Posted November 21, 2013

United States likely to face a treacherous World Cup draw with loaded field

2014 World Cup, Clint Dempsey, FIFA World Cup, Jozy Altidore, Jurgen Klinsmann, Landon Donovan
World Cup draw

The USA’s World Cup fate rests with next month’s draw, which has great potential to yield a treacherous path. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

Frustrated by the draw that placed his U.S. Olympic team alongside Argentina and Portugal back in 1996, coach Bruce Arena famously lashed out at the “nice Americans” who “don’t cheat” and who are “too stupid to fix a draw.”

Arena took some heat for that little rant and sure enough, the host U.S. finished third in its quartet and was eliminated from Olympic competition.

Still two years away from taking over the senior U.S. squad, Arena called soccer “the biggest cheating sport in the world,” implying – likely with tongue in cheek — that manipulation of those all-important plastic balls is par for the course at the game’s highest level.

Well, if there ever was a time for those nice and naive Americans to muster the malice and means to influence a draw, it would be now. Hire someone like Danny Ocean or Ethan Hunt to infiltrate the Costa do Sauípe Resort in Bahia — where FIFA will determine the World Cup groups on Dec. 6. – and swap out a couple of balls or make the host an offer he can’t refuse. Because that draw very well may seal the U.S. national team’s first-round fate, and it very well may be brutal. Prepare for groups – plural – of death.

More than two years of qualifying competition ended Wednesday night in Uruguay, where La Celeste clinched the 32nd and final World Cup berth with an easy aggregate victory over Jordan. The preliminaries featured 207 entrants, 816 games and wound up producing a Cinderella-free World Cup.  The only debutant, Bosnia-Herzegovina, is an up-and-coming soccer power whose qualification surprised no one. The favorites in CONCACAF, Africa and Asia all advanced. Each of the eight former world champions will be in Brazil, and all but one of the top 20 teams according to FIFA’s world ranking has booked passage (No. 20 Ukraine fell to No. 21 France in Tuesday’s UEFA playoff).

For more than a decade, the U.S. has stood on the threshold of soccer’s elite. In the four World Cup tournaments played since MLS launched in 1996, the Americans have survived the first round on two occasions and twice finished last in their group. They have won four of 22 games at the World Cup finals since returning to the global stage in 1990. One victory came on home soil back in 1994 and the other against familiar foe Mexico in 2002. The World Cup is hard. The U.S. can compete, but it hasn’t consistently challenged the sport’s entrenched powers. In recent tournaments, the difference usually has been the draw.

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In 2010, the U.S. hit the lottery. It was paired with the second-weakest seeded side (England), one of the shakier African teams (Algeria) and a relatively inexperienced European entrant (Slovenia). Thanks to Landon Donovan’s famous last-gasp goal in Pretoria, the Americans advanced.

In 2006, Arena’s team finished last in the World Cup’s second-toughest group, which comprised eventual champion Italy, a talented Czech Republic squad that was ranked second in the world and African power Ghana, which would become a U.S. nemesis.

In 2002, the Americans lucked into a quartet that included host South Korea and underachieving Portugal. Germany represented a sure first-round defeat in 1998, leaving coach Steve Sampson’s side to battle Yugoslavia and Iran for the final second-round berth.

The current U.S. team has proven its superiority in CONCACAF and has played toe-to-toe with some of the world’s top teams in recent exhibitions. The American talent pool is deeper than ever and coach Jurgen Klinsmann will ensure his squad isn’t intimidated by any opponent. But there’s only so much he can control. The way FIFA has seeded the 2014 tournament, and the procedure it likely use to fill out the groups on Dec. 6, almost ensures that the U.S. will face a rough road to the round-of-16.

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Through the 2006 tournament in Germany, FIFA used past World Cup performance as a factor when determining seeds. But since 2010, only the world ranking has mattered, meaning that a couple of mediocre months by a traditional power or a decent run (or softer friendly schedule) by an upstart might produce some surprises. Next summer Belgium, Colombia and Switzerland will be seeded while the likes of France, Italy, England and the Netherlands won’t. As a result, any of those nations could be paired with seeds Brazil, Argentina, Germany or Spain and create an instant group of death for the other two participants. And it goes without saying that Belgium and Colombia won’t be pushovers.

