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


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 …