Avoiding the Group of Death

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 | View Comments
USA v El Salvador: FIFA 2010 World Cup Qualifier

By Jason Kuenle

Germany, Serbia, Ecuador. December 4th is a day I’m dreading. It is the day of the World Cup draw, and those three teams are the average group that the USMNT would be drawn into. Throw in the USA and you have current FIFA ranks 4, 11, 13, and 36. The worst case scenario is Brazil, Netherlands, Australia or 1, 3, and 14. That first group is close to a group of death, the second one surely is.

Wins by the Yanks, combined with losses by Honduras and Costa Rica have given the United States breathing room in qualification. With qualification looking more likely, here’s a not so quick look at the finals draw. The draw is really a two step process, formulating the four “pots” that the draw will come from and then drawing from those pots. While this second step is random, the first step is not. The USMNT can escape the group of death by luck in during either step. I will warn you that is written below is filled with conjecture and while I will state my assumptions as such, it does not make any of this absolute fact.

In every WC since it expanded to 32 teams, FIFA has created a seeded pot which includes the host country/countries and the teams with the highest rating from a seeding formula to fill the remaining spots in the pot. The other pots have been done by confederation; attempting to place confederations with higher average FIFA rankings for their unseeded teams together in pots without breaking up confederations unnecessarily. I will assume that these trends will continue.

I assume FIFA will use the same formula for filling Pot A as it did for WC 2006. FIFA used similar formulas for WC 1998 and WC 2002 and any slight tweak should not disrupt this analysis in any appreciable way.

Using this seeding formula, there are 11 teams that if they qualify would be ahead of the US for those 7 spots. Those 11 teams are, in order, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain, England, Argentina, France, Portugal, Netherlands, Mexico, and Croatia. Of these Brazil, Spain, England, and Netherlands have already qualified. Italy, with 4 point advantage and a game remaining against Cyprus look like a lock to qualify.

Likewise, Mexico with a home game against El Salvador and a road game in Trinidad looks to have a clear path to the top three in CONCACAF. With those two added in, the US would need Germany, Argentina, France, Portugal, and Croatia all not to qualify to be seeded. This is a possibility. A German loss in Russia will likely send them to the second place UEFA knockout along with France and Croatia, while Portugal may not make it that far, and Argentina is sitting in the playoff spot in CONMEBOL. If all this happens, the US should rejoice because it means they’ll have to play none of these teams in the group stage which will make passage to the knockout stage of the World Cup much easier.

In the more likely event that the US is not seeded, the question is what will the other three pots look like? One will have the unseeded European teams, which we’ll call Pot B, and the other two will be confederation combinations of Africa, Asia, Oceania, North America, and South America.

We know that there will be 5 unseeded African teams. We know that Asia will have the lowest average FIFA ranking of any multi-team confederation. We know that if New Zealand beats Bahrain, that Oceania will have the lowest FIFA ranking of any confederation. If Bahrain wins, Asia will have 5 unseeded teams. I assume that if New Zealand wins, they will likely be put in the same pot as the Asian teams. Therefore, Africa and Asia/Oceania will be the majority members of pots C and D respectively.

That leaves us with CONCACAF and CONMEBOL to fill in the holes. Two factors complicate this. The play-in game and the qualification status of Argentina. There are four possibilities, in the order I consider most likely: CONMEBOL wins and Argentina in, CONCACAF wins and Argentina in, CONCACAF wins and Argentina out, and CONMEBOL wins and Argentina out.

Friendly match: Russia 2 - 3 Argentina

If a CONMEBOL team wins and Argentina is in, CONMEBOL will have two seeded teams and three unseeded teams. CONCACAF will also have three unseeded teams if Germany, France, or Portugal qualify. The unseeded FIFA average for CONMEBOL if the standings hold is 26.7, for CONCACAF, 25.7. This would match CONCACAF with Africa and CONMEBOL with Asia. However that difference is not substantial and could easily be flipped by the time that the pot determination occurs, dropping CONCACAF into the Asian pot.

If a CONCACAF team wins and Argentina is in, CONMEBOL will have two seeded teams and two unseeded teams. CONCACAF will have four unseeded teams. The FIFA averages would be, CONMEBOL 22, CONCACAF 29. CONMEBOL would be placed with Africa. CONCACAF would be placed with Asia, but there would be nine teams in the pot. In 2006, a special pot was designated when the unseeded European pot had 9 teams effectively moving Serbia and Montenegro out of the higher ranked European pot into the lower ranked CONCACAF and Asia pot based on their having the lowest FIFA ranking in the pot at the time. Assuming that FIFA would do the reverse, the highest FIFA ranked member of the CONCACAF and Asia pot would be moved to the higher ranked Africa and CONMEBOL pot. The US at 11 is currently the highest ranked of those teams.

If a CONCACAF team wins and Argentina is out, CONMEBOL would have one seeded team and three unseeded teams. The hole left by Argentina in the seeded pot would likely be filled by a European team, leaving Pot B one team short. FIFA averages CONMEBOL 26.7, CONCACAF 29. CONMEBOL would be placed with Africa, CONCACAF with Asia and the US moved up to the European Pot B. If the Argentine hole is instead filled by Mexico, the United States would remain with the rest of CONCACAF in the Asian pot.

If a CONMEBOL team wins and Argentina is out, CONMEBOL would have one seeded team and four unseeded teams, FIFA average 27. CONCACAF would have three unseeded teams, FIFA average 25.7. CONCACAF would be placed with Africa, CONMEBOL with Asia and Australia would be pulled out of Asia to fill the hole in the European pot or the Africa/CONCACAF pot is Mexico gets seeded.

If the US can get into the African pot, their chances of moving through to the knock-out round go up dramatically. First, it means that they would not have to play the unseeded African teams. Second, because you cannot have teams from the same confederation (except for Europe) in the same group, it means that there is a very good chance of being drawn into the South African group. Being drawn into the host group means no group matches against those top seeded teams. Finally, it means a 50-50 chance of drawing one of the weaker Asian teams. If the US is in the African pot, it means that there is as good of a chance of Brazil, Netherlands, Australia, as there is South Africa, Slovakia, North Korea.

In short, root for CONCACAF. Root for Mexico beating Columbia in a friendly at the end of the month. Root for whatever side goes up against CONMEBOL in the play-in games. Also for good measure, root for Bahrain, eliminating any possibility that FIFA might use the only Oceania team to plug holes that the US would like to fill.
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