The U.S. is hampered further by the likelihood (it hasn’t been confirmed) that FIFA will create a pot of eight teams comprising the four CONCACAF entrants and the four Asian qualifiers. In that group — which will include Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia – the U.S. would be considered the best side. But the pot’s composition would ensure that the Americans can’t face any of those beatable squads in the group stage in Brazil. The U.S. will be left to play a seed, an unseeded European team and a nation pulled from a pot containing the five African entrants (four of which will be second-round threats), Chile and Ecuador. If the U.S. is paired with a South American seed, its group still could include two European opponents.

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So, consider the possibilities: Brazil/Netherlands/Ivory Coast/USA, or Spain/France/Ghana/USA, or Germany/Italy/Chile/USA. As the best team in its pot, the U.S. makes whatever group it lands in that much tougher. There are draw simulators on the internet that will kick out groups of death all day. We tried this one four times on Thursday. It produced groups that placed the U.S. with Brazil/Italy/Algeria, Colombia/France/Croatia, Argentina/France/Bosnia and Germany/Cameroon/Bosnia. It’s fair to say the U.S. would have a tough time in any of those quartets, and that’s no slight to the U.S. The field, plus FIFA’s draw procedure, has left almost no breathing room.

ESPN statistician Paul Carr ran through the permutations and, based on his national team rankings, found that the U.S. had a 43 percent chance to move through to the second round next summer. Its worst-case-scenario group – Spain/Netherlands/Chile — produces a 15.3 percent chance of advancement. Those odds improve to an optimal 73.6 percent if the Americans are drawn with Switzerland, Algeria and Croatia.

But it’s far from hopeless. There are a lot of good players at Klinsmann’s disposal, there’s always a World Cup favorite or two that falls flat, and the possibility of Carr’s best-case group is out there. But if that happens, then it’s probably OK to wonder whether Klinsmann’s 11 was helped by Ocean’s 11.

Klinsmann has said over and over that he wants to challenge the best. He wants to test his team against soccer royalty. He’ll almost surely get his chance, and then some, next summer.

171 comments
hrfister
hrfister

oh stop the whining!  The last paragraph said it best.  To my fellow Americans I say...JUST DO IT!  USA plays very well when they go into a match with good confidence and play good defense.  They are good at coming back from behind too.  Just think back 15 or so years ago when the US was one of the world's laughing stocks and compare it to where they are now.  No, they are still not as good as Argentina or Brazil or Germany or Spain or Italy...but little by little, they are getting there.  It is a process, GIVE IT TIME!  Klinsmann is a good coach and manages the game better than any previous US coach I've seen...so let's just kick back, watch the draw and take it as it comes.  At the end of the day,  when the World Cup comes, whatever happens...THEY WILL ONLY BE GAMES and not heart surgery on your loved ones.

ClaudioLichtenthal
ClaudioLichtenthal

I think that with the exception of Algeria, Australia and Iran most teams are incredibly strong ... I think ANY team can beat any other team on any given game... I am originally from Argentina and I actually fear defensive teams like Mexico and the United States more than teams like Holland or Brazil which play to win and therefore take more risks than those that are more defensive... This whole conversation is SO subjective than using statistics can be very misleading... It is not like in the NBA or Baseball where you have series where a team has to consistently beat the other team ... Again, here any team can do well... And the United States should behave like the 13 ranking they have: go out there and play the game. 

xyngularcraig
xyngularcraig

Greta article you have here! 

I think the World Cup is going to be very interesting this year, there are a lot of great teams and players out there

Check out my article about the Brazil World Cup Stadium Collapse

Keep up the great work! 



marius
marius

While they're obviously full of holes, FIFA's own rankings are illustrative of the problem here. I think the underlying issue, as I'll close with, is also that FIFA assumes a conference strength that's at odds with the rankings they use to make the seeded pot. 

