Sunday, June 06, 2004


World Cup Qualifying for Dummies

World Cup Qualifying. The mere mention of it brings chills to the spines of football fans from Auckland to Ottawa, from Lusaka to Tashkent, from Quito to Belfast. For our beloved Red, White, and Blue, it involves 18 games over 16 months in 3 separate and distinct stages. It’s not for the weak of heart, and it definitely is not a slam-dunk ANYWHERE in the world. For the United States, the preceding is the path it must travel to reach the ultimate goal of this journey: one of 3 guaranteed places from CONCACAF in the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany and the opportunity to compete with 31 other nations for the greatest prize in all of sport. The following is a list of key things to remember during qualifying that will make the experience more pleasant and less stressful for you, the fan.

1) It’s a LONG road to travel from the beginning of qualifying (June 13th, 2004) to its conclusion (October 12th, 2005), and things will happen along the way. Injuries will come into play, club managers will be less-than-cordial about releasing players, and team form will go up-and-down (and up-and-down and up-and-down). Trinidad and Tobago went 5-1-0 in its 2000 semifinal group, but 1-7-2 in the final group in 2001, getting four of their five points in its final two matches. Costa Rica went from needing to win a neutral-site playoff over Guatemala at the end of 2000 to qualify for the Hexagonal to clinching qualification for the World Cup with two matches to spare in September of 2001 and giving Mexico its first-ever qualifying loss as home. The US started qualifying with one point from two matches, ran off nine matches without a loss over the following 10 months, then dropped three straight before a combination of results (a win against Jamaica and help from other lands) put them into the World Cup one match early in October of 2001.

2) We will lose matches. There is no denying this fact, other than to live in an antiseptic dream world. Getting points on the road in CONCACAF is a very difficult task, so coming away from anywhere with a point or three should NOT be taken for granted. Over the past two qualifying cycles, the US was 4-5-7 on foreign soil, which included going 0-4-0 in Costa Rica, 0-1-1 in Mexico, 0-0-2 in Guatemala, and 0-0-2 in Jamaica. On home soil, we managed to go 12-1-3 over that time span, with two “good” draws (Mexico in 1997 and Costa Rica in 2000), one “bad” draw (Jamaica in 1997), and a horrendous loss on Labor Day Weekend 2001 to Honduras. Just as getting points away from home is hard, so is running the table at home. If you glean nothing else from my words, remember this mantra: Win at home, tie on the road.

3) Surprises happen. As I am typing this, the Solomon Islands pulled off the biggest result in its international football history with a 2-2 draw against a ten-man Australia side that advanced them to the final stage of Oceania World Cup qualifying ahead of defending Oceania Nations Cup champion New Zealand, a team who defeated the Solomons earlier in the round. The Kiwis, however, did one better a few days earlier when they lost 4-2 to Vanuatu (a result that ultimately cost them advancement). Costa Rica opened qualifying in 2000 by losing to Barbados, a result that almost came back to bite them at the end of the round. Trinidad and Tobago, a team on a tragically-bad run of form (1 point from 8 matches), shocked Honduras IN HONDURAS on Matchday 9 of the 2001 Hex to set the stage for the Catrachos’ elimination from qualifying on the final day at the hands of Mexico (and coincidentally clinched a berth in Korea/Japan for the United States).

4) The factors that affect national team call-ups are numerous, and change from match to match. At times, a solid member of the first XI will not be called in for a match. There are questionable call-ups for EVERY national team camp. Opponents change from match to match, and the proper personnel needed to get the result needs to change as well. Playing a team at home might necessitate different players than playing the same opponent on the road. Club matches and priorities affect at times the ability of a manager to call in certain players (e.g. John O’Brien not being available for the match at Mexico in 2001, the four players dismissed from camp just a couple days ago), and the schedule will at times affect the feasibility of calling up players stationed in Europe. The team’s formation, the personnel available, and “chemistry” all play a key role in determining whom to bring to camp. The camp roster for a one-off match will probably be different than that for a Saturday/Wednesday set of fixtures (the US will play two of these in its six-match semifinal group should it advance past Grenada). Another important thing to remember: EVERY player on the roster for a qualifier is there for a specific reason (some more obvious than others).

5) No two results are exactly the same. Hearing that the US won a qualifier 1-0 only tells part of the story. Who was the opponent? Where? How did they set up? How did WE set up? Who was/wasn’t available? The 1-0 win over Costa Rica in 2001 was MUCH different than the 1-0 win over them in 1997. Same for the 0-0 draws against Jamaica (1997 and 2001). Context means so much on the qualification road, and a result that might make one jump for joy at one time in the journey will make the same person curse the ancestors of the starting XI at another time. It comes with the territory.

