Allow me to go on the record about what I’ll consider a good World Cup draw for the U.S. men’s soccer team and what I’ll consider a bad draw before the selections are made. After the draw, there will be a natural temptation to make the United States’ group sound as hard as possible; we might find ourselves referring to the “golden generation of Bosnians,” or calling El Arbi Soudani the “Algerian Pele.” So while I’m still behind the veil of ignorance (which is different than the state of ignorance in which I spend all of my time), I’m going to project my reactions to hypothetical World Cup groups.
I wish Nate Silver’s ESPN page was up and running so he could just tell me who the Americans are going to draw.
Group: Brazil, Netherlands, Ghana
Reaction: Despair, shaking my fist at God
FIFA’s lazy decision to simply seed the top eight teams in the FIFA rankings combined with the fact that there were no serious upsets in the qualifying rounds (23 of the top 24 teams in FIFA’s rankings qualified, with only Ukraine missing out) make the probability of a nightmare draw higher than ever for the Americans. Combine that with the fact that they are in a pot with the (easier) North American and Asian teams, and I am arriving at the same mental place I inhabit when I fly Spirit Airlines: I’m just mentally prepared to get reamed.
As Grant Wahl pointed out, it didn’t need to be this way. But as they say: Give me the strength to change the things I can change, accept the things I cannot change, and blame Sepp Blatter for anything in the second category.
Group: Germany, Italy, Ghana
Reaction: Maniacal laugh of the damned/Walter White at the end of “Crawl Space”
Germany is automatic; Germany is a machine. Germany has made the last eight in every World Cup for which it has qualified. Germans don’t even turn on the TV until the second round. The group stage is to modern Germany what Belgium was to the old Germany; an inconvenient speed bump on the way to the main event. If you draw Germany, you’re battling two teams for the one remaining spot.
Italy is a good team that had a terrible World Cup in 2010. Italian honor and pride are on the line. If “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” are any indication — and I assume that show is an accurate and non-exaggerated portrayal of everyday Italian Americans — the reaction when an Italian’s pride is threatened can be severe. I do not want to draw Italy.
Group: Ghana, Ghana, Ghana
Reaction: Steely-eyed acceptance of the task before us/Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan”
I ran this draw simulator 19,000 times and the U.S. drew Ghana every single time. Look: We are karmically tied to Ghana. We are not going to take the next step as a team until we slay the Ghanaian dragon. And that’s fair: We can’t say “we’re an emerging soccer power!” and “I am scared to death of Ghana!” at the same time.
Ghana is emblematic of whichever Pot B team we draw; if we want to advance, we’re simply going to have to beat a good African or second-tier South American team. Honestly, I think Ghana is only the second-best African team right now; I think Nigeria is slightly better. But accept this: Ghana is some sort of test of worthiness that the soccer gods are giving us. Ghana is our Dagobah Cave of Evil.
Group: Switzerland, Algeria, Greece
Reaction: Giddiness, guilt
The Americans lucked out in 2010; could they luck out again in 2014? The good news is that I don’t really believe in karma. Some people seem to have endless luck, whereas other people are most people. So maybe we’re the Tom Brady of the World Cup draw, just blessed with one gift after another after another after another. Go ahead and hate us; we can’t feel your hate from the second round.
Group: Iran, Russia, China
Reaction: Utter confusion
Iran is in our pot, and China didn’t qualify. This group obviously has something to do with the nuclear talks.
Group: Argentina, Ivory Coast, Russia
Reaction: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance
This is the most likely outcome: One team that will be a heavy favorite and two games that could really go either way. While there’s no path to the second round I won’t accept — I’d happily accept an unfair red card, a match-fixing scandal, locker room staph infection, PED suspension, flight delay, John Terry-related team discord, dodgy lasagna, or just about anything – it’ll feel much better if we earn our way to the second round. Let the outcome be decided on the field, not by some random, arbitrary process. This isn’t college football.
Here’s an objective (if not very scientific) way to look at things: rank the teams all of the other pots from easiest to hardest. For me, that’s:
Pot 1: Switzerland, Colombia, Uruguay, Belgium, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Brazil
Pot 2: Algeria, Ecuador (remember: they’re at sea level), Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Chile (I’m ignoring these “Pot X” shenanigans)
Pot 4: Greece, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia, Portugal, France, England, Italy, Netherlands
Give each team a number, starting with a “1” for the easiest team in each pot (so Switzerland is a “1,” Brazil is an “8,” Algeria is a “1,” etc.). After the draw, add up the numbers. Is our total about 14? Then that was an average draw. Is our total single digits? Then three cheers to Sunil Gulati for successfully fixing two draws in a row. Is our total higher than 20? Then you’ll find me cackling in the crawl space like Walter White.