PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — It’s World Cup qualifying Decision Day around the planet, and from a U.S. perspective, all that really matters is clinching a berth in Russia 2018—which the U.S. will definitely do with a win against Trinidad and Tobago, and almost certainly with a tie, and even perhaps with a loss, though a loss could also mean elimination depending on other results. Got it?
But there’s another World Cup story afoot today, one that will have a real impact on the tournament in Russia itself. FIFA has announced that is revamping the World Cup draw and will now seed all 32 teams based on the October FIFA rankings coming out next week—and no longer simply seed the top seven ranked teams and the host, with the rest of the draw pots being grouped by geographic continents.
What does that mean for a team like the United States? Well, if the U.S. qualifies, it would, as of today, be seeded in Pot 3. In general terms, that means there would be two teams better than the U.S. in its World Cup group. (Only the top two teams in a World Cup group will advance to the knockout rounds in Russia.) But if the U.S. were to rise to Pot 2, that would mean an easier group, with only one team expected to be better than the Americans.
What would it take for the U.S. to rise to Pot 2? Let’s break it down.
The accompanying chart, updated before Tuesday’s CONCACAF, UEFA and CONMEBOL qualifiers, shows the projected 32-team World Cup field according to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index—as well as the 16 other teams still in contention to make the World Cup.
1. Russia - xy
2. Germany - x
3. Brazil - x
5. Belgium - x
6. Poland - x
10. Spain - x
12. England - x
13. Mexico - x
18. Costa Rica - x
19. Iceland - x
23. Egypt - x
25. Iran - x
26. Serbia - x
27. Japan - x
28. Nigeria - x
30. South Korea - x
31. Ivory Coast
32. Saudi Arabia - x
Source for Projected Berths: ESPN Soccer Power Index. Information updated before CONCACAF, UEFA and CONMEBOL games on Tuesday.
x - Already qualified | y - Qualified as host nation
The 32 projected teams are ranked according to their maximum possible points in the October FIFA rankings, which FIFA will use to determine the World Cup draw pots. (In some cases, the minimum number of possible points are different than the maximum number for teams playing games on Tuesday.)
If the U.S. were to beat Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday and qualify for Russia, the Americans would have 876 rankings points. According to the ESPN SPI, that currently puts the U.S. in the middle of teams in Pot 3. Keep in mind that ESPN projections currently have Argentina and Chile out of the World Cup, though that could certainly change on what will be a wild final night in South American qualifying.
So what would it take for the U.S. to rise four spots to Pot 2? All of these things would have to happen:
• The U.S. has to beat Trinidad and Tobago.
• Argentina or Chile has to miss the World Cup.
• Paraguay needs to make the World Cup.
• Sweden has to lose to the Netherlands on Tuesday, but by fewer than six goals. Sweden would then need to pull an upset in the UEFA playoffs next month.
• Ireland needs to pull an upset in the UEFA playoffs next month.
• Greece needs to beat Gibraltar on Tuesday. Greece would then need to pull an upset in the UEFA playoffs next month.
• New Zealand needs to pull an upset on the fifth-place South American team in the intercontinental playoffs next month.
As Lloyd Christmas in Dumb & Dumber would say: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!” The fact is that the U.S. wouldn’t have had any chance to rise to Pot 2 if Ireland hadn’t upset Wales on Monday.
Here are a few other takeaways from the current World Cup draw seed picture:
• As it stands, the U.S. could end up in a World Cup group as difficult as Brazil-France-USA-Serbia, or a group as relatively benign as Russia-Croatia-USA-Saudi Arabia. (Only UEFA can have two teams from the same confederation in a World Cup group, i.e., the U.S. and Mexico can’t be in the same group.)
• Mexico is firmly entrenched in Pot 2.
• Costa Rica has a more legitimate shot at rising to Pot 2 than the U.S. does.
• Denmark fell from Pot 2 to Pot 3 on Monday by tying Romania.
• As it stands, Poland, Switzerland and Peru are in Pot 1 ahead of France, Spain, England and Italy in Pot 2. The FIFA rankings have always been a little screwy, and it’s no different today. But one thing you can’t say is that they don’t matter. As you can see by the World Cup draw seeding rules, they do matter. Poland in particular has been smart about gaming the rankings system by not playing as many friendlies as other teams. Even if you win friendlies, you’re punished by the rankings calculations for playing in them.
If you’re the U.S. on Tuesday, obviously, what matters is making the World Cup by any means possible. All the rest is gravy at this point.