The field of 32 is almost set. Unless Jordan somehow miraculously overturns a 5-0 deficit today against Uruguay, we can pencil in the field for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil. Let’s all let out a big sigh of relief.
Done? Good. It’s now time to start stressing out and about the all-important draw, which takes place on Dec. 6 in Salvador, Brazil.
Since this will focus mostly on the U.S. National Team, here’s a quick spoiler alert: there isn’t going to be an easy draw for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team. As a fan of the USMNT, all you can do is cross your fingers and hope when the FIFA dignitaries wearing expensive suits are done pulling the balls out of the pots, the Americans have landed in a just plain difficult group, rather than an insanely difficult group.
Ultra Zone has a nice, simple simulator of the draw, with the teams draw into the following four pots:
- Pot 1 (Seeds): Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay*, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland.
- Pot 2: Japan, Australia, Iran, South Korea, Costa Rica, USA, Honduras, Mexico.
- Pot 3: Chile, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Algeria, France.
- Pot 4: Netherlands, Italy, Bosnia, England, Portugal, Russia, Greece, Croatia.
I’ve spent the last couple days with the simulator open in Chrome, running about two dozen simulated draws and few of the possible outcomes for the U.S. get you dreaming of an easy path to the knockout stages. There are certainly difficult, “Group of Death”-caliber draws, mainly because traditional European powers Italy and the Netherlands weren’t seeded and are instead sitting there like live grenades in Pot 4. (England is in that group, too, but at this point the Three Lions are more on par with one of those giant World War II-era deactivated sea mines.)
Anyways, the simplest and most direct reason why it’s unlikely the U.S. will land a soft draw is because its grouped with (on-paper) most of the supposed weaker nations, such as Australia and Iran. The U.S. is likely the strongest team, at the moment, in Pot 2. There’s nothing that can be done about this — bar a Jordan miracle tonight which juggles the seeding — and is likely more of an issue for the three other teams paired with the U.S., who’d likely rather face Costa Rica or Honduras from CONCACAF.
When you first look at the Pots, the natural inclination is to think whichever Group lands Switzerland as its seeded team is in for a cakewalk. True, the Swiss aren’t what we think of as a world power, nor does it have a single player that can win a match by himself. Even so, Switzerland is coached by two-time Champions League winner Ottmar Hitzfeld. It hasn’t lost a competitive match since 2011. More than that, the Swiss are a young, talented team consisting of many children from people dispersed across Europe following Yugoslavia’s breakup in the early 1990s such as Fulham’s talented 21-year-old Pajtim Kasami. Overlook the Swiss — which admittedly benefit from the Byzantine FIFA Rankings — at your own peril.
By the same token Belgium, which hasn’t been to a major tournament since 2002, or Colombia, which last played in a World Cup in 1998, don’t seem like traditional No. 1 seeds. Yet if you’ve been paying attention to world soccer you’re well aware these two countries have some of the top stars sprinkled across the globe at the moment. Belgium smoked the U.S. 4-2 back in May. There’s always the theory a team like Belgium will arrive in Brazil with sky-high expectations, only to crash-and-burn at the first sign of adversity. Belgium lost to Colombia and Japan this week in friendlies, so perhaps its bandwagon thins out a little by June. Either that or expect the ‘I was into Belgium before it was cool‘ crowd to murmur a little louder.
Belgium and Colombia’s position as seeded teams for the draw again point out the fallacy of the FIFA rankings. It doesn’t seem all that logical two sides which haven’t been to a World Cup in over a decade would land along the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Spain. Still, does anyone want to draw Colombia and have to deal with Falcao and the rising stars in support of him like James Rodriguez, Luis Muriel and Jackson Martinez — on South American soil, no less?
Another huge factor from the last 24 hours? As a result of France turning around a 2-0 deficit in the first leg of its playoff with Ukraine on Tuesday, nearly every traditional power booked a place in Brazil. Teams that didn’t qualify are the likes of Serbia, Sweden, Denmark and Paraguay — mid-tier sides that usually participate in the World Cup, but hardly candidates to win the tournament. Realistically the only presence missing from the party is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who told the Swedish press after Tuesday’s loss to Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, “One thing is for sure. A World Cup without me is not worth watching.”
I’ll disagree with you there, Zlatan. On paper this is shaping up to be a fantastic field of 32, which is why it’s a shame FIFA reportedly wants to expand the tournament to 40 teams. The joint blow-outs by Mexico and Uruguay of New Zealand and Jordan, respectively, should serve as a good reminder why watering down the World Cup field isn’t a great idea. This tournament might even finally allow us to retire the tired “Group of Death” phrase all together since all eight groups have the potential to be supremely difficult.
There will no doubt be tons and tons written by the American soccer media in the next three weeks about the draw. Some might make it out as the be-all, end-all. If we’ve learned anything about the U.S. National Team in the last couple years under both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bob Bradley its that the team can basically beat anybody on any given day or lose to them — the recent 0-0 draw with Scotland and 1-0 loss to Austria prove this. In a lot of ways the U.S. is like a basic, well-rounded video game character in a fighting game, average in all categories in the little pentagram shaped attribute graphic at the selection screen. (Ok, in fairness the U.S. defense would be one certain weakness in the star-shaped figure.)
If we want to use history as an example in 2010 the U.S. got a manageable draw with England, Slovenia and Algeria and needed Landon Donovan’s now-famous goal in stoppage time vs. the Desert Foxes in the final group game to advance. In 2006 the FIFA ping pong balls produced a tough Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana group. Despite a loss and draw in the first two matches, the U.S. still controlled its own destiny in the final group stage game vs. the Black Stars. Going back three World Cups, the U.S. has notched results against the supposed strongest team in its group: Portugal, Italy and England.
One of the weird quirks is that the U.S. tends to play to the level of its opponent. Pitted in a group with Argentina and Italy would fill a lot of folks with dread, but it would also present a huge opportunity for the Americans. Sure it’s a nominally harder game, but wouldn’t you rather see the U.S. take on Italy than Croatia?
The World Cup is not supposed to be easy and the way this one is shaping up, it’s not going to be for the U.S. or any of the other 31 nations participating in the finals. If the U.S. wants to accomplish its stated goal of reaching the knockout rounds it’s going to have to work pretty damn hard to do so.
Best Case Scenario: Switzerland, Algeria, England
West Case Scenario: Brazil, Ghana (because), Netherlands