6) Winning at home is CRUCIAL to advancing. The mantra I mentioned above holds true, as does the following axiom: If you take more road points than you surrender home points, you will advance. The US has gotten to the World Cup each of the past two times because they have defended home court well (no fewer than 11 points in either Hex) and gotten key road points along the way (the series of road draws in the 1997 Hex, a 30-match competition that saw only TWO road victories; the win at Honduras on Matchday 2 of the 2001 Hex). Honduras missed out on the 2002 World Cup because they lost THREE home matches (to the US, Costa Rica, and Trinidad/Tobago) out of five, not because Mexico got hot over the final five matches. You cannot make up ground on the road fast enough to negate dropped points at home. Below is a simple computation to keep in mind over the qualifying season:

--Every team starts with 0 points.
--As the group phase progresses, assign points based on the results according to this scale:
0 points for a home win
–2 for a home draw
–3 points for a home loss
0 for a road loss
1 point for a road draw
3 points for a road win
--If your team is above 0, you’re in good shape; if below 0, you should worry.

7) Just as the home crowd influences teams for good or bad, so they can influence the officials. The referee and linesmen are not immune to home-crowd pressure, especially in many of the locales in CONCACAF. Phantom penalties are called, legitimate fouls are not called, cards are/are not given on a seemingly random basis, and any or all of these can contribute to what might seem an unjust result. Having said that, the odd thing is that good teams tend to get breaks down the road that counteract the bad things that happen. No-calls on possible handballs against John O’Brien, Clint Mathis, and Jeff Agoos in the last qualifying cycle and World Cup are karmic counters to the phantom handball against Gregg Berhalter in Costa Rica in 2000 and the no-call on Thorsten Frings’ handball on the goal line in the World Cup quarterfinal against us.

8) At least one member of the starting XI in the first qualifier will be out of the player pool by the time the final qualifier is played, and several players off the radar today will make the final 23 for the World Cup should we qualify. Players that are in hot demand today might fall out of favor as the level of competition, the style of play, and the rise of players out of the pool changes. As a result of this, the manager might perceivably shaft your pet player. Deal with it!

9) Trust in our manager to get us to Germany. Sometimes he will look like he has no clue. Sometimes he will seem out-of-touch with the soccer-loving public. We must believe that Bruce will put us in position to qualify until such time as he has proven himself unable to do so.

10) WEAR RED on every matchday, attend every game you possible can (home and away), and support the boys in every way you can. We are ALL in this together, and the final destination is Leipzig in December of 2005 to find out who we will play in the group phase of the World Cup Finals the following June.


Hello, I'm Fedora. I also run a blog. I would like to say that your blog on World Cup Qualifying was absolutely OUTSTANDING!!! Many professional journalists will never write a column anything near this good. Job well done my fellow soccer fan.

(I wear red every saturday anyway. I'm a Chicago Fire fan. Go ahead and love me or hate me.)
Excellent post! Will link to it ASAP.
Thanks for all the kind words. :)
Well fuck me. I'm English and football is supposedly my national sport. What you have written makes my skin crawl. What have you done to the beautiful game? You've turned it into one of your over complicated, convoluted and absurdly difficult "yank" games. It's almost beyond words. Your post truly makes me want to vomit blood. I now hate you and your nation more than I have ever done. I am going to start a petition to have America removed from FIFA lest the beautiful game end up like American Football or that God-awful game you call Baseball.
At the very least, please stop calling it soccer. Wanker.
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Motto of different country FIFA2006 world cup team
1.We are football >Germany< on the road to gold Netherlands
3.Liberte,Egalite,Jules Rimet >France<
4.Never-ending legend,united Korea
5.2006,It's Swiss o'clock
6.A passion to win and a thirst to succeed
7.angola lead the way,our team is our people
8.get up,argentina are on the move
9.australia's socceroos-bound for glory
10.vehicle monitored by 180 million brazilian heart
11.our army is the team,our weapon is the ball,let's get to germany and give it our all Costarica
12.ecuador my life,football my passion,the cup my goal
13.come on the elephants!win the cup in style nation,one trophy,eleven lions ENGLAND
15.go black stars,the stars of our world > Ghana<
16.stars of Persia pride,italy in our hearts
18.light up your samurai spirit Japan the finals with fire in our hearts "> Croatia<
20.aztec passion across the world
21.from the heart of america...this is the guarani spirit
22.white and red,dangerous and brave >Poland<
23.with a flag in the window and a nation on the pitch,forca Portugal
24.the green hawks cannot be stopped > Saudi Arabia<
25.fight!show spirit!come on!you have the support of everyone >Sweden<
26.for the love of the game
27.spain,one country,one goal
28 with our support,ukraine cannot fail to win come the soca warriors-the fighting spirit of the Caribbean
30.belief and a lion's strength,for victory and our fans > Czech<
31.the carthage eagles...higher and stronger than ever
32.united we play,united we win>UNITED STATE<

Dr Han (Super football fans)
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