The four, eight-team pots for the World Cup Draw are all set and now all that is left before the balls are selected on Friday is a lot of handwringing. Against my advice (damn them!), FIFA put the Americans and other Concacaf teams in the pot with the Asians plus New Zealand. This significantly raises the possibility that the United States will wind up in the Group of Death. But contrary to conventional wisdom, it is far more important to dodge the Serbias and Cameroons to stay out the GoD than missing Brazil or Spain or another world soccer superpower.
The Group of Death is the celebrated catastrophe that soccer fans love the world over, unless of course, it befalls their own team. It consists of four teams that could all reasonably qualify for the second round and probably at least three that would genuinely be thought of as quarterfinal material. In the 2006 World Cup, the Argentina, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Cote d’Ivoire group was recognized as the official Group of Death. But the US group, placed with Italy (2006 champions), Czech Republic (world #5 going into the tournament), and Ghana who ultimately qualified for the second round was just as tough if not tougher. That’s why we really needed to be in the pot with the African teams.
The surprise of the day was that FIFA cooked the books to keep France out of the seeded pot, moving the Dutch in ahead of them. The eight seeded teams are:
Pot 1: South Africa, Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Argentina, England
The next pot consists of the Concacaf teams together with the Asians and one Oceania representative:
Pot 2: Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Honduras, Mexico, USA, New Zealand
The third grouping finds the unseeded South Americans striking it lucky and getting placed with the Africans:
Pot 3: Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay
And the remaining unseeded European teams make up the last grouping:
Pot 4: Denmark, France, Greece, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland
This alignment is about as difficult as possible for the United States. We are the best team in Pot 2, meaning there are five weaker teams (we can’t play Mexico or Honduras in the group stage because we come from the same region) that we miss out on getting in the first round. In addition to that, pots 3 and 4 are uniformly strong, with only one or two moderately weak teams in each pot. Making matters worse, there are some real powers (Portugal and France) and highly skilled and motivated African teams (Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ghana). Let’s break down the pots and see how the US team can avoid the dreaded Group of Death.
There is only one team from the seeded pot that would not go in Group of Death and that’s South Africa. Some worry about the boost of playing in front of its home fans and swelled with pride at being the first African World Cup host. But let’s get real; South Africa is ranked 86th in the world, England (the lowest ranked of the other seeded teams) are 9th. Even with all the outside factors, I’d rather have South Africa than any of the other seeded teams every time.
But while all the other teams could be in the Group of Death, not all the teams are equally bad (even if they are extremely good). Max has a good piece on which teams America wants to avoid. FIFA crossed him up by putting the Dutch in the seeded pot, but I’m going to disagree that we want to avoid Brazil or Spain. My theory of the group stage is that either you want a seeded team that you can beat, in this case South Africa, or you want a seeded team that is going to beat everyone. In that second scenario, the group becomes a three way contest for the last 2nd round spot, but importantly, all three teams are on level terms.
In my mind, it’s much worse to get an Italy who are susceptible to dropping points at any time, because you never know who they’ll fall flat against. It would suck to go down to the Italians and then have them hand points to the Serbs. The only time you’d want to get one of the inconsistent seeded teams is if we think we can actually win our group. But we’re talking about avoiding the Group of Death here, so I don’t want Italy, Argentina (with their wacky manager), or the Netherlands (with their rather shaky defense).
Out of pot 3, there isn’t a team nearly as weak as South Africa (or North Korea or New Zealand for that matter). But of the eight in the group, I think the softest are Algeria and Uruguay. It would be hard to be in the Group of Death with either of these teams as they so rarely make the tournament—just one appearance before this year since 1990. The other two South Americans sides aren’t as strong as the Africans will be playing in front of African crowds in Africa’s showcase world event. If I had to pick, I’d take Nigeria, but I wouldn’t want any of Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, or Ghana.
All of the teams in pot 4 are probably good enough to qualify for the second round. The weakest among them is probably Slovenia, although they did just get past a strong Russian team in the European zone playoffs. Slovakia would likely be next, but they did just beat the US in a friendly, although we dominated the game and only conceded from a soft penalty. I wouldn’t mind playing Greece, but they are a team capable of going deep in major tournaments, evidenced by their Euro 2004 victory.
While they aren’t the most feared teams in the pot, Denmark, Serbia, and Switzerland would be tough teams to face in the Group of Death. By far though, the most important teams to dodge in the whole draw are France and Portugal. Unless we get very lucky and find ourselves in South Africa’s group, being drawn with either France or Portugal would signal a very uphill climb to make it to the next stage, no matter who the fourth team is.
Seven of the eight teams in pot 1, four out of pot 3, and six from pot 4 are candidates for the Group of Death. It’s possible the US team could get none of them and wind up in a fantastic group with South Africa, Uruguay, and Slovenia. But you don’t have to be Nate Silver to calculate that the odds are not in our favor and there is a very strong chance that the US will wind up in this World Cup’s Group of Death.