The United States heads into Friday's World Cup draw in desperate need of just one thing.
A near-perfect qualifying campaign, two-and-a-half years of solid progress under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and an unprecedented level of optimism leading into next summer could all count for nothing unless the U.S. men's national team is smiled upon by soccer's gods of fortune.
A dream draw against some of the weaker opponents – which is possible under FIFA's system of separating the 32 finalists into eight groups of four – would fill Klinsmann and his team with hope ahead of Brazil 2014 and perpetuate the belief that America's round-of-16 finish four years ago in South Africa can be matched or even bettered.
However, there is also a legitimate chance of the U.S. being pooled into a group so fiendishly difficult that progressing into the tournament's knockout stage would be highly improbable.
Klinsmann is a man who prepares meticulously. Stepping into a situation where being lucky could be far more valuable than being good clearly makes him uneasy.
"You will have a couple of groups getting drawn that will be killer groups [in which] there's not even one easy team or whatever," Klinsmann said. "Then you will find maybe two or three groups that are much easier, at least on paper. It's unbalanced."
[World Cup draw: Follow it live on Friday, Dec. 6]
The imbalance is due to the quirks of the world ranking system and FIFA's draw formula. FIFA has separated the 32 teams into four separate pots, and each of the eight groups will comprise one team from every pot.
Pot 1 contains the seeded teams, who are made up of host nation Brazil and the seven top-rated teams. The remaining countries have been sorted into pots largely determined by geography.
The U.S. and the other three qualifiers from the CONCACAF region will be in Pot 3 along with the four representatives from Asia. That does little to help the Americans, who won't face any of the Asian nations, which, even including fast-improving Japan, are among the weakest teams in the tournament.
There will be a European pot laced with tricky potential opponents and a mixed pot that could include a collection of tough South American and African sides plus one randomly selected and unseeded European nation.
With few shocks in the qualification process, there is no possible outcome that would provide the U.S. with a simple route through the group phase. However, some paths are far friendlier than others, and Klinsmann knows it.
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"If you look around the world, there's really no big surprise," Klinsmann said. "There are the teams you expected to go to Brazil. You're going to face all the big soccer nations around the globe in Brazil. It's going to be a World Cup packed with quality."
"That seeding procedure will cause a lot of question marks, a lot of discussion and debate once the groups are finalized. It is what it is, but I'm not very happy with it."
What would make Klinsmann happy would be avoiding the best teams each pot has to offer, starting with tournament favorite Brazil and defending champion Spain from the group of seeds.
Switzerland is generally regarded as the weakest seed, but it would be a considerable favorite going into a match against the U.S. The Swiss went undefeated during European qualifying and soared up the world rankings, not to mention being the only team to beat Spain on its route to the 2010 title.
Pitfalls abound in the European pot, with the biggest dangers lying in the form of 2010 runner-up Netherlands, a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal and 2006 winner Italy. The best the U.S. could hope for would be a matchup with the World Cup's only newcomer, Bosnia-Herzegovina, which the Americans beat in a friendly match in Sarajevo earlier this year.
Klinsmann will be in Brazil for the draw and he knows full well that everything has to be earned at a World Cup. That fact – especially for mid-ranked nations such as the U.S. – won't make things easy. Just how difficult the task will be is where the luck comes into it.
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