World Cup qualifying is here, and the 12 remaining countries in CONCACAF are all dreaming of a place in the 2018 tournament in Russia. But two years, two rounds and 16 games stand in the way.
The United States begin their campaign in this Fourth Round, which starts on Friday night. Canada, meanwhile, have already been hard at work, defeating Dominica and then Belize in two-legged series earlier this year to get to this stage.
Both teams will be looking to finish in the top two places of their four-team groups, which would ensure passage to the fifth and final round of qualifying, aka ‘The Hex’.
So what kinds of results, exactly, would the US and Canada need to make the Hex?
The simple answer is that 10 points in the Fourth Round is the bare minimum, though sometimes more are needed. Since the current qualifying format was introduced ahead of the 1998 World Cup, only 1 of the 30 teams that have advanced to The Hex did so with less than 10 points: Panama, in the 2006 cycle.
That gives us a pretty straightforward equation for advancing from the Fourth Round: Win all your games at home, grab a point or two on the road, and you’ll be good.
For the United States, this seems like a reasonable task. On paper, the team should have no problem beating its Fourth Round opponents – Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala and St. Vincent & the Grenadines – at home and getting a few more points from three road games. Note the USMNT has never won all six of its Fourth Round games.
Canada face a significantly tougher draw, with Mexico in the mix. Unless Canada can pull off what would be a stunning upset in either of two matches against El Tri, they will most likely need to win both their home games against Honduras and El Salvador, while also grabbing a win on the road in Mexico or Central America, where they haven’t won since November 2004.
Though we don’t know who will be there, the same "Take care of business at home" logic applies to success in The Hex. Get at least third place in the six-team field and automatically qualify for the World Cup, or finish fourth and play against an AFC (Asian) team for a berth in Russia.
Third-place teams over the last five editions of the Hex have averaged 15.6 points, while fourth-place teams have averaged 13.2 points. A clean sweep at home would give a team 15 points and put them right in the mix for qualification. Add a couple road wins to that, and you’re looking at a team that can not only qualify, but also win.