Saturday, December 10, 2005

Draw, Pilgrim

Three big topics to cover; three separate posts for each. First, the draw for the 2006 World Cup.

The World Cup will be open in six months, and for the first time on Friday, we know the fixtures. It’s testament to the tournament’s impact that over 350 million viewers tuned in to find out the results as they happened, and surely millions more followed the draw on the internet. Why is the draw so important? Just ask Bruce Arena and Sam’s Army.

The United States have occupied a top ten spot in the FIFA rankings ever since their magical run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. They would be even higher had they gotten the winning result they deserved against Germany. Because the team had showed such potential with teenagers like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley in important roles, smart money was on the US to at least match their 2002 performance in Germany. Those ambitions may have come crashing down on Friday.

The US was among the final teams drawn, as they were members of pool 4. Other members of pool 4 had already been paired in groups with England (Group B) and hosts Germany (Group A), and the US proved lucky at first, avoiding Group C with Argentina, Holland, and Ivory Coast. Of the four groups remaining, the US would have easily ranked as the second best side in three of them–Group F headed by Brazil, Group G with France, and Group H with Spain. But when the ping pong ball came up, it was for Group E with Italy, Czech Republic, and Ghana, a true group of death.

Italy’s World Cup pedigree is unquestioned; the Czech Republic is currently ranked 2nd in the world, boast countless attacking options, and have the world’s best goalkeeper in Petr Cech; Ghana is one of the strongest teams in Africa. To make matters worse for the US, if they were to come in second in the group and advance, they would face the winner of Group F–barring a miracle, that will be Brazil.

Even before the draw, the odds for the US to win were at 80:1. Those odds will surely be longer now. The order of the matches are already set, and the US will play the Czechs first, then Italy, then Ghana. The game against Ghana is clearly a “must win”. As the Americans found out in 2002, even a win and a draw is enough to advance, as long as you get some help. It’s entirely possible that the US could play well enough to draw both the Czechs and Italy, with a win against Ghana likely putting them through.

But playing for the draw does not suit the United States’ attacking style. If they have one advantage over the European sides, it is speed and athleticism. Since two draws and a win would probably just mean a date with Brazil, I expect Arena and his squad to take an all or nothing approach against the Czechs and the Italians. Such a strategy against disciplined sides will probably result in a group stage flameout, but it is worth taking the risk to avoid Brazil.

As for the rest of the field, England and Germany look to have easy paths to the quarterfinals. Both should top their groups and face relatively weak competition in the round of 16. Whom they would meet in the quarterfinals is much harder to determine. Argentina, Holland, Mexico, and Portugal will likely vie for the spots against England and Germany, but the order in which they will finish in the group stages in anyone’s guess. If Argentina do end up against Germany, the hosts will likely be knocked out in the quarters. On the bottom half of the bracket, the winners of Group E and G have the good fortune to avoid Brazil, a major advantage for Italy, France, and the Czechs. Even if Spain manages to do well for once, they will likely crash out at the hands of Brazil in the quarterfinals.

I won’t make any formal predictions until final rosters are set and injury situations are known (which won’t be until the end of May), but playing out the tourney in my head, the outcome that seems most likely is Argentina v. Italy in one semifinal with Brazil v. England in the other. All of those finals permutations are dream matchups, but surely Argentina v. Brazil would be one of the most riveting of all time.

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