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U.S. men's team

U.S. team hopes for favorable draw

December 1, 2009
CarlisleBy Jeff Carlisle, ESPNsoccernet
(Archive)

Will the U.S. reach the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup?

GettyImagesSteven Pienaar, left, and the Bafana Bafana would be a dream draw for the U.S.
It's a question that has been on the minds of U.S. soccer observers since the team clinched qualification back in October. Yet it's a conversation that is almost immediately cut short by the comment, "It depends on the draw," and with good reason. While the festivities in South Africa are nominally a gathering of the 32 finest soccer-playing nations on the planet, the vagaries of qualification mean some high flyers were left out, and there are some definite haves and have-nots among the participants.

So after Friday's World Cup draw in Cape Town, will the U.S. find itself in the Group of Death or the Group of Death by 1,000 Cuts? Or will manager Bob Bradley find his team facing the kind of cushy trio that will draw envious glances from his international coaching colleagues?

That last scenario could happen for the Americans, but only if their luck changes. Since rejoining the World Cup party back in 1990, the U.S. has never found itself in one of the easier groups. Even on those occasions when the U.S has progressed to the second round, it has done so as a heavy underdog, requiring an upset of the group favorite to progress. Now, it's almost expected that the Americans will face an uphill climb.

"We never expected any favors from the draw," said former U.S. international Marcelo Balboa, who participated in three World Cups. "We just had to prepare ourselves for what we thought we were going to get. If you want to make it out of a group, if you want to make it to a quarterfinal, you're going to have to beat great teams."

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While it seems unlikely that we'll see a repeat of the brutal 2006 draw that grouped the U.S. with eventual champion Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana, that is a more probable outcome than Lady Luck suddenly smiling on the Americans.

Of course, the draw alone will not dictate the Americans' fortunes. Other factors will come into play as well.

"The order of the games you play is also something that's important," said Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, who also enjoyed a stint with the U.S. U-20 team. "Some people like to play the weakest opponent last, but I've always felt if you can get an opponent in Game 1 that you have a chance of winning and if you can get off to a good start in the group, that can carry you an awful long way."

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This was borne out in 2006, when the U.S. faced a talented but aging and not very deep Czech side in its opening match. Sure enough, the Czechs smoked the Americans 3-0, and promptly imploded due to a combination of injury and suspension. Had the U.S. played the Czechs last, the outcome might have been different.

Of course, how the U.S. performs on the day will have an effect as well. It's what carried the side through when it advanced in 1994 and 2002, and what helped sink it in 1990, 1998 and 2006. The 2010 edition will be no different.

"Hopefully, [the U.S.] has learned some lessons throughout the qualifying stages, the friendly games that they've had and also throughout the Confederations Cup," said former U.S. international and current ESPN broadcast analyst John Harkes. "Being up 2-0 against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final is great, but it comes against the run of play, we didn't dictate a lot of that game at all and everybody's like, 'Wow, how did we lose?' Well, you could see how we lost. We didn't defend properly and didn't have much of the midfield. We have a lot of problems to sort out."

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Yet it all starts with the draw, and Harkes noted that, "The draw can help you and it can certainly hurt you," and for that reason, there is plenty of anticipation to see where the U.S. ends up.

FIFA will announce Wednesday precisely how the draw will be conducted. It's known that it will begin with four pots of eight teams each. The inimitable Sepp Blatter (or perhaps a supermodel or some other dignitary) then will go about selecting one team from each of the pots to form the eight groups of four that will comprise the first round.

Pot 1 will be comprised of the eight seeded teams, which at this point are likely to be host South Africa, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, England, Germany, Italy and the French national volleyball team.

Pot 2 will contain the eight remaining European sides: the Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Denmark, Greece, Switzerland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

With regards to Pots 3 and 4, the ways of FIFA are an enigma, and the organization might yet tweak the rules and formulas used to determine which teams are grouped where. Will it do what it did in 2006, and group the CONCACAF teams with the Asia and Oceania teams? Or will it throw them in with the African contingent, as it did in 2002? The Americans' chances of advancement to the second round could well depend on FIFA's answer.

Assuming for the moment that FIFA duplicates the system used in 2006, Pot 3 will consist of the African and South American teams, while the U.S. and its CONCACAF brethren will be grouped with Asia and Oceania in Pot 4. Here are some of the possible outcomes:

The best-case scenario: South Africa, Slovenia and Uruguay

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While these three sides find themselves far down the pecking order of their respective pots, they are a trio containing its share of peril. In its playoff with Costa Rica, Uruguay did what no U.S. team has ever done, namely win at the Ticos' intimidating Ricardo Saprissa Stadium. South Africa has been downright woeful of late, suffering a loss and a tie against powerhouses Iceland and Jamaica in the past two months, but will have the home crowd behind it. Slovenia, meanwhile, represents the kind of organized European side the U.S. has struggled to break down in the past. Still, the Americans would have to like their chances of progressing from this group.

The nightmare scenario: Brazil, Netherlands, Ivory Coast

Should the U.S. miss out on a group with South Africa, any one of the top seeds will be daunting. The trick is to avoid the top teams in the other pots, and getting grouped with the Dutch and the Ivorians -- one of many killer possibilities -- would leave the Americans with almost no chance of getting out of the first round.

The middle-of-the-road scenario: England, Denmark, Nigeria

FIFA rankings always induce a near-terminal case of skepticism, but to get an idea of how even a middling draw will be difficult, take a look at this trio. Each of these countries lies in the lower half of their respective pots based on the current FIFA ranking, and all would have to be considered favorites in a match against the Americans.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.