U.S. faces crucial qualifier against Costa Rica

Posted by Paul Carr, ESPN Stats & Information

Although Friday is only the second round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the United States is already facing what coach Jurgen Klinsmann has termed a must-win match, at home against Costa Rica. While he may be exaggerating, his claim has some validity.

Because of the United States' recent poor form in competitive matches, ESPN's Soccer Power Index currently rates the U.S. as the fourth-most likely CONCACAF country to qualify for the World Cup at 54.3 percent, factoring in the odds of finishing fourth and winning a playoff with the Oceania champion.

The situation could get much worse for the United States, pending Friday's result. A win would bump the U.S. odds up to 65.2 percent, but a loss would drop them to 34.2 percent. Even a draw would see the U.S. chances dip to 45.0 percent.

The United States is undefeated in 22 straight home qualifiers, with 20 wins and two draws since a 2001 loss to Honduras at RFK Stadium. SPI rates the U.S. a 56.7 percent favorite to beat Costa Rica, which is unbeaten in five straight games against the Americans. SPI gives the Ticos 18.5 percent odds of getting three points, with a 24.8 percent chance of a tie.

Winning every home game in the final round is enough to nearly guarantee a World Cup berth. Five wins would give a country 15 points, and 11 of the 12 teams to get 16 points in the final round under the current format have qualified for the World Cup. The exception was 2010 Costa Rica, which finished fourth and lost a playoff to Uruguay.

Holding serve at home has been crucial historically. Every team to finish in the top three has won at least 11 points from its five home matches.

As the only country to lose its final-round opener, the United States is still seeking its first points. The sole team to qualify for the World Cup after losing its first two final-round games was the 2006 Trinidad & Tobago squad, which beat Bahrain in a playoff. That Trinidad squad was also the only team to qualify after winning fewer than three points from its first three matches.

Honduras vs. Mexico
Mexico heads south to Honduras Friday afternoon, to a place El Tri hasn't found much success recently. Mexico has lost four consecutive qualifiers in Honduras, last winning there in 1993.

Despite drawing Jamaica in its opener, Mexico is still a heavy favorite to qualify (91.2 percent), on the basis of much higher SPI ratings. Mexico is ranked seventh in SPI, 25 spots ahead of Costa Rica, the next-best CONCACAF team.

SPI sees this game as a toss-up, giving Honduras a 36.7 percent chance to win and Mexico 34.5 percent odds to win, with a 28.8 percent chance of a draw.

Jamaica vs. Panama
Each team drew its first game, though Jamaica was much happier with its scoreless tie at Estadio Azteca than Panama was with blowing a 2-0 lead to draw Costa Rica.

The Reggae Boyz are unbeaten in eight straight home qualifiers, and SPI says they are a 54.2 percent favorite to beat Panama, which has a 20.0 percent chance of victory.

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