Road to South Africa: Home sweet home

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

There is no place like home in international soccer, and nowhere more so than in the CONCACAF region.

The United States' 2-1 defeat to Mexico in Mexico City on Wednesday continued the dominance of home sides in this corner of the FIFA map, and it tightened things up in the race for places at next year's World Cup.

Of the 18 matches in the final Hexagonal phase so far, 14 have been won by the home team with Costa Rica's victory in Trinidad and Tobago being the only away win. The other three games resulted in draws.

Such statistics further highlight the importance of the U.S.'s next contest when it takes on El Salvador in Salt Lake City next month. Any slipups could have drastic consequences, especially given that the status quo of home victories is likely to continue in the remaining matches.

So why is there a greater home advantage in this pool? (In Africa, for example, less than half the games have been won by the host with an overall record of 13-8-8.)

WORLD CUP SWEET 16

Yahoo! Sports' World Cup rankings take a look at who would be among the favorites if the tournament were to start tomorrow. Brazil's victory in the Confederations Cup put it ahead of previous No. 1 Spain, while European teams maintained their stranglehold on most of the top 10 positions.

1. Brazil. Hitting form at just the right time.

2. Spain. Stumbled at Confed Cup but still a spectacular team.

3. Holland. Has the squad to go all the way.

4. England. Flying high under Fabio Capello.

5. Germany. Not certain to top its qualifying group.

6. Argentina. Uncertainty in the camp but a talent-laden team.

7. France. Getting it together after poor start to qualifying.

8. Ivory Coast. Don't underestimate this well-organized squad.

9. Italy. Looking shaky but will qualify comfortably.

10. Portugal. Will be a contender, but only if it qualifies.

11. Chile. Looks certain to go through from South America.

12. Denmark. Great in qualifying but needs to prove tournament credentials.

13. Australia. Improving all the time and physically imposing.

14. United States. Has the potential to make an impact.

15. Ghana. Perhaps the most efficient of the African sides.

16. South Africa. Host nation will have huge support and an easy draw.

Part of the discrepancy is due to the dominance of the big three – USA, Mexico and Costa Rica – all of whom are virtually unbeatable at home. Combine that with Mexico's abysmal travel record and the difficulty in visiting hostile venues such as Honduras and El Salvador, and the picture becomes clearer.

Eventually, the USA's qualification chances may rest upon its trip to T and T, the easiest road trip in this group.

Here we take a look at the latest World Cup qualifying around the globe. An asterisk denotes a team that has already qualified.

North and Central America

Only three points separate the top four teams, with El Salvador and T and T effectively out of contention. Costa Rica remains on top despite losing in Honduras, while Mexico eased its dilemma by beating the USA.

Predicted qualifiers: United States, Costa Rica, Mexico.

South America

September 5 will be a huge date in South America's 10-team group, with Argentina and Brazil set to square off in Rosario. Argentina needs to put a run together to clinch automatic qualifying, while Brazil looks in good shape to finish the group on top. Eight teams are still in realistic contention to go through.

Predicted qualifiers: Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Colombia (via playoff).

Africa

Halfway through African qualifying, the competition for places in South Africa is heating up nicely. This is the World Cup every African nation is desperate to be involved in, but some of the traditional big names are in severe danger of missing out. Morocco and Cameroon look dead and buried, while Nigeria and Egypt both face an uphill climb to get through.

Predicted qualifiers: Gabon, Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast.

Europe

England, Spain and Italy look to be firmly in control of their groups, while Holland is already through with a perfect record. Germany will need to get a result in Russia to top its group; Slovakia remains on course for a shock spot in South Africa. Nervous times await Portugal, Czech Republic and Croatia, while France looks destined for a playoff spot.

Predicted qualifiers: Holland*, Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia and Italy. France, Portugal, Russia and Greece (all via playoff).

Asia

Australia, Japan and South Korea were the class teams in the region, with North Korea also sneaking into an automatic place. All eyes now focus on the playoff between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The winner will take on New Zealand for a place at the World Cup.

Predicted qualifiers: Australia*, Japan*, South Korea*, North Korea*, Saudi Arabia (via playoff).

Oceania

New Zealand has already won the weakest of all regions, but it will be a heavy underdog when it takes on either Bahrain or Saudi Arabia for a place in the finals.

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