Before their final critical 2018 World Cup qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago, USMNT manager Bruce Arena made some comments that got soccer twitter up in arms.
Talking about how the United States has to play in some imperfect places for World Cup qualifying, like a water logged pitch that’s flooded on the outside, Arena mentioned about how he would like to see European teams walk in the USMNT’s boots and see how they would fare in qualifying.
“I would love to see one of these hotshot teams from Europe come here and play in our CONCACAF qualifying, to really get a taste of this and see what that’s about,” Arena said on Monday, ahead of Tuesday’s U.S. qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago. “This is very challenging. This is like survival of the fittest. They could do one of those TV shows on this. Who will survive in the end? That’s basically what this is.”
Unsurprisingly, just about everyone with a semblance of fandom for the USMNT and who had a social media account, seemed to miss the point of Arena’s comments.
It would be easy to believe that what Arena said was nonsense, but that isn’t necessarily the case once you look at it closely. CONCACAF qualifying may be “forgiving,” but that doesn’t make it any less tough.
For one thing, top European players would struggle on a water logged pitch like what was in Trinidad and Tobago. Just like how they would struggle at a place like Honduras, Panama, or Costa Rica where fans are willing to do anything to make visiting teams so uncomfortable that they’ll lose their edge. They would struggle at Mexico, where they must play 7,200 feet above sea level. They must go through all this while having to fly across an ocean to play. I’m not saying European teams wouldn’t win and advance, which the top teams probably would. But at the same time, even the top European teams won’t be dominating 6-0 every match.
In addition, have you actually taken a deep look into the teams in the Hex compared to a UEFA WCQ group? While many consider UEFA to have the best teams in the world, not all the teams in UEFA are great. Someone pointed out that if you take the ELO rankings (which is a more accurate determiner of international team rankings over FIFA Rankings), the Hex has teams placed in 15, 23, 25 (USA), 51, 65, and 106 for an average position of 47.5. If you take the positions of all the UEFA WCQ groups, this is what you would get in comparison to the Hex:
A-4, 16, 20, 58, 83, 141 = 53.6 average
B-4, 12, 61, 119, 143, 187 = 87.6
C-1, 45, 46, 66, 109, 205 = 78.6
D-26, 27, 30, 42, 91, 125 = 56.8
E-17, 21, 43, 61, 96, 123 = 60.1
F-9, 31, 36, 55, 108, 163 = 67
G-3, 7, 67, 75, 86, 172 = 68.3
H-10, 40, 48, 83, 102, 183 = 77.6
I-18, 19, 32, 34, 69, 118 = 48.3
Hex-15, 23, 25, 51, 65, 106 = 47.5
While taking the average of all teams in each group, you could make an argument that while CONCACAF’s Hex doesn’t have the best teams when compared to UEFA as a whole, they do have the best six teams taken together compared to every UEFA WCQ group. While some UEFA groups are tougher, other groups like in Group B, Trinidad & Tobago would be the third highest ranked team in that group.
It should be noted that one reason why UEFA qualifying is tougher is because only one team is guaranteed a qualifying spot. Runners-up compete in a home and away series where winners qualify. The Hex is seen as forgiving because the top three qualify and fourth place goes in a home and away series against Australia.
Having said that, if the stakes were turned and the USMNT were placed in a European group, they would be the highest ranked team in Group D and would be at least second highest in four of nine groups. So while there would be less margin of error for the United States to qualify via UEFA than in CONCACAF, it wouldn’t be impossible for them to qualify. It would even be more likely if Mexico attempted to qualify via UEFA.
Let’s just call this as it is, everything when talking about UEFA teams coming to qualify in CONCACAF or CONCACAF teams coming to qualify in UEFA, it’s comparing apples and oranges. Maybe it was a mistake for Bruce Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann, who made similar comments when he was manager, to make those comments in the first place because it only invited people to misinterpret the original comments and just resort to general mud slinging on a situation that would never occur anyway.
It would be easy to believe that what Arena said was nonsense and discredit what he and Klinsmann have said because CONCACAF qualifying may be “forgiving” but that doesn’t make it any less tough. It takes a skill to be able to adequately be able to play in terrible conditions and it isn’t necessarily a skill that many world class stars, who want and feel they deserve world class facilities everywhere they go, have.
Maybe US Soccer fans have been spoiled that the US has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. There is more than one moment in every World Cup cycle where the United States had to win or else they would either be eliminated or would likely be eliminated, and the United States has found a way to win. This cycle is no different and now they are in Trinidad & Tobago looking to qualify once again. Maybe we should stop caring about hypotheticals and care about the task at hand and just qualify for the World Cup.