The United States was supposed to coast through the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying. The hex might have provided them with a test and given them a bit of a scare, but they took 12 points from their first four semifinal matches last cycle. This round would be a walk in the park, right?
Wrong. Instead they've gotten caught up in a storm and after a loss to Jamaica, it's looking dark for the Americans.
The semifinal round is giving the U.S. problems and at the halfway point they are far from qualified. In fact, if the round ended now, the U.S. would qualify for the hex only by way of the sixth tiebreaker, which is the greater number of away goals scored in matches between the two tied teams. And that is not exactly a fair tiebreaker at this point considering that the U.S. has only played Guatemala in Guatemala City.
If the away goals tiebreaker didn't apply, the Americans would be prepping for a single play-off at a neutral venue to determine who moves onto the hex and whose World Cup dream dies. So much for that walk in the park.
Now the U.S. heads into their final three matches of the round not looking to clinch their spot in the hex and cruise in their last couple matches, but to just qualify. And qualify is all that matters.
There is no advantage to finishing top of the group as opposed to second in the group. The six teams that qualify are all tossed in the pot evenly, drawn out for a completely random home-and-away schedule. From there it is about results in 2013. At no point does finishing first or second place in the semifinal round matter so really, at this point the U.S. need not concern themselves with trying to top Group A. Just qualify.
With two of their final three matches set to be played at home, the Americans have an advantage coming down the stretch. Most importantly, their matches against Jamaica and Guatemala are at home, giving them a schedule advantage over the rest of the teams in the group.
That home-field advantage cannot be underestimated. The U.S. has not lost a World Cup qualifier on home soil since September 1, 2001 and are unbeaten in their 19 home qualifiers since then, winning 17 of them. Most impressively, the Americans have outscored their opponents 54-7 in those 19 matches, another sign of their dominance at home.
If the U.S. can continue to defend home turf and take three points from each of their remaining home matches, they will be on 10 points. That would leave them a measly draw at Antigua and Barbuda away from 11 points in the round, a total that no team from a four-team group in CONCACAF qualifying has ever reached and not finished in the top two.
And it's not just history that is on the Americans' side if they can manage 11 points, math is too. Eleven points would mathematically guarantee them a spot in the hex.
Things do not look good for the U.S. right now. They are into the hex on the sixth tiebreaker and in the semifinal round, which they are supposed to dominate. The clouds are gathering and the doubts are raining down on the team, but the storm is not as bad as it looks.
Home-field advantage is still there. And when it comes to the U.S., recent history says home-field advantage is all they need.