U.S. nervously awaits Friday’s World Cup draw
NEW YORK – Bruce Arena remembered his first World Cup draw as U.S. coach and the sinking feeling he had watching the Americans get plunked into a group with Portugal and host South Korea in 2002.
Then, four years later in Germany, the Americans were picked to play the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana.
“I remember a famous coach coming up to me,” Arena recalled. “He said two words to me: ‘I’m sorry.”‘
World Cup draws haven’t been kind to the United States, and Friday’s in Cape Town could go a long way to determining whether the Americans get out of the first round next June in South Africa or make a quick exit as they did in 2006.
FIFA, soccer’s governing body, put the U.S. in pot two on Wednesday, which means the Americans can’t play a team from Asia or New Zealand in the first round. The U.S. will be drawn into a group with one opponent from each of the other three pots:
– One (seeded teams): Argentina, Brazil, England, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, South Africa.
– Three (Africa and South America): Algeria, Cameroon, Chile, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Paraguay, Uruguay.
– Four (Europe): Denmark, France, Greece, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland.
Teams from the same continent can’t be drawn into the same group except for Europe. The top two nations in each group advance to the knockout phase.
“Since we have no control over something that is by definition random, we’re just looking forward to the draw but we’re not making any predictions,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. “I’m sure secretly all of us have preferred opponents and a preferred sequence of games.”
The most difficult draw for the U.S. might be top-ranked Spain, No. 5 Portugal and No. 11 Cameroon. Or perhaps No. 2 Brazil, No. 7 France and No. 16 Ivory Coast.
“I think we hope for a group where you feel like it gives a good opportunity to move forward,” said Bob Bradley, who replaced Arena as U.S. coach after the Americans’ first-round elimination in 2006. “There’s always going to be, at the end, a ‘Group of death,’ and you say to yourselves, ‘Well, hopefully we’re not part of that.’ It’s out of your control.”
At the opposite end, a relatively easy draw would be No. 86 South Africa, No. 34 Slovakia and No. 30 Paraguay.
“It’s one of those things – be careful what you ask for because you just might get it,” American midfielder Clint Dempsey said. “Whoever we get, we get. If you are going to do well in the competition we are going to have to beat good teams.”
FIFA made the curious decision to jettison its seeding format from the last three tournaments, which was a combination of the world rankings and finish in the previous two or three World Cups. Instead, it used the October rankings – not the latest ones from November.
Had the current rankings been used, France and Portugal would have been seeded, while England and Argentina would have dropped out.
Some speculated the decision was punishment for the hand ball by France’s Thierry Henry that led to the decisive goal against Ireland in last month’s European playoffs.
“It was purely sporting criteria,” FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke said. “There was never, never, a question of the France-Ireland game in the discussion.”
In the wake of the France-Ireland controversy, FIFA’s executive committee rejected the use of extra match officials at the tournament and instead opened a disciplinary case against Henry. FIFA supports the experiment in this season’s Europa League of using five on-field officials instead of three.
However “an experiment must first be carried out globally before you can put it into action at the World Cup,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter said.
Host South Africa will play in the opener at Johannesburg’s Soccer City on June 11. The U.S. could open as early as that day or as late as June 16.
In addition to opponent, site makes a difference. Ten stadiums in nine cities are being used, with several at 4,000 feet or higher elevation.
“Mathematically, there is a good chance that you’ll play one game at altitude and then also the possibility of upon advancement the next game at altitude,” Bradley said. “It’s not a problem if you’re prepared to play at altitude to now go and play a game at sea level.”
American soccer fans are excited. According to organizers’ latest figures, 84,103 of 674,403 tickets sold thus far have gone to the U.S., the most of any country outside the host. The United Kingdom has the next most at 48,388.
The U.S. has qualified for the last six World Cups, one of seven nations to accomplish the feat along with Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain. The Americans best finish during that stretch was a quarterfinals loss to Germany in 2006.
Last summer, the U.S. upset European champion Spain at the Confederations Cup, an eight-nation warmup tournament in South Africa, then jumped out to a two-goal halftime lead against Brazil before losing the final 3-2.
American players are convinced they can do well and even win the tournament for the first time.
“We have belief in ourselves and there is always a chance,” Dempsey said. “U.S. football is no longer a joke. If you believe in something and work hard, then you can always prove people wrong.”
– AP soccer writer Robert Millward in Cape Town, and AP sportswriters Raf Casert in Cape Town and Rob Harris in London contributed to this report.
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.