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Tough draws and Groups of [Pain]: The math says we should just calm down

Nov 21, 2013, 3:57 PM EDT

us soccer

Earlier today, PST’s main man Joe Prince-Wright noted the potentially tough road the U.S. will have to travel next summer. But look at it this way:

Belgium just qualified for their first major tournament since 2002. Colombia hasn’t been to a World Cup since 1998. Uruguay needed a playoff to qualify for Brazil 2014, and a Switzerland, while possessing some enviable young team, is one of the most curious seeded teams in recent memory. Come Dec. 6 in Bahia, there’s a 50-50 chance the United States will be drawn with one of these teams.

All four of those teams are quality sides (particularly the Belgians), but where you’re talking about a Group of Death, you’re usually talking about a quartet with a seeded superpower. A Germany. A Spain. A Brazil or Argentina. Can you have a true Group of Pain without a superpower? No, because one of the other groups will have one.

(Note: I just decided to start calling it Group of Pain. Group of Death is morbid, unimaginative, and played out, though I’m sure we’ll get there with Group of Pain.)

 Keep this in mind when you see people talking about the U.S.’s upcoming draw. As the best team in CONCACAF, the U.S. have a better chance than most at being drawn into a perceived Group of Pain, but part of that is due to their quality, part of that is due to the fact that France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Portugal are floating around among the unseeded Europeans.

But if you accept these stipulations for a Group of Pain …

  •  It will require one of the four “big” seeds (Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Spain), as well as
  • One of the four big non-seeded Europeans (France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal), and
  • (something we haven’t discussed yet) a team like Chile, Ghana, Ivory Coast, or Nigeria coming out of the last pot (assuming South America and Africa are bundled), then …

… you can do the math: Fifty percent chance of being drawn with a big seed; Fifty percent chance of being drawn with a big non-seeded European; Fifty percent chance of being drawn with a name out of the last pot. You’re talking about a one-in-eight chance of being in a/the Group of … Pain.

That said, the United States is almost destined to be put in a tough group. But guess what: It’s the World Cup. Most groups are tough, particularly for a team from CONCACAF, who have better odds than most of being drawn with two Europeans.

But tough groups aren’t Groups of Pain. Although there are exceptions, having three tough group stage games is just part of the competition.

Incidentally, I just did eight draws on that oh-so-popular draw simulator, here’s what I got:

  • US with … Uruguay, Cameroon, Italy
  • US with … Uruguay, Nigeria, Russia
  • US with … Brazil, Cameroon, Netherlands
  • US with … Belgium, Algeria, England
  • US with … Uruguay, Cote d’Ivoire, Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • US with … Uruguay, Cote d’Ivoire, Italy
  • US with … Germany, Ecuador, Russia
  • US with … Spain, Ecuador, Portugal

They’re all tough, but where I was expecting one “Argentina, Chile, Netherlands” combination, I got none, largely because there was always a 50-50 chance the U.S. would miss a big seeded team. With every simulation, there was always a more difficult group (though looking at other people’s draws, that’s not always the case). While that doesn’t guarantee anything on Dec. 6, the math tells us to keep calm and carry on.

Then again, your mileage may differ as to what constitutes a Group of …

  1. wandmdave - Nov 21, 2013 at 5:08 PM

    I was taking a turn on the simulator the other day and got Brazil, USA, France, Italy. Brutal.

    • wandmdave - Nov 21, 2013 at 5:10 PM

      That said if you got the team stripe tickets for USA that would be a sweet group of games to watch.

    • talgrath - Nov 21, 2013 at 6:55 PM

      You have about a 1 in 8 chance of getting a brutal group, run it through enough and you’ll see quite a few draws like that.

  2. geojock - Nov 21, 2013 at 5:27 PM

    Good points about big seeds that we want to avoid. In truth, for many of the teams, we really have no idea who is going overachieve and who is going to flop. All we really can hope is that we are NOT in a group with Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Spain. There are a few other teams that are borderline guarantees, but not like those 4. We can argue all day about Portugal’s star power or how Switzerland’s recent form will translate, but those top teams are advancing, put money on it. All USA could hope for is to steal a point.

    On the other hand there are only a few clearly poorer teams we may draw. Those are Cameroon, Nigeria, and Algeria. So a true success for US would be NOT to draw one of the big 4. Icing would be to draw one of the bottom teams as well. The rest of the teams? We really wont know anything till next summer.

  3. hildezero - Nov 21, 2013 at 5:51 PM

    “Fifty percent chance of being drawn with a big seed; Fifty percent chance of being drawn with a big non-seeded; Fifty percent chance of being drawn with a name out of the last pot.”

    I’m confused. So wouldn’t it be, 33.3%?

    • talgrath - Nov 21, 2013 at 6:54 PM

      He was breaking down the chances for each group to have a team required to make our group the “group of death/pain”, basically the top 50% of each group. So each group pick would be 50%, but the odds of actually getting a group of death would be 12.5% (1 in 8), because .5 (the odds of getting a top 4 seed) * .5 (top unseeded European) * .5 (odds of getting a top unseeded African/South American team) = .125 or 12.5%. The odds of the US getting a tough group they might not advance from (assuming things turn out as you expect them) is about 50% (odds of getting exactly 2 teams that are top 50% of their pot with the US added to the odds of getting all 3). I hope that explains it.

    • charliej11 - Nov 21, 2013 at 7:00 PM

      No sir 1/2 x 1/2 x1/2 equals 1/8th or 12.5 percent.

  4. hildezero - Nov 21, 2013 at 9:39 PM


  5. tylerbetts - Nov 21, 2013 at 10:31 PM

    Stop using your logic on us! We like to fret, worry, and have a sky-is-falling mentality about our team.

    A record breaking year for winning percentage and goal differential, a coach with a good pedigree, and a deeper than usual roster have us looking for a way to feel gloom and doom.

    Can’t you accept that a large population of US Soccer fans have an Eeyore complex?

  6. bhellison - Nov 22, 2013 at 2:14 PM

    I’ve done these draw simulations WAY more times than I’ll admit, but just came across the best group yet for the US –



  7. footballer4ever - Nov 22, 2013 at 3:47 PM

    @ hildezeo said: “I’m confused”

    No surprise to hear that, but admission is the first step to recovery. 😛. We are proud of you and wish you the best! 😉

    All the national football clubs who reached the biggest worldwide tournament will be difficult. It will not matter much if you are the head of a group or simply a bottom feeder team. I do not worry and lo que Sera, Sera!

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