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Men in suits, plastic balls and goldfish bowls will provide one of world soccer's great spectacles on Friday, and the conjecture and speculation is already in full flow.
The World Cup draw is the greatest show leading up to the greatest show in sports and makes even the sanest of soccer fans morph into a creation that is part-mathematician, part-fortune teller and part-kid-waiting-impatiently-for-Christmas-to-arrive.
For the United States, the events of Friday in the South African city of Cape Town will have a huge bearing on the team's chances of making headway in next summer's tournament. With Bob Bradley's side lumped in a pot alongside some of the weakest nations in the event, the chances increase of the Americans ending up in a Group of Death against three heavyweight opponents.
Here we take a look at the best- and worst-case scenarios, plus a possible group that will evoke some mixed recent memories.
The good …
… South Africa, USA, Uruguay and Switzerland.
If the draw comes out this way, then you will probably be able to hear the whoops of delight from the American delegation – even from a couple of continents away.
As host nation, South Africa is installed as one of the seeded teams and is the one that everyone wants to face. Alternatives, including Brazil, Spain, Germany and Italy, are a different proposition altogether from the tenacious, but weak, host.
Uruguay finished fifth in the highly competitive CONMEBOL qualifying and had to win a playoff with Costa Rica to advance. USA would certainly fancy its chances of claiming victory against Uruguay than Chile or Paraguay.
Switzerland may not seem like a dream draw on the surface, having won its European qualifying group. Even so, Bradley's team matches up well physically against the Swiss, who may lack the dynamism and attacking spark to go far in the tournament.
It could be argued that the U.S. would be the favorite to actually win this group, thereby setting itself up for what may be an easier draw in the last 16.
The bad …
… Brazil, USA, Ivory Coast and France.
No team wants to be drawn with Brazil, which invariably saves its finest performances for World Cup time.
The U.S. played the game of its life against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final – and it still wasn't enough. The Samba kings have emerged victorious the last two times the event was staged outside Europe and will be a strong favorite again.
The prospect of being drawn with Ivory Coast in the group stage isn't anyone's idea of fun, either, with Didier Drogba and company considered Africa's best chance for a deep run.
Then there is the small matter of France, the 1998 champion, which squeezed into the tournament (helped in part by the Hand of Henry) and will have a point to prove after receiving heavy criticism at home.
As much as the USA has improved over the past 18 months, this draw would surely be fatal to any dreams of further progress. An early trip home would be the likely outcome.
The ugly …
… Spain, USA, Ghana and Portugal.
The draw always seems to throw up some intriguing subplots, whether it be close neighbors going head-to-head or former foes squaring off.
This group would offer plenty to reminisce about, with Spain still smarting from its loss to the U.S. in the Confederations Cup semifinal last summer. The European champion is still a class act and would be desperate to avenge its most embarrassing recent defeat.
Ghana played a major role in turning the USA's 2006 World Cup campaign under Bruce Arena into an utter debacle, claiming a 2-1 victory in a game the Americans had to win to reach the last 16.
Portugal's fans have still not forgotten the loss to the U.S. in the 2002 group stage that ultimately led to its elimination from a pool it was expected to win. Throw in the extra factor of Cristiano Ronaldo and a side freshly motivated following an awful start to qualifying, and Portugal would be a mightily tough opponent.
Expect the unexpected
Such a fuss is made over the meaning of the World Cup draw permutations, it is sometimes easy to forget that the games still have to be played. Every World Cup comes with a heavy sprinkling of unexpected shocks and this one will surely be no different.
But hey, it gives us something to pore over for the next six months until the event soccer has waited impatiently for these last four years is finally upon us.
- South Africa