Statistically speaking, pressure is on USA to get points in World Cup opener

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SÃO PAULO — How important is the USA's first game of the World Cup?

Let’s just say that if the U.S. wants to advance from a difficult group (Germany, Portugal, Ghana), history shows that it needs to get at least a point from Monday’s U.S. opener against Ghana (while three points from a win would be fantastic).

On Tuesday, I asked U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley if he viewed the Ghana game as a must-win or a must-get-a-result game.

“When you talk about a big tournament like this, everybody goes in to the first game with the idea that you want points,” Bradley said. “I read an interview with—it might have been your interview with [Gerard] Piqué yesterday—where he said that for a team like Spain it’s not different. They’re playing Holland, and their idea is that they need a result. They need points. Everybody starts at zero here.”

“The first game is so important,” he continued. “Statistically, the chances of advancing go way up now if you’re able to get three points, or a point or three from the first game.”

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Bradley knows what he’s talking about. Going back to World Cup 1998, when the tournament expanded to 32 teams and just two teams per group were able to advance, only nine percent of teams that lost their first World Cup game (4 of 46) advanced to the knockout stage. Meanwhile, a tie in the first game was hardly a killer—56 percent of those teams (20 of 36) advanced from their group.

The best thing to do, of course, is to win your first game. From ’98 on, a whopping 87 percent of teams that have gotten three points from game one (40 of 46) have advanced to the Round of 16. (One of the few exceptions was the Czech Republic, which failed to advance after beating the U.S. in the 2006 World Cup opener.)

The U.S.’s past matches the overall World Cup history in this regard. Whenever the Americans have lost their opening game, they have failed to advance (in 1934, 1950, 1990, 1998, 2006). Whenever the U.S. has gotten a result (tie or win) in the opening game, the team has made it to the next round (1930, 1994, 2002, 2010).

So is Monday a must-win game for the U.S.? No. Is it a must-get-a-result game? Most certainly yes.

Research conducted by Zach Dixon