back to normal.
Both matches will be difficult, and losing both would put the U.S. in a difficult position. On the other hand, winning both could all but ensure qualification.
Considering the revenge factor, it's probably unrealistic to expect the U.S. to win in Costa Rica, where a draw would represent a good result. The home game against Mexico is harder to call, with Mexico struggling early in spite of a talented squad.
The U.S. has beaten Mexico 2-0 at home in each of the past three Hexes. Home-field advantage plays a starring role in this rivalry, and even with Mexico's talented squad, another American win is not out of the question.
For our forecast, add four points to the U.S. total. That would give the Yanks 15 for the Hex, meaning only one more victory would clinch qualification.
If that is how the first eight matches of the Hex play out, the U.S. would potentially be able to clinch qualification with a win (or maybe even a draw) at home to Jamaica on October 11. Doing so would give the Americans breathing room for the trip to Panama on the final match day.
By the time October arrives, Jamaica might be out of contention, as per Carr's tweet above. Regardless, the U.S. should expect to beat Jamaica on home soil.
Finally, the trip to Panama will be long and difficult, and it will come in the middle of the European season. The U.S. might have qualified by then, in which case the result would be unimportant. For our purposes, we will predict a draw and four points for the U.S. in the final two matches of qualifying.
Based on our projections, the U.S. should qualify for the World Cup with 19 points. That's not to say the process will be easy. Playing in Central America is always difficult, and this edition of the Hex is more competitive than ever.
Costa Rica will have extra motivation to play the U.S. hard, and Panama—which led the Hex through three matches—could be chasing qualification on the final match day. Even Jamaica, which sits last in the table, beat the U.S. on home soil last year.
All that to say qualification will be difficult. That said, however, the U.S.—which currently has four points—could reach the magic 16-point mark simply by winning all four remaining home games.
But in qualifying, hardly anything is simple.