For those of you who are unfamiliar with how the groups are assigned, let me give you a brief lesson. In the October before the World Cup, when qualification is essentially set, FIFA looks at the rankings of every team that has qualified and ranks them from 1 to 32 (if qualification isn't finished they make a couple of lists). This ranking of the teams in the world cup comes from the FIFA world ranking system that is used for all the teams in the world and updated monthly (more on that later). The host nation and the top 7 teams are put into 1 group. This group, pot 1, will be the "number 1 seeds" in each world cup group. 3 more pots are created, but rather than continuing moving down the rankings, these pots are created from the geographical qualification groups that teams played in. There is essentially one qualification group for each continent with a set number of teams making the world cup from each (i.e. North America, the Caribbean and Central America are one group that gets 3 automatic World Cup births and the 4th team enters a playoff versus a team from another qualification group). The create the pots in such a way that each of the 4 pots has 8 teams. Pot 2 consists of all European teams. Pot 3 is teams from North America and Asia, and pot 4 is Africa and South America. Then, in December or January of the year of the world cup, they draw 1 team from each pot and assign them to the world cup groups that are playing now.
So what does this all mean for the U.S. when it comes to playing in the world cup? Well it means that, if the US isn't in the Top 7 in the FIFA rankings (or the host nation) that the US is garenteed to get at least 1 European Team in its group and 1 team from Africa or South America, and a top 7 team (Typically also from Europe or South America). One big quotable line that has come out of this World Cup is "It's the group of Death because we (the USA) are in it". And while that has been a great rallying cry for USMNT supporters, it is also a very true fact about the system. The US was the highest ranked team in Pot 3 in this World Cup Draw (#12 at the time of the draw). That meant that whatever group they got drawn into was likely to be a very challenging one.
So since the USA is a very strong side that often gets drawn into the group of death, how does it get up into the top 7 in the world for next world cup so that it can hopefully get an easier draw? Well outside of winning the World Cup this year... not much. The FIFA world ranking system is designed to penalize teams not from Europe or South America. While those 2 continents tend to be the hotbeds for soccer, they are not the only ones where good soccer is being played. So how does the system penalize teams not from those 2 regions? Well, it does it 2 ways. The rankings are based on a mathematical formula that is based on a teams previous 4 years worth of results. The current year has the largest weight, followed by the previous year, so on and so forth. Every game played is worth a number of points and the total number of points you have decide your rank when compared to other countries. This all sounds well and good so far. But here is where it starts to hurt teams like the USA. For each game, there are 4 factors that weigh in to determine the number of points you receive. The first 2 factors are your opponents rank and region. The higher ranked your opponent is, the more points the opponent is worth, that is then multiplied by a factor that is weighted by what qualification region they are in. So if you against a north american team, the game is automatically worth less than playing a European team based on this weight factor. The rank and region factors are then multiplied by an importance factor, so playing games in tournaments are worth more than playing friendlies. The problem is, most tournaments are played within your geographical region, so teams like the USA are playing other north american teams rather than European teams in games that count for more. The final factor that plays into the points is your result, a win is worth 3 times the points as a tie, and a loss is automatically worth 0 points.
So what does this mean? Well, it means that teams not from Europe and South America face an uphill battle to make it into pot 1. Because they are forced to play teams within their region and take a penalty not only because they are not worth as many point and as a result the teams are ranked lower. The result is teams like the Swiss, who most do not consider a soccer powerhouse, nor do they consider them a legitimate threat to win the world cup, getting a ranked spot in pot 1 rather than teams that are more deserving. While I am not proposing that FIFA goes to a system like college football, I do believe that there is a better, more representitive system out there that doesn't put the USA in the group. All of that said... I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN! After the results yesterday, the US is in a great spot to get out of the group and once you reach the knockout rounds, all bets are off.
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Thanks for reading,
T.O signing out.