World Cup draw also kind to USA beyond group stage

World Cup bracket sets up well for the US; photo by Pho Sun

After years of being put in some very tough groups, the FIFA gods were finally kind to the United States. We landed it Group C with England, Algeria, and Slovenia, and while it will surely be challenging, there is no question that this is the best group the United States has been in since it was seeded as the host of the 1994 tournament. Over the coming days, weeks, and months – can’t believe kickoff is still six months away – we’ll have a great deal to say about Group D. But the draw didn’t just set the first round, it put together the bracket for the whole tournament. And there is more good news here: if the US advances out of its group, we will have to play some very tough teams, but we can’t face any of the top contenders for the championship until the semifinal stage.

For the second round, the first knockout stage with 16 teams left, two groups are linked, with the teams that finish first in one group playing the teams that finish second in the other. The American’s Group C is matched up with Group D, which consists of seeded Germany, Australia, Ghana, and Serbia. The rest of the matchups are fixed too, but for this post, we’ll just focus on the quarterfinal round. At that stage of the tournament, the US can only face teams from Groups A or B. Group A is Mexico’s group, joined by host South Africa, Uruguay, and France. While Group B has the unpredictable Argentina as the seeded team with South Korea, Nigeria, and Greece.

There are four teams that are at the top of everone’s list of contenders for the World Cup: Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, and England. None of those teams would be in the US team’s quarter no matter whether we finish first or second in Group C. That could change is super-talented Argentina get a new manager before the tournament starts, but their current boss is a stark raving madman and has no business on the sidelines in a major tournament like the World Cup. If Maradona is their manager, Argentina will not make the quarterfinals, the earliest point the US could meet them. We’ve also dodged the dangerous teams like Cote d’Ivoire and Portugal, that probably aren’t going to win the World Cup, but could go on a deep run and cause a lot of trouble.

I’m not conceding our group to England, but it is more hopefulness than analysis to pick us to win Group C, and we’re most likely looking at finishing second and playing the winner of Group D. Looking at that group, its one of those that is pretty even throughout and will be tough to predict. It’s hard not to pick Germany to come out on top, but the athletic Australians and Ghanaians could cause the ageing Germans some trouble. Still, this might be one of those groups that a team wins with only 5 or 6 points, and Germany should be able to get that many and win this group.

I know you’re saying “Germany! How could the draw be kind to us if we have to play Germany in the second round?” First, let’s get real. If you get to the second round of the World Cup, you are going to have a play a pretty good team. Second, if you finish second in your group, you are going to have to play a really good team. And among those really good teams, the US team matches up against Germany about as well as we could hope for.

The Germans are not as good as they were when they made it to the semifinals in the 2006 tournament. They were the hosts that year and benefited from the home field advantage and the familiar surrounding of playing in Germany. This version of the team is basically the same squad from the last tournament just four years older. They play much more of a station to station game, not the high speed, high skill game that give the US team fits. We also have two extra pieces of motivation: Jermaine Jones and the memories of the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal so-called loss.

Should the US team get by Germany (or another team from Group D), our quaterfinal opponent would come from Groups A or B, and likely either the winner of Group B or second place from Group A. It seems likely that France is going to win Group A, which would leave Mexico fighting with South Africa and Uruguay. The Mexicans should be favored, but none of those teams scare me should the US ultimately face them in the quarters. Group B is just a wild card. I think Argentina will have real problems with the physical, defensive style of the Greeks, who could come out on top. But again, in the quarters of the World Cup, Argentina under Maradona or any of the other Group B teams would scare me.

We could lose all three games in the group stage and this would all be moot. Nobody should be getting ahead of themselves and this is far from a prediction that the US team will go to the semifinals. Its just that looking at who we would have to play in the matches after the group stage, and who we definitely wont have to play, this draw is very favorable for the United States.

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