Weston McKennie celebrates a goal with USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter against Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League final in June. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)
Michael Lewis has covered World Cup qualifying since 1985. He has written four books about the World Cup, with several chapters on the qualifying process, home and abroad.
By Michael Lewis
Today’s World Cup qualifying lesson should be a simple one.
It is about the importance of winning home games.
An unofficial rule of WCQ is that if you can win most of your home games and not lose any, and steal some points on the road, particularly in Concacaf, you should be able to book spot in the World Cup.
The United States learned that the hard way as it lost twice in the same qualifying competition for the first time since the 1958 qualifying tournament. Not surprisingly, the USA failed to reach Sweden.
So, before examining Sunday’s confrontation between the U.S. men’s national team and Canada in Nashville, let’s take a quick review of the past, which certainly impacts the present and future.
On Thursday, both teams played to draws, the USA a scoreless deadlock at El Salvador, Canada a 1-1 tie at home in Toronto.
While many USMNT supporters bemoaned how the Americans hardly played close to their expected potential with a jagged attack and poor passes, it earned a road point in WCQ. That works both ways. The visiting team brings home a vital point. Moreover, the home team lost out on accruing two more points. A El Salvador squad, however improved it is under former USMNT midfielder and National Soccer Hall of Famer Hugo Perez, can never get those points back (unless there is a ridiculous scandal about the game; in Concacaf you never know).
The Canadians also saw two points go out the window in its draw, making their road to Qatar slightly more difficult. While some observers the Hondurans were a formidable foe – yes, they were – the Maple Leafs’ result was a devastating result because they were the home team.
Given this is a “short” 14-game Octagonal qualifying schedule, subtraction is as equally important as addition in WCQ math.
Fortunately for them, they will have more opportunities to accrue points, starting Sunday in Nashville.
So, both teams will be under pressure to perform, perform well, and grab some points.
Which side will face more pressure?
Probably the USA.
It needs to win there. The Americans are 2-2-0 at Nissan Stadium, including a 3-0 triumph over Trinidad & Tobago in WCQ April 1, 2009. Jozy Altidore, incidentally, had a hat-trick.
Since it was eliminated by Costa Rica via a 1-0 decision in 1985, the USMNT has forged an astounding 38-3-6 home record (87-percent winning percentage), dropping full points during the 2002 tournament and twice in the 2018 competition. During that span, the Americans have qualified for six World Cups on the field (the seventh, of course was USA 94, as hosts).
So, that’s pressure.
But let’s not forget that Canada needs a win, or least a tie, after dropping two points at home, with another home match on the horizon Sept. 5.
Pressure, of course, is relative. It depends on the individual and how he or she deals with it.
Some players and teams rise up thrive in it, others crumble when those big games and moments arrive.
As for winning at home, or perhaps not winning, here are two examples of failure.
In its quest to reach the 1986 competition in Mexico – El Tri, a long-time WCQ nemesis wasn’t in the tournament – the Americans lost only once during a four-game semifinal series with Costa Rica and T&T over 17 days in May 1985. Despite managing a 1-1 draw in Costa Rica – yes, the USA, actually secured a point down there – the team failed to reach the final round. Entering the last game with a 2-0-1 mark, the USA dropped a horrendous 1-0 decision to the Ticos in Torrance, Calif. on May 31, 1985. The USMNT was eliminated year to the day in which the World Cup was to kick off.
In November 1997, Mexico qualified for France ’98 with a scoreless draw against the USA at Estadio Azteca. The Americans played most of the match a player down after Jeff Agoos was red carded. The fans turned on the team and head coach Bora Milutinovic as they changed, Fuera Bora! throughout the match.
The Mexicans also suffered a 3-3 home draw Nov. 9 to Costa Rica, which overcame a 3-1 deficit and equalized on a Paul Wanchope goal in the 86th minute.
Mexican soccer officials gave Bora the boot Nov. 26, even though El Tri won the group and finished unbeaten with a 4-0-6 mark.
Tying at home against the hated USA was too much for the powers that be, even though the draw against the Ticos did not mean anything towards qualifying.
The moral of this story:
Win at home and you’re in good shape to reach soccer heaven. Lose and you might be digging your World Cup qualifying grave and heading for soccer hell.