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Can I have your attention please.
If you are one of those U.S. Soccer fans that likes to freak out every time the U.S. suffers a slight hiccup, or if you are one of those that likes to call for Jurgen Klinsmann’s job every time the U.S. suffers loss to a team that you deem is inferior, then this column is for you.
The USMNT is about to start their most important 11 months of this World Cup cycle when they begin the final Hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying later this week. Over the next 11 months, the U.S. will play 10 matches against five teams in order to determine which CONCACAF teams will go to Russia for the 2018 World Cup.
Right off the bat the U.S. will be tasked with two of their three most difficult matches when they face Mexico at home followed by a trip to Costa Rica. If history is any indication, there’s a very good chance the U.S. comes out of these two games with a maximum of just four points (one win and a draw).
Now, before you freak out please take a deep breath. Four points in the first two matches is not only nothing to worry about, it is totally acceptable for the U.S.
For as “daunting” and “challenging” as the media like to tell you the Hex is, the truth is it’s really not all that difficult. Six teams compete, three of them make it straight to the World Cup, a fourth will compete against the fifth placed Asian team for a final World Cup spot (right now that is shaping up to be either South Korea or Japan). In total, after 10 games just two of the six teams in the Hex will be completely eliminated from the World Cup.
Under the current setup, if your name is Mexico or the United States the Hex has proven to be an ultra forgiving tournament. In qualification for the 2014 World Cup, Mexico managed to win just one of its first eight games. They finished with just 11 points and still made it to the round of 16 in the World Cup.
Mexico’s 11 points is a bit of an outlier, but usually 13-14 points is good enough to secure at least fourth place. 15-16 points is usually good enough for third place and a trip to the World Cup, which is all that you need. That’s all the U.S. would need to accomplish. The payoff for finishing third is exactly the same as it is for finishing first.
That’s not to say the U.S. isn’t trying, or isn’t expected to top the Hex as they have in each of the past two editions of World Cup qualifying but missing out on the number one spot is not the end of the world. The only benefit to finishing first is should the U.S. do so there is a non-zero chance they can move up enough in the FIFA rankings to be placed in Pot A, but the only chance of that realistically happening is if the U.S. would win every game, which they won’t.
This brings us back to Costa Rica. The USMNT has never won a competitive match in Costa Rica. Should they fail to lose next Tuesday it’s a non-issue because here’s the thing about the Hex, you don’t actually need to win your away games. Again, 15 points is usually enough to get you through. You get five home games, if you win all five there’s your 15 points right there.
And that presents the basic strategy of the Hex. Win at home, don’t lose on the road. If the U.S. were to win all five home games (they didn’t even concede a goal at home last time around) and they could just go 1-2-2 on the road, that’s good enough for 20 points, which is what they got when they topped the Hex in 2009. It’s that simple.
Of course getting results away from home is no easy feat in CONCACAF. Poor accommodations, terrible field conditions, and shoddy refereeing always seem to negate any talent advantage the United States has over their opponents. In the last round the U.S.’s away performance featured an uninspiring 0-0 draw against Trinidad & Tobago, a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Guatemala, and a 6-1 romp of cellar dwellers St. Vincent and the Grenadines. While that wasn’t exactly the most inspiring of form, if the U.S. were to again play at a draw, loss, win pattern, they would emerge from the Hex with exactly the 1-2-2 record that they covet.
The U.S. is going to slip up in games that they should win on paper. There are going to be games where several first choice players are suspended or injured and Klinsmann is going to have to use untested players in those games. But that’s the beauty of the Hex. It’s where you really learn about the players on your roster and it’s where your players do the most growing.
When the Hex finally kicks off this week the U.S. will be tested right from the get-go. If they do slip up, don’t panic. They will still have eight games to go included their easiest seven. Let’s not call for Klinsmann’s head should that happen.
Instead, let’s trust the process and remember that it will all work out.