Friday, soccer fans around the world will turn their attention to 32 ping pong balls determining the group play route for each of the World Cup 2014 qualifying teams. Brian Straus, now writing for Sports Illustrated -- the same Brian Straus who wrote the "USMNT in crisis" article for Sporting News in March -- has predicted more gloom and doom for the Americans in a recent SI article looking at how the draw might go.
There's only one known pot to date -- hosts Brazil, joining the top seven teams in the world according to the Oct. 17 FIFA World Rankings. Straus notes that traditional powerhouses like Italy (which has since leapfrogged seeded Switzerland for the #7 spots), France (which needed a major playoff comeback, sans handball this time, to qualify), and England (which is currently facing major questions at goalkeeper) aren't in the seeded pot, and might very possibly end up in a group with the U.S.
He goes on to say:
The U.S. is hampered further by the likelihood (it hasn’t been confirmed) that FIFA will create a pot of eight teams comprising the four CONCACAF entrants and the four Asian qualifiers. In that group — which will include Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia – the U.S. would be considered the best side. But the pot’s composition would ensure that the Americans can’t face any of those beatable squads in the group stage in Brazil. The U.S. will be left to play a seed, an unseeded European team and a nation pulled from a pot containing the five African entrants (four of which will be second-round threats), Chile and Ecuador. If the U.S. is paired with a South American seed, its group still could include two European opponents.
He then posited possible groups like Brazil/Netherlands/Ivory Coast/USA, or Spain/France/Ghana/USA, or Germany/Italy/Chile/USA, and then linked to this draw simulator, which is both totally addictive and totally terrifying, placing the USMNT in myriad Groups of Death much of the time, with the occasional Group of Yeah I Could Live With This in the mix.
Straus then brings in math:
ESPN statistician Paul Carr ran through the permutations and, based on his national team rankings, found that the U.S. had a 43 percent chance to move through to the second round next summer. Its worst-case-scenario group – Spain/Netherlands/Chile — produces a 15.3 percent chance of advancement. Those odds improve to an optimal 73.6 percent if the Americans are drawn with Switzerland, Algeria and Croatia.