By FIFA's rankings, CONCACAF's representatives are actually the strongest of the "less-traditionally-strong" conferences (AFC,  CAF, CONCACAF). Using FIFA's points, here are the averages for each conference, in points:

AFC-- 594 pts.
CAF-- 759.2 pts. 
CONCACAF-- 839.5 pts. 

The US is the highest-ranked team (1041 pts) in any of these three conferences.

For fun, here's the average of the 2 unseeded CONMEBOL teams, and France, the lowest-ranked UEFA entrant:

CONMEBOL-- 956.5 pts.
France-- 870  pts.

We all expect that FIFA will pair CAF with CONMEBOL and France. But it looks to me like they're hemmed into doing that, as AFC and CONCACAF have 4 entrants, and CAF has 5. With the three floating teams, it's hard to figure how you might pair CONCACAF/CONMEBOL/France, or CONCACAF/CAF, or pretty much anything other than CAF/CONMEBOL/France and AFC/CONCACAF.

FIFA can't have assumed anything but CONMEBOL winning a playoff against AFC. The disparities are just too big. Maybe NZ could have been competitive against a CONCACAF side other than the US or a slacking-off Mexico.

If you're FIFA and you're taking your rankings "seriously," you should put the stronger conferences together in the pots. But by announcing Pot 1, you've put yourself in a really difficult position to do that.

AJ33
AJ33

I've never seen so much bi#@hing and whining, all before the draw even happens. "There's only so much he can do." Shut up. Welcome to a sport the whole world participates in and isn't handed over on a silver platter.

KevinTheel
KevinTheel

The seeding system is a JOKE!  Belgium, who hasn't made a WC or EC in years gets a top seed! Colombia?  Come one!  Want a fair system, put the other teams in one bowl and pull them out one at a time and they go where the ping pong balls tell them regardless of whom teams get placed with.


ridgemax
ridgemax

Brazil's low ranking is a function of its schedule the past few years. As 2014 host, it does not play qualifying games, and friendlies are weighted much less than qualifiers when the rankings are computed even if the friendly is against a top team.

The reason that the US will have a "tough time" is simply because many lower-ranked teams are at least as good if not better. It needed a pair of comeback ties (England and Slovenia) and a last-second victory (Algeria) to advance in 2010 and 2014 will be at least as tough, and tight.


swidt
swidt

There will and should be tough teams in every group.  You go to the World Cup to play the best in the world, not to play the weakest teams possible. 

Hazel
Hazel

Just in case you're reading the comments prior to reading the article, let me save you some time with this summary: whine, whine, excuses, whine, sniff, cry, cry some more, whine, boo hoo.

JoelHardman
JoelHardman

Here's the bottom line for me:  Would people rather have the fairest draw system or avoid inter-region match-ups in the group stage?  A draw based entirely on an accurate world ranking would be the fairest system, but might result in teams from the same region playing in the group stage more frequently.  

Personally, I think you should use a draw based on straight ranking.  If you're trying to determine the best team in the world, you should try to set up the tournament so that the best teams are most likely to get out of the first stage, regardless of geography.

SorkhRazil
SorkhRazil

What a waste of time. The USA will never be a world power in soccer. Real football is played on the gridiron!

x72
x72

"Death"...great band.

CheMark
CheMark

For those who say the draw doesn't matter, because you just have to win on your own merits, here is why I disagree.  Think about statistics.  Not sports stats, but mathematical statistics.  The LESS difficult teams you have to play, and the MORE easy teams you have to play, the farther you will make it in the tournament, on average.  In other words, the weaker your opposition, the higher your chances are of advancing farther.  If some of the tougher teams can knock each other out, so I only have to play 1 tough team instead of 2, that's great news for me.  I have a much better chance of pulling a single upset than of pulling back-to-back upsets.


Ultimately, yes, you have to win on your own merits.  But there is nothing wrong with wishing ofr a more favorable draw that will increase your chances.

