FIFA doesn't easily forgive or forget when it comes to World Cup seedings.
If the U.S. goes to South Africa next year, hanging over its head will be losses to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia (1998) and to the Czech Republic and Ghana (2006). And, even should the U.S. remain high in the FIFA rankings and win the CONCACAF qualifying group, it has almost no chance of being selected as a seeded team.
If FIFA sticks to its seeding formula -- 50 percent determined by finishes in the past three World Cup finals, 50 percent by ranking -- the U.S. would not fit into the top seven, even considering the possible (though unlikely) elimination in qualifying of Argentina and France.
Defending champion Italy, former champions Argentina, Brazil, England, France and Germany, plus Spain, are virtually automatic seeds. South Africa will be seeded as host country. That makes eight. Unless, of course, Argentina and/or France continue to flounder and miss out on the finals. Even then, the U.S. will be behind the Netherlands in the pecking order and might have to wait in line behind Mexico and Paraguay.
The U.S. can clinch a berth in the finals with a victory over Honduras in San Pedro Sula next Saturday. But, even a strong conclusion to qualifying and a first-place finish will likely land the U.S. among the also-rans in the finals draw in December.
"Given how FIFA has chosen to proceed, 50 percent FIFA rankings and 50 percent for performance over the last three World Cups, the likelihood of us getting a seed by winning our last two games is not that great,"
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said last week. "In the last World Cup, it was very close, because of our high ranking and, in two of the last three World Cups, we had done well. And, it is weighted, so our performance [in 2002] counted more than ."
As for this time, Gulati said: "It's not impossible. But it's unlikely."
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U.S. vs. Honduras
Estadio Olimpico; San Pedro Sula, Honduras
10 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. Costa Rica
RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.
8 p.m. ET
In fact, not only the U.S., but the entire region is going to pay for poor results in 2006. In the last World Cup, four CONCACAF teams qualified, the highest total in the region's history. The U.S. led the way, based on FIFA rankings and its quarterfinal appearance four years previous. Mexico was on the verge of becoming a seeded team, having advanced to the second round three successive times. Costa Rica qualified for the third time in five World Cups. And Trinidad & Tobago, though a huge underdog, performed respectfully, earning a draw with Sweden in its opening match.
But the four CONCACAF teams totaled only one victory in 13 matches in Germany. So, not even Mexico has a realistic chance of being seeded in 2010.
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FIFA, though, can be enigmatic.
The combination of ranking and World Cup finishes has been used to determine seedings, but FIFA has not announced how seedings will be set this time.
And when FIFA starts making things up as it goes, it usually favors countries which can increase its bank account. The U.S. is seeking the 2018 (or 2022) World Cup, and will surely set records for attendance and revenue if it is awarded the finals. It might be a nice time to boost the U.S. national team as a momentum-builder leading up to the tournament -- if not in 2010, then in 2014.
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But the U.S. has to help itself, as well. Gulati and the USSF are not planning on a seed this time around. But a decent finish -- say, advancing out of group play -- combined with the team's 2002 quarterfinal placing might place the U.S. in contention for a 2014 seeding. South Africa becomes the first-ever seeded team from Africa, and that works against the U.S. in 2010. However, Brazil is set to play host next time around, so odds improve for teams on the edge of the top eight in 2014.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.
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