Walking out of the 2006 World Cup Draw in Germany, Bruce Arena knew that the United States’ tournament was over before it even started.
Despite boasting a strong side that would climb into the top ten of the FIFA World Rankings, Arena knew that the draw had spit out an impossible task for the USA.
It was clear to the coach that the size and physicality of the formidable Czech Republic would leave the US reeling, and the athleticism of African side Ghana would present problems as well. A matchup with eventual champion Italy spoke for itself.
Draw Day was Doomsday for the Americans in 2006. Half a year later, the US crashed out of the World Cup with a single point; and Arena — a man who has never gotten along with the draws — departed the job.
In 2010, the draw in South Africa opened the door for the United States. In a group with a weak England, and minnows Slovenia and Algeria, Bob Bradley’s team flourished and advanced as group winners.
When each team looks at its group after the field is set Friday in Brazil, each team will know that it needs to a minimum of a win and a draw to advance. That’s why a potential group with Brazil, France, and the Netherlands, as just one example, is a worrying concern for the United States.
Already, the USA is in a spot of real trouble. Because FIFA only seeds one pot, or eight teams, and the other three pots are divided up on the basis of geography, the Americans are in Pot 3 with the other teams from CONCACAF and Asia. This means that Jurgen Klinsmann’s team will be the strongest team in the weakest pot.
Looking at the 32 teams and the four pots, the US would be clear favorites to beat 5-6 of the teams that are in the Americans’ pot, which mean the US will not be playing them in the group stage.
It’s an uncomfortable position, and one that can produce many horror groups. Fancy meeting Germany, Ghana, and Holland? How about Spain, Ivory Coast, and Portugal? What about Argentina, England and Italy?
With the strength of the field and the unusual seeding, the US has a one in two chance at being drawn into a Group of Death. Plus, while South Africa 2010 had North Korea and New Zealand, all 32 teams who have qualified this time are stronger and better than four years ago.
The reality is that the World Cup is one tough beast. Since the US qualified in 1990 for the first time in 40 years, the Americans are 4-13-5 in the competition. Of those four wins, one was on home soil in 1994, one was against familiar foe Mexico, and the one in 2010 required the latest goal in World Cup history from Landon Donovan.
World Cups are extremely competitive. And it’s not always the seeded teams that get you; in fact, the USA hasn’t lost to the seeded team in its group since 1998.
You can get specific with these things – for instance, the US wants to be in Group H, or they face a net travel schedule akin to flying around the world three times, hopping off at remote locations to play soccer matches.
The US obviously wants Switzerland from the seeded pot. If not the Swiss, then Colombia or Uruguay is preferred. In Pot Two, Algeria, Cameroon, or Ecuador. In Pot Four, Greece, Bosnia, or Croatia is the wish.
As with any FIFA event, there is murkiness and shouts of conspiracy. And as it is with any FIFA event, those shouts and that murkiness can’t be dispelled. Just know that it’s grim for the US going into Friday, as grim as it may be coming out.
It’s cruel, the draw. It’s based more on your geographic location than your ability, more on shaky rankings than past performance.
It’s one of the highest drama points of the entire World Cup journey, and as you survey those perky little ping-pong balls in their immaculate, mounted jars, know that they can be deadly.
Of course, upsets happen. But in the most likely scenario, the United States’ World Cup campaign may get an injection of hope, a wonderful boost on Friday. Or the whole thing may feel it’s over before the tournament has even started. The importance, though, is that fans and players alike keep their perspective. Nothing is over until it’s over.
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