Friday December 4th, 2009

The gods of soccer smiled upon the United States for once on Friday, giving the Americans one of the most fortunate draws imaginable for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (FULL DRAW).

Once all the ping-pong balls were drawn in Cape Town, the U.S. ended up with the following first-round games: vs. England on June 12 in Rustenburg, vs. Slovenia on June 18 in Johannesburg and vs. Algeria on June 23 in Pretoria.

The vast majority of pundits around the world will pick the U.S. to advance to the knockout round along with England, and with good reason. Slovenia and Algeria were two of the biggest surprises in November even to qualify for the World Cup, both countries needing upsets in playoffs against Russia (by Slovenia) and Egypt (by Algeria) to reach the field of 32. Algeria and Slovenia are arguably the worst teams from Africa and Europe, respectively, to qualify for South Africa.

And while England will be a huge challenge in the U.S.' opening game, it's a mouthwatering matchup between old rivals who last met in the World Cup in 1950: a 1-0 U.S. victory that is considered perhaps the greatest upset in World Cup history. Can anyone say Landon Donovan vs. David Beckham in South Africa? If you're the U.S., having your toughest group game first is a good thing. (Remember the big win over Portugal in the 2002 World Cup opener?) What's more, England is a traditionally slow-starting team in World Cups.

But there's even more to the U.S.' lucky draw. If the Yanks advance to the knockout rounds, the World Cup bracket structure would allow them to avoid having to meet any of the FIFA rankings' top four teams (Spain, Brazil, Netherlands, Italy) until the semifinals. That's right: The world's top four teams are all on the other side of the bracket.

What does all this mean? Well, the U.S. will have no excuses if it fails to reach the knockout rounds of the 2010 World Cup. It won't matter if the Americans are still missing players due to injury (Oguchi Onyewu, Charlie Davies, Jay DeMerit). It won't matter because this is just about the kindest draw you could imagine.

Think about it: The U.S. won't even have to hop on a plane from its base near Pretoria to travel to games in Rustenburg (a two-hour drive), Johannesburg (a one-hour drive) and Pretoria (a no-hour drive).

Nor will the Yanks be uncomfortable in their surroundings, having played games during last June's Confederations Cup at the same stadiums in Rustenburg (a 3-0 win vs. Egypt), in Pretoria (a 3-0 loss to Brazil) and in Johannesburg's Ellis Park (a 3-2 loss to Brazil). All three games will be at altitude, but the U.S. will have plenty of time to acclimatize at its training camp beforehand.

So, yes, the soccer gods smiled on America on Friday. Get ready for the hype on USA-England. And get ready for expectations around the U.S. to spike mightily.

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