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U.S. team's World Cup success depends on luck of draw

The national team will face several scenarios when FIFA representatives meet Dec. 4, but its chances to advance past the first round would improve with play of Landon Donovan.

November 22, 2009|By Grahame L. Jones
  • The U.S. team turned in a pair of lackluster performances without Landon Donovan in its final two matches of 2009.
The U.S. team turned in a pair of lackluster performances without Landon… (Geoff Burke / US Presswire )

Take Landon Donovan out of the U.S. national team and what you have left is a corpse.

Lifeless. Inert. Lacking any spark at all.

That has been proved in the past and it was proved yet again in the team's final two matches of 2009 -- a limp performance in a 1-0 loss to Slovakia and a lackluster performance in a 3-1 loss to Denmark.

Both of those countries are World Cup-bound, as is the U.S., but even though neither the Danes nor the Slovaks are likely to win it all at South Africa 2010, they at least have the prospect of advancing out of the first round.

Whether the U.S. can do so will depend on two things: Donovan's play and the World Cup draw that takes place on Dec. 4 in Cape Town.

Now that the 32 finalists are known, there are all sorts of scenarios to conjure up. What would be a good draw for the Americans? What would be a disastrous one?

Before speculating on that, it is necessary to guess just how FIFA's most garrulous geriatric, Sepp Blatter, is going to rig the whole affair at the Cape Town Convention Center.

Knowing the ground rules is crucial in trying to figure out what the possibilities are for Coach Bob Bradley's babes in the African wood.

To begin with, there are two teams the U.S. cannot play in the first round: fellow CONCACAF qualifiers Mexico and Honduras. So that cuts the number of potential opponents to 29.

It is also certain that the U.S. will not be seeded, but it will have to play one of the eight seeded teams. These, almost certainly, are going to be Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and host South Africa.

The worst-case scenario therefore would be to come up against tournament favorite Brazil, despite the way in which the U.S. -- inspired by Donovan and Charlie Davies -- handled the South Americans in the first half of an eventual 3-2 loss in the Confederations Cup final in June.

Just as bad would be a game against Spain, because the reigning European champions would be more motivated than ever to set the record straight after being upset by the U.S. in the Confederations Cup semifinals.

The best-case scenario would be to be drawn into South Africa's group. It is by far the weakest of the seeded teams and one of the weakest in the tournament as a whole.

Because a host nation has never failed to advance out of the first round -- it would put a damper on the whole tournament -- Blatter and his FIFA cohorts are going to bend over backward to make sure that South Africa's three first-round opponents are as feeble as can be.

FIFA just might see the U.S. as being that feeble.

If the draw follows the usual formula, the 32 teams will be divided into four groups of eight for eventual arrangement into eight groups of four.

In other words, there could be the eight seeded teams in one group, the eight other European teams in another group, the five other African teams and the three South American teams in a third group, and the four Asian teams, the three CONCACAF teams and the lone Oceania team in a fourth group.

But because FIFA does not tip its hand while trying to sort out what arrangement best suits its needs and desires, that scenario is not fixed in stone.

Other than South Africa, Algeria would be the easiest opponent for the U.S. among the other African sides and the Ivory Coast would be the most difficult.

If the Americans play a second European team, which is very likely, the most vulnerable of the nonseeded Europeans would appear to be Switzerland; the most formidable would be the Netherlands.

Just looking at the 32 teams, however, it is difficult to imagine any group that would guarantee the U.S. a comfortable ride into the second round.

Best hope for Bradley and company? South Africa, Switzerland, Uruguay.

Worst case? Brazil, Netherlands, Ivory Coast.

But as the Americans' matches against Slovakia and Denmark showed, without Donovan, it doesn't really matter what group the U.S. gets drawn into.

With him, it matters very much.

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