The result of U.S. vs. Mexico doesn't really matter for qualification hopes
On Friday, the United States and Mexico will continue the best rivalry in CONCACAF. The two regional powerhouses will take the field at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, the Americans looking for a fifth-straight 2-0 win over El Tri in World Cup qualifying at the venue and their opposition seeking to quiet the endless "dos a cero" chants.
The qualifier against Mexico is the single biggest match on home soil every four years. It's a time to take stock of soccer in America, to reflect on how the sport is growing on and off the field. To paraphrase outgoing Vice President Joe Biden, U.S.-Mexico is a big freaking deal. And it should be: For American soccer fans, the spectacle doesn't get any higher on home soil.
The result of the match, however, isn't all that important.
Yes, it's nice to beat your No. 1 rival. That's a given. But the Americans aren't competing against Mexico for a World Cup spot. They are trying to finish in the top three of a six-team tournament, a format that offers a fair amount of room for error (and certainly more than the four-team-per-group, top-two-go-through fourth round).
A draw or loss against Mexico in Ohio on Friday would be a bump in the Road to Russia, but more in a narrative sense than the panic-about-qualifying one. According to ESPN's SPI, the Americans currently have an 83 percent chance to reach the 2018 World Cup. Win on Friday and that figure jumps just six percentage points (independent of the results in the two other matches: Honduras vs. Panama and Trinidad and Tobago vs. Costa Rica). A draw sees the U.S.'s chances drop to 80 percent, while they still qualify 74 percent of the time with a loss.
While moving from 83 percent to 74 isn't nothing, it's hardly a catastrophe. No matter what happens on the grass at Mapfre, Jurgen Klinsmann's team will leave being an overwhelming favorite to reach Russia. (For the sake of comparison, Mexico looks even better regardless of the result. They currently sit at 95 percent to qualify, a number that moves to 99 percent, 96 percent and 93 percent, respectively, given a win, tie or loss against the U.S.)
For the U.S.'s purposes, the key number is 17, which is the highest number of points that have been needed to qualify for the World Cup in each of the last five cycles, or since CONCACAF moved to the Hexagonal final-round format in advance of the 1998 tournament. They've hit that number every time: 17 (1998), 17 (2002), 22 (2006), 20 (2010) and 22 (2014).
The 2002 cycle, the first 2-0 win in Columbus, was the only time when a different result in the home match against Mexico would have made a difference for the Americans in the final qualification process. If the U.S. had lost that game, which was their first of the Hexagonal round, they would have finished on 14 points, tied with Honduras for third. (Then again, had they been in that same situation, Bruce Arena's team might have played the final match differently. They settled for a 0-0 draw in Trinidad and Tobago, enough to get to South Korea and Japan.) The outcome of the home match against El Tri rarely alters the qualification results.
To reach that magic 17-point figure, the U.S. needs at least six wins or at least five wins and two draws, a total that's easily achievable even as the rest of CONCACAF improves. The Americans have found impressive success at home in past cycles and haven't lost a final-round qualifier at home since Sept. 1, 2001, against Honduras. During the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Hexagonal rounds, they went 14-1-0 at home, the lone draw coming against Costa Rica in the 10th and final match when the Americans were already qualified. Even with a loss against Mexico, there's a strong possibility that the U.S. wins the other four matches at home.
The road games are more difficult, but two wins or one win and a draw would see the Stars and Stripes sitting on 17 points. They've taken at least five points in the road portion of the schedule in each of the last five final rounds. While the U.S. can't expect a result during their trip to Azteca, the game against Costa Rica is easier now that Los Ticos play in Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica rather than on the rock-hard turf and in the claustrophobic confines of Estadio Saprissa. There's nothing simple or easy about playing in Honduras, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago, but the Americans should be able to find enough points.
The truth is that the CONCACAF World Cup qualification process is one of the easiest in the world. The Americans can afford to lose both games to their biggest rival and still reach Russia without much difficulty. Friday's match will be fun to watch, an excellent and exciting start to the Hexagonal. Every U.S. supporter should watch and enjoy. A game of this magnitude only comes along once every four years at home. But the game is important because of who's playing, not because of what it means and how the outcome alters the World Cup trajectory of either team on the field.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.