When the U.S. national soccer team's name is plucked from one of the giant glass goblets during Friday's World Cup draw, the Americans could very well find themselves in a first-round group that includes defending champion Brazil -- a nation so rich in soccer talent and so far ahead of every challenger at the moment, its second-stringers could contend for the championship next summer.
If the Americans are fortunate enough to avoid Ronaldo and the rest of South America's one-name wonders, Italy or Germany could be in waiting. Or perhaps they would prefer Argentina or Spain.
"It's going to be a difficult group, regardless," Coach Bruce Arena said Thursday after arriving here from Washington. "I haven't examined the field because it's a waste of time. I won't put too much energy in it until it becomes a reality, but with having seeds the way they are and [another] pot having all Europeans, it makes all the groups very balanced and pretty strong, no two ways about it."
Arena does know this much: Of the other 31 finalists, regional rivals Mexico, Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago cannot end up in the U.S. team's group. Also, the Americans won't face any of the four Asian squads.
Beyond that, the possibilities are almost endless.
There could be an intriguing matchup with one of the four first-time African qualifiers. Or a brutal schedule against, say, France, Netherlands and Paraguay.
No matter what unfolds, Arena, as well as his coaching colleagues who have arrived in this charming old city in eastern Germany, will finally have opponents to begin studying.
"The exciting part is, we've been qualified since early September and there's been very little motivation on our part to date," Arena said. "So now this gets us motivated and we can begin the process of getting ready for the World Cup."
The Americans will also learn in which three cities they will play their first-round games. (They wouldn't mind playing at least once in Hamburg, their base of operations starting in early June.) They will also find out whether their opener will be on the first day or two of the month-long tournament or several days into the event, as it was in the previous World Cup.
That last factor was something Arena thought worked to his team's advantage in 2002, because his team had more time to prepare, was able to get a better feel for the event and, more specifically, monitor how the referees would judge the games. The result was a 3-2 upset of group favorite Portugal, which helped spark the U.S. team's quarterfinal run, its best in 72 years.
"I'm hopeful at least we start a little bit later than early," he said. "However, having said that, I know I put the jinx on it and we'll probably get the opening game" against Germany on June 9 in Munich.
Regardless of the opponent, the Americans aren't going to catch anyone by surprise. In 2002, coming off a winless performance four years earlier at the tournament in France, they had been given little chance of making it out of the first round.
This time, the United States is widely regarded as a dangerous team with a strong corps of veteran players and a threat to repeat its 2002 success. It narrowly missed out on one of the top eight seeds for the 2006 tournament, which would have allowed it to avoid Brazil, Argentina and some of the other perennial powers in the first round.
Mexico, which finished behind the United States in regional qualifying but has a higher world ranking, did receive a top seed.
"I don't think [other teams] fear us, but I think they do appreciate that we're probably not a pushover," Arena said. "I think it will take a while to earn any kind of respect at this level. We're not there yet."
World Cup Notes: Cobi Jones, the U.S. program's all-time leader in games played who is nearing the end of his prosperous career, was invited by FIFA to participate in the draw. Other guests include soccer legends Pele, Lothar Matthaeus and Johan Cruyff. Supermodel Heidi Klum will co-host the event with German television personality Reinhold Beckmann. . . . The draw will be broadcast live in approximately 160 countries and, according to FIFA estimates, will have 320 million viewers. . . . Following the draw, Arena will travel to Hannover, Germany, to watch a Bundesliga match involving his starting goalkeeper, Kasey Keller of Borussia Moenchengladbach. U.S. defender Steve Cherundolo was also scheduled to play for Hannover, but a calf injury has sidelined him for a few weeks.