In this section, we give our take on one of the most hotly-contested issues in US Soccer.
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.” While looking through Soccer by Ives this morning, I came upon this in one of his Q&A articles:
“ZANO– I liked your post about road qualifiers. A lot is made of the hostile crowds of CONCACAF opposition. Do small European countries have the same kind of crowds?
IVES– Good question. I don’t think England would walk into Guatemala City or Havana or Mexico City and get major results. They would struggle with the hostile crowds, poor field conditions, altitude and all the things that make CONCACAF uniquely difficult.
I also want to touch on the notion that the U.S. team’s success in road qualifying over the past few years is evidence that CONCACAF road qualifying isn’t that tough. While the U.S. team’s road qualifying record is very good, there have been countless results that have come courtesy of late-game heroics. From Brian Ching in Jamaica to Cobi Jones in Panama to Clint Dempsey in Honduras. Road qualifiers in CONCACAF are tough, and that doesn’t just apply to the USA, Mexico and Costa Rica.”
After reading this, I decided this debate has been going on for quite a while and it’s time for me to throw in my two cents…
I went back and looked at the USA’s Qualifying (henceforth 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 are halfway through the group stage–we haven’t completed a home-and-home series with any of the teams). 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 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 out Mexico and Costa Rica matches: 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. Despite these facts, there are several others that can’t be ignored. The US is undefeated in their away WCQs. 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–not the “past few years” as Ives suggests. 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 losses at home as they do away–ha. 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. The USA has actually allowed fewer goals in away WCQs than they have at home. Ives cites 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. Those are pretty soft statistics, if you ask me. Not to mention, 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–I believe this only further undercuts Mr. Galarcep’s point that “countless” games have been won by late-game heroics.
So what am I getting at with all of this? Well, before we get into all of that, why don’t we put things 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 play–to win as many or more games on the road as they do at home. This phenomenon is not unique to the USA or CONCACAF. 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 observed 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. 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 been making a big deal out of the difficulty of CONCACAF road WCQs. Obviously they’re more difficult than home games, but that doesn’t mean they should totally excuse bad play. When a dominant team in the EPL puts in a sub-par performance on the road, people don’t criticize their fans for being dissatisfied. They don’t say, “It was on the road, chaps! Be happy!” Similarly, I don’t think I, or anyone else for that matter, should have to apologize for saying, “Yeah, good to have the 1-0 result, but that was an ugly performance–I think we should have held more possession and created a few more chances.”
Let’s keep things in perspective here. We have 9 points from 3 WCQs, 2 of which were on the road. It’s a good place to be. But why do so many people want us to be blindly satisfied with wins? Soccer is a game of nuance, not just statistics (yes–after throwing around statistics from thousands of matches, I lay this one on you). While I disagree with those calling for Bob Bradley’s head, I also have to disagree with those who are afraid to call ugly play what it is. It’s true that we were never going to go into Guatemala City or Havana and win 8-0, but I don’t think it would have been too much to ask for us to show a little bit more composure and control.
Filed under: The Great Debate Tagged: | AFC, CAF, concacaf, CONMEBOL, Costa Rica, English Premier League, EPL, fooball, harlow shapley, ives galarcep, luis bueno, Mexico, MLS, OFC, soccer, The Great Debate, UEFA, usa, usmnt, World Cup 2010, world cup qualifiers