Look at Uruguay in WC 2010.  They are good for sure, but they beat Mexico, S. Africa, S Korea and Ghana to make it to the semi-finals.  They did not beat a single elite team (tied France and lost to Netherlands and Germany), and got 4th place.  Wow!

paul.alan.robertson
paul.alan.robertson

More importantly, by being the best side in our pot, we don't get the chance to face any of those other teams that, as the author so correctly puts it, are quite beatable.  

paul.alan.robertson
paul.alan.robertson

That's a good point.  On any given day, the Japan side can easily look better than the US, but get our best 11 out there in an inspired match, and we handle Japan.  I guess I'd say Japan is definitely more consistent, but the US is likely the better squad overall, though not by much.  

JonMaciel
JonMaciel

I'm not so sure the U.S.A will be the best team in their pot... Japan may very well be.

The key ingredient for making a group of death has nothing to do with European or seeded teams, it has to do with drawing one of the Japan/USA/Mexico triumvirate paired with one of Ghana/Ivory Coast/Chile

cant we all get along
cant we all get along

so lets see... last world cup the US advanced because of the weak group the us was in. but germany  portugal and the dutch were all in the true group of death. yep the US got screwed there.

Listening
Listening

Go ahead and put us in the "death" group.  Want to be the best....  play and BEAT the best!!!!!!!  I'm more worried about the refs at any of our games.  More often then not calls do not seem to go our way.  Maybe we should just fall down and fake an injury like everyone else.  Get taken off on a stretcher and then be back in the game in less than a minute.  What a joke of the sport.  Men acting like schoolgirls.  Screw that......  be strong and shove it up their soccer butts!!!!! USA USA USA USA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

FredFlintsone
FredFlintsone

With  bout dozen players on this team that play on Europe teams , led by a coach who won cups as a player and coach USA cruised its way in impressive fashion  to the big dance. Don't expect em to beat top teams but we might be surprised to see USA hold its own on the world stage. Hiring Klinsmann was best move US soccer made

Winger7
Winger7

Three facts stand out in considering the USA in the World Cup:  1.  The USA is simply not one of the best 16 teams.  2.  FIFA is the most venal, corrupt sports organization in the known universe.  3.  The USA plays a nicey nice style; it is as if we are playing church league basketball while the big boys are playing street ball.

ClaudioLichtenthal
ClaudioLichtenthal

@KevinTheel Belgium is a great team !!! If you follow the EPL you'd notice how many great players are Belgian: Hazard, Dembele, Lukaku, Kompany, Januzaj, Mirallas, Felleini ... JUST to name a few! 

RickPotts
RickPotts

@ridgemax Don't belittle the USA's success at the last WC. There are no  asterix's by the scores that say *last minute win or * come-from-behind win.  It says USA 1-0-2 GROUP WINNER....period. No sense in worrying about a "group of death".  If you want to be the best you have to beat the best.  If you aren't good enough to get out o f your group..oh well.  Better luck next time.

M20
M20

@JoelHardman Well, there's a compromise that would be an improvement on the current system - go by ranking, but just don't draw teams from the same region together (except for up to 2 for Europe) - simple. There's no reason why the US shouldn't be able to face an Asian team.

omatus
omatus

@SorkhRazil Football was invented in England and they called it football.  Thus REAL football IS what the world plays.  American football was invented much later and improperly named after an already existing sport.  

ScottHoward
ScottHoward

@SorkhRazil Real football has been legislated to the past, and anyone with an iq over 75 can see that real football is soccer.

M20
M20

@x72 Are you referring to the black punk band from Detroit that was way ahead of its time? If so, I'm impressed!

AgentsAgent
AgentsAgent

@CheMark How are Ghana and Mexico not elite teams? They were playing excellent ball at the time and were favorites vs. the US.

AJ33
AJ33

Why do you think FIFA spreads them out as group heads? But ultimately, there are more strong teams than there are open slots for group heads, so good teams have to play good teams in the group stage. Crying about it is pointless, unless of course, your point is to make excuses for your team's loss.

