Luck of draw to U.S., not SPI powers
My initial impressions of the eight groups as they were drawn in Cape Town today, as seen from a Soccer Power Index perspective: The teams that have the most to be thankful for are three in the second 10 -- the United States, Italy and Paraguay -- while the unluckiest teams were in the top 10, as No. 7 Portugal and No. 9 Ivory Coast drew No. 1 Brazil in this World Cup finals' "Group of Death."
The key categories to examine in the charts that follow are "win" and "advance," which reflect a team's chances of winning its group and advancing, respectively, after accounting for its SPI rating, pace and home-field and home-continent advantage. The "points" category represents the expected number of points each team will garner, while "rank" and "rate" reflect the SPI rankings and ratings.
So, let's say you're an up-and-coming team such as Uruguay. Are you thrilled to have drawn South Africa from Pot 1? Or terrified to have gotten two of the stronger teams -- Mexico and France -- from Pots 2 and 4?
A little bit of both, obviously, but this group is tougher than it looks. Uruguay and France are the nominal favorites, each with about a 60 percent chance of advancement. But they aren't so strong that they're impervious to an upset -- either by the attacking Mexicans or by the host South Africans, who have had moments of solid play on their home pitch. Indeed, this is a rough draw for South Africa itself -- one of the tougher possible configurations considering the club couldn't play any of the seeded teams.
Argentina, which could use a bit of a break given its struggles in the latter stages of qualifying, gets one: This is an average group that is devoid of natural rivalries. Although there aren't any pushovers here, it's been some time since Nigeria was the class of African soccer. Greece and South Korea are capable of advancing, but they're hardly the teams their opponents were most worried about playing. Most of these teams tend to play defensive soccer, so a series of draws rather than losses is what Diego Maradona might have to fear most.
A fine group on a number of levels for the United States. Algeria -- clearly the weakest team from Pot 3 -- is very beatable, as is Slovenia. From Pot 1, the U.S. gets England. It'll be tough to pick up points against England, but the upside is very high in terms of enhanced fan interest and marketing opportunities if the Americans do. The English, of course, will give little thought to being upset. This draw is a little less favorable from their point of view because of the presence of the Americans -- a capable, high-profile opponent -- instead of one of the pushovers from Pot 2. Still, with Algeria and Slovenia, England has few excuses if it fails to advance, and a draw or even a loss to the U.S. might not be fatal.
This isn't the strongest German club we've seen, particularly on defense, and this draw leaves it more vulnerable than you might think. Serbia is an underrated side that is quickly coming into its own, and Australia was probably the most cohesive opponent from Pot 2. Ghana, although not the most talented African club, has been perhaps the most consistent -- and played well on German soil in 2006. If Germany plays solidly, we'll have a very exciting three-way battle for second position. If the Germans don't, they could very easily be ousted.
An eclectic group that does the Dutch few favors. Cameroon will be very dangerous, and Denmark is an overachieving team that played well throughout qualifying. Japan is fairly weak, but not the automatic three points a team such as North Korea or New Zealand would have represented.
Which of the 32 teams had the most favorable draw? Probably Italy, which was placed in the wholly underwhelming Group F. Slovakia and New Zealand were the worst teams from their respective pots, and although Paraguay is no pushover, the Italians could lose that match and still be in strong position to advance. Overall, this was just a great boost for the Italians, who could have been extremely vulnerable in a tougher group. Instead, their aging stars shouldn't have to exhaust themselves and can conserve their energy for the knockout stage, in which the Italians can play conservatively and dare opponents to take penalties against Gianluigi Buffon. This is also a terrific draw for Paraguay, which has no excuse for failing to advance.
Can we call this a "Group of Death" when it contains North Korea -- one of the worst teams ever to qualify for the World Cup? Well … yes, absolutely -- because it also features the strongest team from each of the other three pots: Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal, all of which are ranked in SPI's top 10. Each of these teams unequivocally deserves to advance, but one of them won't get that opportunity. The group is tough enough, indeed, that it's conceivable even Brazil could be the unlucky side. There's a decent chance that placement out of this group will be determined by goal differential, so expect the teams to really pile it on against North Korea. If we see a couple of 5-0 or 7-1 results in this stage, it's liable to be here.
Were Spain more like Argentina, which played less consistently from match to match, there would be some danger lurking here. The Chileans are quite strong and performed terrifically well in qualifying; Honduras, the weakest CONCACAF team, is nevertheless markedly stronger than the Asian sides from Pot 2; and the Swiss, though perhaps a bit overrated, won Group G in Germany four years ago. But the Spanish are not only one of the best teams in the world, but also perhaps the most consistent. So they're probably fine; they'll just need to make sure they win the group rather than finish second, because the latter could mean drawing Brazil in the round of 16.
Nate Silver is a renowned statistical analyst who was named one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People" by Time Magazine in 2009. He gained acclaim for outperforming the polls in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and created baseball's popular predictive system, PECOTA.