Filed by Gentry Estes
If as expected, the United States’ World Cup hopes perish during Saturday’s do-or-die match against heavily favored Italy, explanations and excuses will run the gamut from a lack of preparation to a lack of skill or motivation.
Yet in truth, it comes down to one factor: The draw.
It was far too difficult this time.
Fair? No. But hey, this is a World Cup and it happens. In the past, many favorites have succumbed to such an unlucky fate.
American fans who truly follow soccer have understood this since December, when the U.S. was regrettably paired in Group E with the Czech Republic and Italy, arguably two of the world’s top-five squads. Sure, there was hope. But honestly, the U.S. could have played its best game Monday and still been multiple goals behind the Czechs. They were that much better.
If the Americans clamor for a change in the draw procedure — like seeding all 32 teams to form evenly distributed groups — they won’t be alone.
The Ivory Coast, despite one of the Cup’s strongest showings, was officially eliminated from contention in Group C after losing hard-fought 2-1 matches to Argentina and the Netherlands. In each case, the Ivorians ended the game in control and within arm’s reach of an equalizer.
Argentina went on to whip Serbia & Montenegro 6-0, while the Netherlands has certainly lived up to its billing as one of the world’s top 10. It was an unmerited destiny for Africa’s brightest hope, which entered this tournament as a darkhorse pick and did nothing on the field to diminish that reputation.
If the U.S. camp has a gripe, it’s with a flawed FIFA system that determined the tournament’s eight seeds. Before the draw, Germany, England, Argentina, Mexico, Italy, Brazil, France and Spain were given preference over the Netherlands and U.S., the two closest teams to miss out on the top eight.
In determining those eight, FIFA used a mysterious formula — similar to the RPI rating in college basketball — counting results back to the 1998 World Cup. Thus the Americans’ last-place finish in France ’98 was the killer in hopes to land a seed, despite their current status as fifth in the FIFA world rankings.
U.S. coach Bruce Arena said his surprise wasn’t that his team didn’t earn a seed. It that CONCACAF rivals Mexico did, even though the U.S. finished first in the qualifying group, beat Mexico 2-0 in the 2002 World Cup and 2-0 again last September to clinch a spot in Germany.
Nonetheless, Mexico was given a seed and thus opened its tournament with relative lightweights Iran and Angola, paving an easy path to the second stage. One could only imagine how far the U.S. could have advanced against such competition.
E-mail Gentry Estes at email@example.com