Monday, September 7, 2009

CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying - 7 Down 3 to Go

As I said in my previous article on CONCACAF qualification, the Mexico win over Costa Rica has changed things drastically. The United States and Honduras took care of business so it is now all-but officially a four-team race for the three automatic spots.

Here is the table:

Honduras are currently top and also rate the best according to the Poisson model at both scoring and defending. Costa Rica are now really in a lot of trouble as far as finishing in the top 3. Their loss took them from the most likely CONCACAF team to make it to the top 4 team least likely to get in. Not only did they allow Mexico to go even with them on points, but by losing 0-3 they put themselves in really bad shape in the pretty likely event of a tie on points. They are currently 5 goals behind in goal differential - the first tiebreaker if teams are level on points. The United States got a very important win and moved into second. Unfortunately for them, the Costa Rica loss meant that instead of the win putting the Americans in fantastic shape it prevented them from being in really bad shape. Mexico obviously look a lot better than they did last week and are on a run that resembles the Mexico of old more than what we'd seen earlier in qualification.

The schedule is pretty important. Here are the remaining matches for the top four:

at Mexico
vs the United States
at El Salvador

United States:
at Trinidad and Tobago
at Honduras
vs Costa Rica

vs Honduras
vs El Salvador
at Trinidad and Tobago

Costa Rica:
at El Salvador
vs Trinidad and Tobago
at the United States

Mexico and Costa Rica have the easiest schedules as they play both El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago. Honduras appears to have the hardest schedule with both Mexico away and the United States at home. The US schedule is in between with no easy fixtures.

Poisson Predictions:

These predictions are based on the version where I use only results from this World Cup qualification campaign.


Offensive Rank: 1st
Defensive Rank: 1st
Top 3 Finish: 87.3%
4th-Place Finish: 12.6%
Qualification (50% chance in playoff): 93.6%
Change: +2.3% (net, not as a percent of old chance)


Offensive Rank: 3rd
Defensive Rank: 2nd
Top 3 Finish: 86.3%
4th-Place Finish: 13.3%
Qualification: 92.9%
Change: +27.6%

United States

Offensive Rank: 2nd
Defensive Rank: 3rd
Top 3 Finish: 83.0%
4th-Place Finish: 16.9%
Qualification: 91.4%
Change: +0.6%

Costa Rica

Offensive Rank: 4th
Defensive Rank: 5th
Top 3 Finish: 43.2%
4th-Place Finish: 54.8%
Qualification: 70.6%
Change: -24.0%

Trinidad and Tobago and El Salvador have just a combined 1.4% chance at making it. As I said in previous articles, I think either would be a serious underdog in a playoff. I'd put there combined chances at more like half a percent. With the 50% assumption, they lost 6.5% combined relative to what was predicted before Saturday's matches.

As you can see, Costa Rica's chances took a massive hit. Mexico gained all of that equity and then some and Honduras gained a bit. The US essentially treaded water.

Wedenesday's Matches:

El Salvador - Costa Rica

Poisson Predictions:
El Salvador win: 46%
Draw: 28%
Costa Rica win: 26%

This match is very important for Costa Rica. Getting a win would pull them out of fourth - two or three points ahead of Mexico or Honduras depending on how things go in Mexico City. With a draw they would pull even with one of those teams, but as I said even won't be good enough in the end because they are so far behind in goal differential. This is somewhat the opposite of Saturday's matchup with Mexico - winning is very important, but a draw isn't much better than a loss. If the Ticos win then, without knowing the results of the other matches, they will jump up all the way to about 79% to finish in the top 3 and 89% overall. A draw drops this to 38.5% and 69% and a loss to 26% and 61%. (note: As I've done before and will do in the future unless otherwise noted, I'm using 0-0 as the scoreline for a draw and either 1-0 or 0-1 for a win. Also, all probabilities are without knowing the results of other Wedensday matches and assuming 50% in a playoff.).

In short, with a win Costa Rica return to a solid position where they are likely to automatically qualify. Anything less and they are more likely than not to finish in 4th and play for their lives against a South American team.

Trinidad and Tobago - United States
T&T win: 34%
Draw: 26%
USA win: 40%

As far as the importance of the match, the US is in a pretty similar spot to where they were before Saturday's game. That's bad news I suppose since they're now playing away. The 4th-place team after Wednesday's games will have at most 13 points. With a win the US would go 3 full points clear with only two matches to go, which would be huge. In that spot, my model predicts that they finish in the top 3 with 93.7% probability and qualify overall 96.8% of the time. A draw is not much better than a loss. With a draw I have them at 79.7% to finish in the top 3 and 89.8% overall. A loss would drop them to 72.9% to go automatically and 86.3% overall.

Mexico - Honduras
Mexico win: 50%
Draw: 26%
Honduras win: 24%

For the third straight matchday, Mexico will be involved in the most important game. The importance of this match for each team is difficult to overstate. If Mexico win then they go two clear of Honduras going into their last two matches against the two worst teams. If Honduras win then they go four points clear of Mexico and would guarantee qualification with a win either against the US at home or at El Salvador. A draw doesn't seem good for either of them; it may put Mexico in 4th two points out of third and Honduras would be stay just a point clear of fourth and put their October 10th match at home against the US decently in the must-win column if they want to avoid the playoff. On the other hand, it would be beneficial for both in the event that Costa Rica either get a draw or lose at El Salvador.

According to the model, if Mexico win then they are 97.25% to finish in the top 3 and 98.6% overall with the usual assumption of a coin flip in the playoff. A draw is far less comfortable - 81.9% for automatic and 90.7% overall. A loss complicates things - they'd be at 67.6% automatic and 83.2% overall. For comparison purposes, that's almost exactly the same probability as not rolling a six if you roll a die. For Honduras, a win puts them at a 99.1% chance at finishing in the top 3. A draw reduces this to 91.3%, with a 95.6% likelihood of qualifying overall. A loss would dramatically increase their chances of finishing fourth - they'd be at 79.9% to finish in the top 3 and 89.9% overall.

For both teams a win puts them in as close to a lock, and a draw is significantly better than a loss.

How much does this match affect the US and Costa Rica? Not a lot actually. US fans will be happy to learn that the best outcome for the Americans is a Mexico loss. Leaving the other matches' results as unknown, the US has an 86.2% chance of a top-3 finish with an Honduras win, an 83.6% chance with a draw and an 80.9% chance with a Mexico win. For Costa Rica it's basically the same, but they are close to indifferent between a Mexico win and a draw - their chances of a top-3 finish are 46.6% if Honduras win, 43.0% if it's a draw and 41.9% if Mexico win.

Discussion Elsewhere

If I happen to come across articles elsewhere that I think my readers would enjoy I'll post them either separately or within my post if it's on the same topic.

Soccer by Ives is a great source, particularly for information related to soccer in the United States or American players abroad. He has written a very good article that is obviously much more concise and better written than what you see here. He makes some great points - most notably that the US' last match against Costa Rica is now almost certain to be important for both teams and that anything but a win Wednesday means the US would likely go into Honduras next month needing a result.

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