The Conventional Wisdom Table for CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying

The conventional wisdom of World Cup qualifying has always been "win at home, draw on the road". My R skills and mathematical abilities are not (yet) sufficient to put that aphorism to the test by running computer simulations. However, starting with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I have occasionally posted my alternative CONCACAF qualifying table, which is based on said conventional wisdom. Given the United States' rocky start to the Hex, I thought the time was ripe to resurrect the Conventional Wisdom (CW) Table.

For the CW Table, "win at home, draw on the road" is the benchmark against which teams are measured. Teams gain and lose points relative to the expectations of that benchmark. For example, a win at home results in 0 points, as that result was the expected result. A home draw results in -2 points, as the expectation was 3 points but in reality only 1 point was earned. Home losses are worth -3 points. For away games, a win is worth +2 points (expectation was a draw for 1 point, but instead 3 points were earned by winning), a draw is worth 0 points (as it was the expected result), and a loss is worth -1 point (0 points earned where 1 point was expected). Add all of these "deviation from the CW" points up, and you have the Conventional Wisdom Table.

What is the point of all this? I found that simply looking at World Cup qualifying tables of matches played, wins, losses, draws, and points totals did not tell the whole story. Teams on level points look similarly situated in such tables, but the team that earned those points on the road and whose remaining matches are primarily at home is in a much better position than the team that earned its points at home and whose remaining matches are primarily on the road. The likelihood is that the paths of these two teams will diverge, but one cannot readily tell which team will wax and which will wane from the typical table. Similarly, a team might be languishing at or near the bottom of the table after a couple of games, but is it really time to panic yet? Did that team actually drop points relative to the CW? If so, how many relative to the other teams? In past qualifying cycles (e.g., the United States in the 2014 Hex), I have found that sometimes the teams near the bottom based on cumulative points earned are actually in better shape than some of the teams above them when points relative to the CW are considered instead.

With all that background, here is the CW Table for 2017 CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying after Match Day 4:
(click to enlarge)

Unlike past editions, this CW Table has no great surprises. However, it does reveal a few things that might otherwise go unnoticed after 4 games. One is that not only are Mexico and Costa Rica on top of the CONCACAF table based on points accumulated thus far, they are in particularly strong positions because they earned most of their points on the road. This gives both countries the only positive CW points of any teams in the Hex. Moreover, this table shows just how far ahead of the United States they both are. For example, even though Costa Rica is 3 points ahead of the US in Total Points, Costa Rica is actually 7 points clear of the US when it comes to deviation from the CW.

Turning to the opposite end of the table, both Honduras and T&T are in trouble. Their Total Points might suggest that they are only a couple of points out of the automatic qualification spots, but relative to 3rd place Panama, Honduras and T&T are 3 CW points and 4 CW points adrift, respectively. This is because they find themselves at the bottom of the CONCACAF qualification table despite having played 3 of their 5 home games already.

The CW Table also shows that the United States is still in a tricky position. The US has played as many home games and away games as Panama and trails Panama by just 1 point in the CONCACAF table, but based on CW points, the US is actually 2 behind Los Canaleros. If form holds, it is likely that the US's qualification to the 2018 World Cup (at least from one of the three automatic qualification spots) will depend on beating Panama on October 6 at home. Mark your calendars.


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