DerekOsley
DerekOsley

@CheMark Yes, of course an "easier" draw can improve a team's chances statistically.  But what commenters here are saying is that the draw is less important than how solid the team is, how well they're playing.  If the USA team shows up as weak, it will get knocked out no matter what the draw (by Iran in 1998, by Ghana in 2006, etc.)  If the USA team shows up strong, it can handle elite teams (Portugal in 2002, England in 2010).

brs386
brs386

@cant we all get along 

Well, there we're talking about the Euro Cup where the Group of death was Germany, Portugal, Holland, and Denmark. Then again, the draws for the Euro Cup have traditionally been more difficult than any draw for the World Cup

paul.alan.robertson
paul.alan.robertson

@Listening It is kind of shocking how often Int'l refs blow calls against the US.  The handball against Germany in '02, the refereeing in the Italy match in '06, the debacle of the Slovenia (was it Slovakia?) match in '10.  Then just this week, two clear handballs in the box in Austria....  I know it's a friendly and who cares, but it continues a really awful pattern.  

Ryan19
Ryan19

@Winger7 None of those are actually facts.  Not a single one.  Each one of your statements is what is commonly called an opinion.  You might want to look that word up so you don't get it confused with facts again in the future.  

AgentsAgent
AgentsAgent

@ABentine @KevinTheel Please explain your logic here unless your just complaining for no reason. Belgium and Colombia are Elite teams playing dangerously good soccer at the moment. They are top 10 for a reason...

hrfister
hrfister

@RickPotts @ridgemaxwell said: " If you want to be the best you have to beat the best"  May the USA get the toughest group of death.  It will look better for them when they advance to the round of 16 from it!

marius
marius

Actually, nearly every other English-speaking country uses "soccer" exclusively or on an equal footing (as a synonym) with "football": Canada, Ireland, OZ, NZ, Singapore, South Africa, the US.  The English called it "soccer" first, as the common short form of "association football." This was to distinguish it from what we now call rugby known as "rugby football." 

Now, the English changed their vocabulary *after* everyone else was already using the word "soccer."

TLDR: It's arrogant to proclaim that (literally) 435 million native English-speakers are speaking their native language wrong. 


@omatus @SorkhRazil

JuanPeinado
JuanPeinado

@M20 @x72 Are you referring to the black punk band from Detroit that was way ahead of its time? If so, get a life.

ChristianMorales
ChristianMorales

@AgentsAgent @CheMark Agreed. The same squad went on to win La Copa America. Not an easy feat. Uruguay is ranked 6th I believe and with good reason. They have a powerful attack and a disciplined Defense. Of course, I am a bit bias being Uruguayan. However, I do agree they did have the easiest path out of all four finalists in 2010 but when you get to this level the competition is great and you have play your best every match because any team is capable of sweeping your legs in the 16. That Ghana game was the best game of the World Cup, regardless of everyone's opinions of Luis Suarez. 

Agent0fN0thing
Agent0fN0thing

@CheMark @PatrickBatemanVP I think at this point, the reason there is such apprehension is that the vast majority of teams playing in 2014 DON'T suck. Any team that advances in this tournament will do so on merit.

paul.alan.robertson
paul.alan.robertson

@Ryan19 @Winger7 The Ryan does have a point, but I'd take issue with the US not being one of the top 16.  I'd say we're certainly at the fringes of that group, easily, which is why the draw is awful if it's set up as expected - there's no way the best 16 can make it through.  I'd say there are only 12 teams the US is clearly inferior to:

Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Italy, Columbia, France, Belgium, Ivory Coast, Netherlands, Spain, Uruguay

Then there are another 4-5 who are arguably better than the US, but the US is maddeningly inconsistent:

Portugal, England, Japan, Switzerland, Russia

All said, I think the US somewhere between 13 and 18 is pretty accurate, and that's exactly where FIFA and ELO have us ranked.  

Daniel67
Daniel67

@marius @omatus @SorkhRazil  Really?  I've been in Ireland and South Africa, and in both countries, football is what the whole world calls football, I've never heard anyone say 'soccer' in any of those countries.  I couldn't say for the other countries you cite, but the fact that you lied with the 2 that I know makes your whole statement seem fishy to me.