Debunking the myth: The unique difficulty of CONCACAF away qualifiers

MATCH ANALYSISWe ran this post a while back, but since this topic has reared its head yet again with the upcoming US World Cup qualifiers, we thought we should post it one more time.

In a brief September 8th article, we brought up the debate on the difficulty of CONCACAF away Qualifiers, citing Ives Galarcep’s “Hazards of road qualifiers” and Luis Bueno’s “Debunking the myth.” After reading these, I decided this debate has been going on for quite a while and it’s time for me to throw in my two cents:  away qualifiers aren’t the exceptionally difficult task people often make them out to be.

I went back and looked at the USA’s qualifying (WCQ) record for the 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002, and 2006 cycles (Note: 1994 is excluded since we were the host and thus didn’t go through WCQ; 2010 is excluded because we haven’t completed all home-and-home series).  First of all, I’d like to thank Luis Bueno for the inspiration, but I have to say his statistics were a little incomplete.  In one sense, he went more in depth than I did, looking at Mexico’s and Costa Rica’s results, too.  But he neglected to include the home results for comparison.  Since 1984 (the start of the World Cup 1986 qualification), the US is 36-10-21 (W-L-D) in WCQs.  Their home record is 25-1-7.  Their away record 11-9-14.

Obviously the away record is significantly worse than home.  But, as Bueno points out in his article, the US has basically traded results with Mexico and Costa Rica over the years.  He concedes these WCQs are difficult for all parties and therefore excludes them.  This is pretty close to being true.  Looking into home-and-home series, there have only been two instances out of 10 where the opponents didn’t match results–the US drew at home to Costa Rica in the ‘86 and ‘02 cycles and lost their following matches on the road.

Here’s what happens when you take Mexico and Costa Rica out of the record: USA overall–29-1-16; Home–18-1-4; Away–11-0-12.  In these matches the USA has scored 57 goals (2.49 gpg) and allowed 13 (.56 gpg) at home; they’ve scored 29 (1.26 gpg) and allowed 10 (.43 gpg) on the road.  OK.  The home record is significantly better.  There are more goals scored at home, not to mention a significantly higher average margin.  This proves CONCACAF away WCQs are uniquely difficult.  Right?

Wrong.  In spite of this evidence, there are several other facts that can’t be overlooked:

- The US is undefeated in their away WCQs [Since this post was written, a second-string US team lost a meaningless qualifier at Trinidad & Tobago.  Their record is now 15-1-13, so I think this point is still valid. -Ed].  Their last road WCQ loss (again, excluding Mexico and Costa Rica) was in 1980–a 1-2 at Canada.  Keep in mind, we’re talking a decade before we became World Cup regulars.  In fact, the USA’s last WCQ loss was at home against Honduras in 2001.  That’s right, folks.  Since 1980, the USA has infinity times as many the same number of losses at home as they do away–ha.

- The USA has actually allowed fewer goals in away WCQs than they have at home.

- Proponents of the away qualifiers myth often cite the number of WCQs won by late-game heroics.  From the 1998 cycle on (note: I couldn’t find the statistics for earlier qualifiers), the US has scored the decisive goal (either a game-winning or game-tying goal) in the last 10 minutes of a home WCQ just once out of 25 games.  On the road, they’ve done it just 3 times, again, out of 25 games.  If you look at decisive goals scored in the final 20 minutes of WCQs, there have been 4 at home and 4 on the road, which only further undercuts this point.

- While the average margin of victory is greater in home WCQs (about 1.93 gpg home vs. .83 gpg away), the number of “close wins” (1-goal victories) is fairly similar–5 at home vs. 7 on the road.

I am not suggesting that away WCQs are less difficult than home.  Of course they’re more difficult, but I think we need to put the US’s performance in perspective:

Last year, Manchester United were 17-1-1 at home and only 10-4-5 on the road.  Liverpool were 12-1-6 at home and only 9-3-7 on the road.  This season, Columbus is 9-2-2 at home and 6-4-3 on the road.  It is extremely rare for a team–no matter where they are from–to win as many or more games on the road as they do at home.  And here’s where things get really interesting…

The average results for home teams in WCQ ‘06, sorted by region:

  • OFC:   won 76%, drew 13%, lost 11%
  • CONMEBOL:   won 58%, drew 26%, lost 16%
  • CAF:   won 58%, drew 19%, lost 23%
  • AFC:   won 51%, drew 16%, lost 33%
  • CONCACAF:   won 49%, drew 19%, lost 32%
  • UEFA:   won 44%, drew 25%, lost 31%

and for reference:

  • The English Premier League (2007-08):   won 46%, drew 26%, and lost 28%
  • MLS (2008):   won 51%, drew 26%, lost 23%

Are road WCQs in CONCACAF a cakewalk?  No.  As any bookie will tell you, home-field advantage is a real thing and I, for one, am not trying to disprove that.  But I have to disagree that there is something “uniquely difficult” about CONCACAF WCQs–based on the above statistics, CONCACAF is the second easiest region for getting road results (51% of the time, the road team won or drew). In fact, the home-field advantage in CONCACAF isn’t significantly greater than the home-field advantage in the EPL, and it’s even slightly lower than that in the MLS.  I’ll let that sink in.

Yes, there are unique circumstances in CONCACAF WCQs.  Yes, playing a Central American country is probably more difficult than most Europeans realize.  And I guarantee any US Nat would prefer a home game over the road.  But a road WCQ anywhere presents a set of challenges.

For too long, people have used the “extreme difficulty” of CONCACAF road WCQs to preemptively excuse poor play and mediocre results.  When we  visit the marginal teams of CONCACAF, we should expect our team to maintain composure; we should expect our team to hold some possession; we should expect our team to create some chances; and we shouldn’t be made to feel bad for holding our team to the standard that they have set for themselves over the last three decades.

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