The U.S. Men's Soccer Team Just Landed in a Dreaded "Group of Death"

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 6 2013 12:27 PM

The U.S. Men's Soccer Team Just Landed in a Dreaded "Group of Death"

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Group of Death? This guy's not scared.

Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

This morning's World Cup draw could have gone worse for the American squad—but perhaps not by much.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

When the U.S. team heads to Brazil next summer they'll square off in the opening round robin with two traditional powerhouses—Germany and Portugal—and an African team, Ghana, that has proved to be something of a bogeyman for the U.S. men's team. I imagine the early reaction in all three of those nations as they saw their team's draw went something like this: "Well, at least we have the Americans."

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Germany is currently ranked no. 2 in FIFA's (far-from-perfect) world rankings, and Portugal is no. 5. Ghana, ranked no. 24, is the only squad in the group with a worse ranking than the no. 14 Americans, although the Black Stars have eliminated the U.S. team in each of the past two World Cups.

The U.S. squad will kick things off against Ghana on June 16 in a game that they can't afford to lose. They then face Portugal on June 22, and finish up group play against Germany on June 26.

Only two teams in each group advance out of pool play, so that means the Americans, as red hot as they've been this year, will need to send either the Germans or the Portuguese home early. In case that wasn't daunting enough, the Americans will also have the worst travel schedule of any team in the competition. (No, really, like 9,000-miles bad.)

I was all ready to post this under the headline "USA Eliminated From 2014 World Cup in Today's Draw" but then I saw that the number crunchers are actually giving the Americans a better-than-expected chance of escaping the group—according to the Nate Silver-led Soccer Power Index, Germany has a 91.8-percent chance of moving on, Portugal a 40.2-percent chance, the USMNT a 39.3-percent chance, and Ghana a 28.8-percent chance. Those numbers aside, I tend to share the pessimism of ESPN's Roger Bennett: "Brightside for US Team: Their players will be able to swap jerseys with some world superstars after the games."

The best-case draw for the U.S. team would have looked something like this: Switzerland, widely considered to be by far the weakest of the eight seeded teams in Pot 1; Croatia, currently no. 16 in the FIFA rankings; and Algeria, no. 26. According to Silver and the SPI, that draw would have given the Americans a 73-percent chance of surviving group play.

The worst-case scenario, meanwhile, would have seen the Americans draw defending World Cup champions Spain, no. 15-ranked Chile, and no. 19 France. The way Silver saw things, that combination would have given the U.S. only a 15-percent chance of playing into the elimination rounds.

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This post has been updated.