If FIFA conducted the World Cup draw like the NCAA basketball tournament selection process, the U.S. national soccer team would have a pretty good idea what lies ahead in Brazil next summer before Friday’s party begins. The Americans would brace themselves for alignment with a super power, another middling team and a weaker side in one of eight relatively balanced groups.
FIFA’s system, though, is not built for parity. Rather, it is designed for suspense created by unpredictability and randomness. So when the 32 qualifying nations are parceled into four-team groups at the Costa do Sauipe resort in Brazil’s Bahia state, Coach Juergen Klinsmann and the U.S. delegation will have only the faintest idea of their first-round challenges.
The Americans could land in the so-called Group of Death with, for instance, 2010 finalists Spain and the Netherlands, plus African titan Ghana. Or in the best-case scenario, they could join Switzerland, Greece and Algeria.
Not even the wisest bracketology nerds have any idea how this selection show will play out.
Here’s what is arranged ahead of the draw:
Eight teams — the host and the top seven teams in FIFA’s October rankings — were seeded and placed in Pot 1. They are Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Uruguay.
The remaining South American squads (Chile and Ecuador) will join African qualifiers Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria in Pot 2.
The four teams from the region encompassing North and Central America and Caribbean are in Pot 3 with the four Asian qualifiers: the United States, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran.
Pot 4 will comprise eight of the nine remaining European teams. The initial group includes Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, England, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal and Russia. At the start of the draw, one of these teams randomly will be moved to Pot 2.
Consequently, in the worst of all possible permutations, the United States could join Brazil, Italy and Netherlands in a hellish group.
Once the pots are set, FIFA’s theater begins. Under the watchful eye of Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s controversial leader, soccer stars and celebrities will pluck balls and assemble the eight groups.
Aside from the group makeup, the draw also will determine the dates and venues for every first-round match. Brazil is utilizing 12 stadiums for the 64-match tournament, which will kick off June 12 in Sao Paulo and conclude July 13 in Rio de Janeiro.
The draw’s major guideline: Geographic separation is paramount, with no more than two European teams per group and no more than one South American side in each. Additionally, teams arranged in the pots by region will not face one another.
Given the strength of the World Cup field — only the Bosnians are first-time qualifiers, and they are no lightweights — the United States is almost assured of inheriting an underdog role in hopes of finishing first or second in the group and advancing to the round of 16. There is always one Group of Death; this time, there could be two.
Before the draw even commences, the Americans are facing a harsh outcome. Because of the pot structures, the Americans will not fall into the same group as teams from the weakest regions (Asia and CONCACAF).
Historically, the draw has not been unkind to the United States. Four years ago, Bob Bradley’s band was paired with England, Slovenia and Algeria, a manageable foursome won by the Americans when Landon Donovan scored a last-minute goal against the Algerians in the group finale.
They can only pray for such a fortunate draw this time.