They All Count the Same
The formula for qualifying from the CONCACAF region follows a simple rule: win your games at home, pick up some points on the road, and pack your bags for the World Cup. There are 10 games on the schedule and 30 points available, and everyone counts the same.
As the United States heads into the second match of the 10-game Final Round having dropped the opener in Honduras, people are wondering if the game against Costa Rica counts as a “must-win” situation. Let’s break it down, using the past four cycles as a measure:
First, let’s start with total number of points needed. From the past four cycles, the third-place team in the group has averaged collecting 15.75 points to qualify for the World Cup. Has the U.S. ever qualified as the third place team? Sure has. And from that campaign in 2001, the U.S. went on to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the first time in 72 years and famously beat Mexico 2-0 in the Round of 16 along the way.
Next, it’s already established that you need to win your home games. Doesn’t matter if it’s the first of the round - like the March 22 game in sold-out Dick’s Sporting Goods Park - or the last, five home wins can add up to 15 points. If you earned the maximum, it would mean you needed exactly one point from five road matches to qualify. The last time the U.S. got five wins at home in the final round came ahead of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, when the team qualified on Match Day 7 following a 2-0 win against Mexico on Sept. 9, 2005, in Columbus. In 2002, the United States went 4-0-1 at home, with the sole blemish a 3-2 loss to Honduras on Sept. 1, 2001, at RFK Stadium. That defeat marked the first on home soil in qualifying since 1985, and there hasn’t been one since. The USA picked up 13 points in the 2010 cycle from four wins and a draw, which historically meant that it needed only three points from five road matches. They earned seven from two wins and a draw, including the clincher in the 3-2 win against Honduras in San Pedro Sula.
What about the road games overall - how has the United States fared? Since the 1997 final round campaign, the U.S. has averaged six points. In the past three cycles, the USA has lost twice on the road. In the last two campaigns, it has posted identical 2-2-1 records away from home.
The title of this feature is “they all count the same,” which suggests it doesn’t matter when you pick up the points so long as they add up to a spot in the World Cup. So how long does it normally take? Again referring to the previous four cycles, the United States has clinched a berth on Match Day 9 of 10 on three occasions (we already discussed 2006). Remember the 2002 cycle? The United States had come out flying, amassing 13 points from the first five games. They proceeded to lose three straight – coincidentally against Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica – and went into the ninth game of the round with the possibility of being eliminated with a defeat! Fortunately, Joe-Max Moore scored a pair in a 2-1 win against Jamaica in Foxboro, and the USA actually qualified that day instead of missing out.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 1997 Final Round campaign began with the U.S. having only six points from the first five matches. Like the 2013 team, that group faced three of the first five matches on the road. In the second half of the Hexagonal, the U.S. posted an undefeated 3-0-2 record, with the goal from current U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos kicking off the run in the historic 1-0 win against Costa Rica in Portland.
So as the U.S. seeks its seventh-consecutive berth in the FIFA World Cup, another old adage seems appropriate: it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.