The U.S. men's national team may not be taking part, but the World Cup will still go on, and Monday was a big day on the road to Russia.
FIFA's world ranking for October was released, and while most roll their eyes at the FIFA rankings (the USA actually improved by a position after being eliminated from World Cup contention, so...), they hold a significant role in the World Cup. Per FIFA procedure, the October rankings are used to determine the pots for the Dec. 1 draw in Moscow. Instead of one seeded pot and three pots determined by logistical and geographical reasoning, FIFA has changed its ways so that all four pots are determined purely based on the rankings. What that means is aside from host Russia, which is ranked 65th in the world, the remaining 31 teams are distributed in order of their October ranking. Russia goes into the top pot, followed by the top seven-ranked teams, and the remaining 24 teams are spread into the three subsequent pots in order.
The October ranking was also used to determine the pots for the UEFA playoff round, with the top four teams based on ranking going into Pot 1, and the next four in Pot 2. Switzerland (11), Italy (15), Croatia (18) and Denmark (19) are the highest-ranked teams, and they'll each be drawn against one of Northern Ireland (23), Sweden (25), Republic of Ireland (26) and Greece (47). That draw takes place on Tuesday.
With only 23 of the 32 spots in Russia clinched (four European places, three African ones and two intercontinental playoffs will determine the remaining nine), we can't completely come up with scenarios for groups at the World Cup, but here's what we can glean from the October rankings, and what they'll mean for the draw:
POT 1 IS SET
And Spain is not going to be part of it. The 2010 World Cup champion just misses out as the eighth-ranked team on the planet. Because the top pot is the host nation (Russia) and the seven top-ranked teams, Spain is left in Pot 2, where it could surely factor into a Group of Death.
The top seven teams joining Russia in the top pot are: Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland and France.
No disrespect to Russia or Poland, but there's a clear desired destination for teams in Pots 2-4: Whichever group is headed by Russia or Poland. Even Portugal and Argentina aren't the most daunting top seeds–especially the latter, after its qualifying campaign–but nobody wants to gameplan for Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo in a World Cup.
POT 2 PERMUTATIONS
Spain will lead the second grouping, and beyond that, it gets a little tricky.
Peru, Switzerland, England, Colombia, Italy, Mexico and Uruguay are the next seven nations either in the World Cup or still alive in contention. Should Peru, Switzerland and Italy win their respective playoffs, then the pot would remain as is. Should any or all slip up, there would be a domino effect, and Croatia, Denmark and Iceland are next in line to rise a rung.
Regardless, Spain, England, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay will be in this pot, and when you start to combine them with the teams in the seeded pot, thing start to get a bit death-y.
POT 3 POSSIBILITIES
If things go to form in the playoffs, Croatia, Denmark and Iceland would lead this grouping, with 2014 quarterfinalist Costa Rica likely settled in this pot as well. Northern Ireland, Sweden and Republic of Ireland will look to change that by winning their playoffs, while Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal and Iran, DR Congo, Australia, Nigeria, Serbia and Japan could all land here, too.
POT 4 STILL LARGELY UNCLEAR
South Korea, Saudi Arabia and first-timer Panama are set for this grouping no matter what. After that, it all comes down to the playoffs and remaining African qualifiers. As of now, Morocco, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde and South Africa are all alive here, while Honduras and New Zealand could also land in this pot, should they win their respective playoffs against Australia and Peru, and Greece could also, if it wins its UEFA playoff.
GROUP OF DEATH POTENTIAL
As always, teams from the same region must be kept separate in the draw, aside from UEFA, where up to two European nations can be in the same group. So how does Brazil, Spain, Japan, Ivory Coast sound? What about Germany, Spain, Nigeria, South Korea? France, Uruguay, Croatia, Japan, anyone?
We'll be able to properly simulate and speculate after the conclusion of November's qualifiers and qualifying playoffs, but until then, at least we have some semblance of how the World Cup could look in Russia next summer.