Still in Crisis, United States Back on Track for South Africa

Two days ago, I would have put the United States’ odds of making the World Cup at less than even money. I was the pessimist, though. Most of the colleagues I talked to saw the same dangers but took a more optimistic view.

After last night’s match at Saprissa, where a resurgent Mexican national team tore Costa Rica apart, my appraisal is a little more positive. I would now say the U.S. is better than even money to finish in the top three of the hex because the Costa Ricans are completely lost. For the first time since I started breaking down CONCACAF’s last four qualifying rounds, I see a viable way the United States makes it to South Africa that does not involve getting three points at Port of Spain, where Trinidad and Tobago hosts the U.S. on Wednesday.

Nation Pts (Diff)
Honduras 13 (+7)
United States 13 (+4)
Mexico 12 (+2)
Costa Rica 12 (-3)

First, let’s recognize the landscape. The top four in CONCACAF are separated by one point (as you can see in the table to the right) with three matches remaining, but the biggest divide has Honduras and Mexico on one side, the United States and Costa Rica on the other.

The Hondurans and Mexicans are playing like teams that can not only qualify but also make it out of their group in South Africa. Honduras has won three in a row since losing in Chicago, posting a 9-1 aggregate in the process. It should be noted that all of those matches were in San Pedro Sula. Mexico has also won three in a row, the most impressive of which can at Saprissa last night.

Mexico has matches remaining with El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago. That will get them to eighteen points, a total that would miss South Africa only if Costa Rica makes up the difference in differential. If Mexico gets one point in their other qualifier, Wednesday at Azteca against Honduras, they get to nineteen and (because of the way the head-to-heads work out over the remaining fixtures) are in. I think we can all agree Mexico is very likely to get a point at home against La Bicolor.

Even if Honduras loses in Mexico City, they look certain to get nineteen points, a total that couples with their group-best goal differential to qualify them for the World Cup. That point total assumes a win at El Salvador to close qualifying along with a win at home four days earlier against the United States.

Honduras, the regions best team, is relatively unknown to United States-supporters

Honduras, the region's best team, is relatively unknown to United States-supporters

I have talked to a number of United States supporters over this international break, all of whom seem surprised that I’m assuming a win for Honduras in Round 9. In case Honduras has not convinced you of their quality over the last three rounds, I will lay out my arguments. With the likes of Wilson Palacios, David Suazo, Maynor Figueroa, and Hendry Thomas, the Hondurans have the better players. They are also playing better than the United States, as cited in the previously mentioned numbers as well as this comparison of yesterday’s results: Where the United States beat El Salvador 2-1 at home, the Honduras posted a 4-1 drubbing of a nation with as many points in qualification. The United States can win in San Pedro Sula, but it’s a poor plan that depends on getting any points in Honduras.

The third automatic qualifying spot will be contested by the United States and Costa Rica, with their Round 10 meeting at RFK Stadium almost certain to have the effect of a playoff (unless you think either of these teams can beat Argentina or Ecuador). How each team performs in Rounds 8 and 9 will determine if either side has an advantage going into the match.

We’ve already talked about the U.S.’s road to Washington. Costa Rica’s road is much easier. They play at El Salvador on Wednesday before hosting Trinidad and Tobago in San José on October 10. Last Tuesday, when I started analyzing the group, I had Costa Rica getting six from these matches. Now I’m far less certain. I think Costa Rica, particularly with a month to regroup, will get three points from their home fixture, but in El Salvador on Wednesday, I doubt they can win. If they do, the United States will have to win in Port of Spain, but if Los Ticos get zero or one point on Wednesday, the U.S. can stumble against the Soca Warriors.

I think the United States gets one point on Wednesday. Though they won yesterday, they were tactically bankrupt. If it wasn’t for the leadership provided by Landon Donovan’s play (and example), the team may not have recovered after going down a goal. I don’t know relying on that is a formula for consistent success, and against an athletic and physical opponent on Wednesday, their lack of discernible approach makes the match a coin flip. If Bobby Zamora (who, injured, did not play in Honduras) plays while Charlie Davies does not, three points look unlikely.

If Rounds 8 and 9 unfold like this, the United States would take the pitch in D.C. with 14 points. Costa Rica would have 16, meaning Los Ticos would need only hold out for a draw to make it to South Africa. Given the United States’ tendency to give up the first goal, a situation where an opponent can play for a draw becomes very dangerous.

I do like the U.S. to win in RFK, regardless. Remember, I don’t think Costa Rica can win at El Salvador, so I certainly don’t like them to get a result in D.C (though given the U.S.’s result in Saprissa, I should not be so dismissive of Costa Rica’s chances). But if the Costa Ricans do win in San Salvador and the United States still draws in Port of Spain, then the Round 10 match would be meaningless.

The U.S. is back on track to get to South Africa. Even myself playing the role of Captain Pessimism can say that. But the team still needs three points on Wednesday. Without them, the United States could lose control of their destiny.

It seems like a sad place for the program to be. Two months ago, people were discussing the United States as fringe World Cup contenders. Now, they are fringe World Cup qualifiers.

First things first: let’s get rid of that “fringe” adjective. Then we can resume talking about the bigger crisis.

– Richard Farley/The Kartik Report