Mexico undeserving of a seed
With just a couple of days left until the World Cup draw, one part of the guessing game is now over. FIFA's announcement of the top eight seeds for the World Cup finals on Tuesday ended vigorous speculation.
With FIFA using its own world rankings, and performance from the past two World Cups as a basis for seeding, Mexico inexplicably was seeded over the Netherlands. If one makes the argument that a team from CONCACAF deserved the seed, then that seed should have gone to the United States.
Proponents for Mexico argue that the Netherlands didn't deserve a seed since it failed to qualify for the '02 World Cup. However, let's not forget that the Netherlands also reached the semifinals of the '98 World Cup and has been consistently ranked higher than Mexico in recent FIFA rankings.
If FIFA is going to penalize the Dutch so heavily for '02, then by the same thought process, shouldn't the U.S. be rewarded for its superior '02 performance when it reached the quarterfinals? Given that the U.S. also finished ahead of Mexico in recent qualifying and won the Gold Cup, it's just as perplexing that the U.S. was not seeded ahead of Mexico.
You can't even make a case for Mexico based on historical performance. Mexico has only reached the quarterfinal stages twice historically (1970 and 1986, and both times on home territory), and has been bounced from the last three World Cups in the second round. This means FIFA places more emphasis on a team reaching the second round of the World Cup and the semifinals of a friendly summer international tournament (the recent Confederations Cup) than they do on World Cup pedigree and qualification results.
What does this mean for the U.S?
Contrary to popular belief, those countries that did not receive a No. 1 seed do not receive a kiss of death. Other than national pride being hurt, nothing else is really at stake. Since two teams will qualify from each of the first-round groups, being lumped with a Brazil, Argentina or another powerhouse really doesn't make that much difference. The short end of the stick actually comes in terms of who the other two teams in the group will be. This is where the problem lies for the U.S.
The downside of the decision to give Mexico a seed and designate a team such as Holland as a floating wild card now increases the likelihood that the U.S will find itself in the undesirable position of having two powerhouse teams in its group for the opening stages.
Clearly, FIFA needs to look at adding an additional tier of seeding, perhaps Nos. 8 through 16, since the regional allocation of teams provides for some inequity in potential group draws.
It's patently unfair that the U.S. team is lumped in the same tier as minnows such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, prohibiting the U.S. from being potential group opponents. This virtually ensures that the U.S. will be placed in a group whereby at best, there will be only one weak team.
Looking at pools, these are the best and worst case scenarios from the U.S. perspective:
Best Case Scenarios
Pool 1: Germany, France and Spain.
It's too bad that it is impossible for the U.S. to play Mexico in the group stage. In addition to adding some rivalry spice to the proceedings, the Mexican team would be by far the easiest opponents for the U.S.
Failing that wishful thinking, the U.S. should hope to play Germany first. Yes, the Germans are hosts, and hosts benefit from the inevitable 12th-man boost, but this is a far weaker German team than even those in recent years. German soccer is still suffering from a dearth of homegrown talent in recent years (outside of Lukas Podolski and Michael Ballack) and home support can only carry a team so far.
The French are still too reliant on Zinedine Zidane and there's no guarantee that Zidane will be fully healthy and conditioned by next year's World Cup, given his age and injury problems over the last two years. Even if he is, Zidane and Thierry Henry have also yet to prove they can mesh effectively on the playing field. This makes the French one of the more vulnerable top seeds, despite their undoubted talent.
As for the Spanish, they've yet to shake their reputation as chronic World Cup underachievers. Despite the presence of Iker Casillas in goal and an abundance of attacking flair -- the Spanish defense is vulnerable to exactly the kind of high-octane direct style that the U.S. likes to employ.
Pool 2: Tunisia, Togo, Angola
All three countries are relatively unknown on the world scene and lack the type of big-name players that can put a scare into the U.S. defense. The U.S. contingent has to be hoping that they draw this pool.
Pool 3: Poland, Croatia, Switzerland
Croatia is not nearly the same force that they were back in 1998, with the golden era squad of Alen Boksic, Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki. As for Poland, it suffers from a lack world-class talent. When your best player is comedy keeper Jerzy Dudek -- that says it all, really. The Poles are currently weaker than the '02 version that rather surprisingly beat the U.S. and would now be an ideal draw. If there is a true weak sister in the European pool, it's Switzerland -- I suspect the U.S. isn't the only one hoping to be matched up with the Swiss.
An ideal draw for the U.S. would be a group with Germany, Togo and Switzerland.
Worst Case Scenarios
Pool 1: Brazil, Argentina, Italy, England
Brazil and Argentina speak for themselves. The Italians will be arguably the third most talented team at the World Cup. If Italy can get rid of its tendency to attempt to shut up shop after scoring one goal, it could do a lot of damage. The Italians would probably be best served by ditching the aging and ineffective duo of Christian Vieri and Alessandro Del Piero once and for all.
As for England, it's undoubtedly the strongest team on paper that the Brits have sent to the World Cup in quite some time. If Sven Goran-Eriksson can figure a way to get Steven Gerrard, David Beckham and Frank Lampard on the field at the same time effectively, England will be a handful for any team.
Pool 2: Paraguay, Australia, Ivory Coast, Ghana
Teams will hope to avoid Paraguay, which has its share of flair with Roque Santa Cruz (assuming he recovers from his knee injury) and company. Australia, with its plethora of European-based players, looks strong on paper, assuming the enigmatic and wayward Harry Kewell can regain his form. Teams can't rule out the presence of Gus Hiddink as coach for Australia. Hiddink is rapidly turning into soccer's version of Larry Brown, and if he can work his magic, then the underachieving Australians could be a surprise.
In some respects, the surprising failure of traditional African powerhouses Cameroon and Nigeria to qualify has made pool No. 2 easier, albeit harder to predict. It's difficult to get a read on surprise qualifiers like Ghana or the Ivory Coast. However, both have a couple of headliners, such as Chelsea's Didier Drogba for the Ivory Coast and Michael Essien for Ghana, which makes them a difficult foe.
Pool 3: Czech Republic, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden
For all of the hand-wringing about the Netherlands' failure to land a seed, the real danger team from the European pool and probably the team no one wants to face in the first stage are the Czechs. Never in consideration for a seed because of their history, the current edition is a team to be feared. When in full flow, the lineup, which includes Pavel Nedved, Milan Baros and Tomas Rosicky, is one of the few that can compete with Brazil in terms of flair and panache.
The Netherlands also fall into this category and is a team that no one wants to face in the first round. A date with Portugal or Sweden would not be the end of the world, but considering some of the easier options out there for the U.S., both would be best avoided.
A nightmare scenario would see the U.S. draw a group that includes Brazil, Australia and the Czech Republic.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com