TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
BRENT LATHAM - Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
More scenes like this to come?
This is a bit of an internet no-no, but YA's boss is out of the country, and there's no time to get the programmers to work on this.

So I'm going to suggest you go to the Spanish-language soccer site mediotiempo.com, and click on the little blue sub-title that says "simulador hexagonal." (Make sure to open a new window in your browser, and don't forget to come back to finish reading.)

You can play around prognosticating the potential outcomes of the remaining four dates of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and the table will calculate the final outcome given your changing assumptions.

OK, you're back? Yeah, it's pretty cool. No need to thank me.

Anyway, there's an important lesson here. Try to pick a combination a reasonable one that gets the Yanks through comfortably among the top three (that is, by three or four points and with a game to spare).

Yes, this hexagonal is officially too close for comfort. If the Americans want to avoid a November home and home playoff against South America's fifth place team, they've got their work cut out for them.

It has already been pointed out that the fifth place South American team could be super-talented Argentina or Uruguay. Or it could be an Ecuador team that plays its home games at a stadium some two thousand feet higher than El Azteca. Think Landon Donovan and company had trouble breathing in Mexico City?

FIFA has already determined that the CONCACAF team will host the first leg of the series, meaning the all-important second leg will be in South America. Prefer to try to beat Colombia or perennial power Paraguay in that scenario? Or maybe an away match in Venezuela that will make the anti-American atmosphere in Mexico City last month seem more like Des Moines on the 4th of July?

So, we can agree that the fourth place option doesn't really offer much margin for error this year.

What does that mean for the upcoming games against El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago? It may not seem like it, but they are both absolute must wins for Bob Bradley's team.

As our simulator shows, barring unusual circumstances, teams will need to accumulate at least seventeen points to get through the hex in the top three. There's even a reasonably likely scenario in which the four contenders the US, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Honduras - all end up tied on nineteen.

All four teams have two home games left, and one game remaining against each of the also-rans, El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago. The difference between direct qualification and that treacherous fourth place spot is likely to be the ability to hold serve at home, and beat El Salvador or Trinidad & Tobago in the corresponding road match.

Which puts the US at a slight disadvantage. Despite displaying an admirable amount of fight, both teams at the bottom of the table are just about out of the race for any of the four spots at this point. Unfortunately for the US, the Americans get both teams when they still have some mathematical possibilities left, meaning they'll still be fighting hard, with their first teams.

As each of those teams plays out the string against the remaining competitors, their motivation to win, and to call in their best players, will be gradually diminishing.

Besides the home games and the bottom of the table matches, also key will be the two match-ups between the top four teams in which the supposed regional powers, Mexico and the US, make visits to Central America. If Mexico can escape San Jose with a point on Saturday, or particularly if the US can manage a tie or better in its mid-October visit to Honduras, the dynamic changes slightly.

But one thing is clear for the Nats. Any yield of less than seven points over the next three games, and the Americans will find themselves in the unenviable position of needing three points from the final match at RFK, against a Costa Rica team likely to also be in desperate need of a victory.

Obviously, the best case scenario for the US would be to put all this talk to bed by winning its next three games, leaving it qualified, and likely at the top of the hexagonal for a second straight time, come that final match against Costa Rica.

It won't be easy, but this team can do it. Much, however, depends on how Coach Bob Bradley approaches the matches in question. Knowing he needs outright wins, will the coach stick to his pension for a more defensive counter attacking strategy in any of the matches? Will any of his planning include Brian Ching, or will he deem the combination of Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies ready to unleash on CONCACAF?

Bradley is making noises about being aggressive, at least against El Salvador. With an amply attack-minded lineup in each of the remaining games, the Americans are likely to prove to have too much firepower for the rest of the group, and have the potential to pull away from the contenders, leaving the other three sides to battle out the last two direct qualifying spots.

But if the US reverts, at any point, to a conservative, defensive style that relinquishes possession and relies on naively hopeful longballs aimed at Ching, then the next two months will be a slow process of suffering for American fans.

Worse than that, it won't be until the final whistle against Costa Rica that we find out if the next date on the fixture will be a casual November friendly, or a less than desirable winner-take-all match-up with a South American team.