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Saturday, December 5, 2009
U.S. has a clear path out of the group stage

I've never watched a World Cup draw before. To be honest, I never really considered it. What was there to see? You were assured of a couple of cupcake groups and a "group of death." If you were a United States fan, it was a futile exercise in crossing your fingers and hoping to avoid the worst-case scenario.

But who knew a lottery could be so exciting? Apparently, a little pomp and circumstance and a whole lot of Charlize Theron could turn a pingpong-ball draw into a red-carpet event. Needless to say, I was hooked, and not just because the stakes were so high for the United States. Once again, circumstances seemed to conspire against the U.S., with more worst-case scenarios in play than favorable ones. But then, the unthinkable happened … Lady Luck (or maybe Charlize?) favored the Americans.

I'm loath to predict anything at this stage, with an eternity to go until June. But here are my thoughts on each of the groups and how I see each playing out right now. Picking one team from each group seems easy enough. But there are plenty of groups in which the second qualifying spot seems to be up for grabs among the three remaining teams.

Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France

Even from my cubicle in Bristol, Conn., you could feel the oxygen leave the room when Mexico was placed in the same group as South Africa. It was the big chip that everyone was waiting for to fall and seemed to ratchet up the tension as the rest of the selections were made.

But while Mexico must have felt it had dodged a bullet by being placed with South Africa, the good cheer quickly soured upon hearing France's name called. With Uruguay in play as well, the Mexicans suddenly went from having a plum position to staring at one of the most difficult groups in the tournament. It did seem that justice was served after France -- basically a top seed in disguise -- was placed with South Africa.

Prediction: It's a trickier slate than it probably looks on paper for France with three non-European teams, but even if it comes down to needing to beat South Africa in the final group game, you'd have to favor the French to win the group, with Uruguay following in behind them.

Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece

Diego Maradona said he's pleased with Argentina's draw. Ostensibly, he should be. But I wonder if these aren't the type of teams that can give Argentina trouble. It didn't respond well to being taken out of its comfort zone during qualifying, and that was against South American teams that the Argentines generally dispose of comfortably.

Nigeria, South Korea and Greece offer a completely mixed bag of athleticism, speed, fitness, organization and dogged defense that will surely frustrate the Argentines. None of the teams aspire to the type of aesthetic Argentina seeks, and they certainly won't delude themselves into thinking that they can match the Argentines in terms of quality. Will Diego & Co. be able to meet the challenge?

Prediction: One of the three will hand Argentina a loss that will be hailed as a monumental upset, but it won't stop the Argentines from winning the group. One thing's certain: The games between Nigeria, South Korea and Greece will be infinitely more interesting from a neutral's perspective. Whichever team draws blood against Argentina is the second to advance to the next round. I'll give the edge to Greece.

Group C: England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia

Much has been made of the United States' good fortune with this draw, and there's not much to add. Slovenia and Algeria were the best-case scenarios for the Americans. Be honest: How many of you were mentally preparing for Portugal's card to be pulled?

As for England, I'm of the mindset -- and apparently in the minority -- that it was one of the most desirable seeded teams the United States could draw, aside from South Africa, of course. Spain, Brazil and Argentina would have been disastrous. Germany and Holland both have such singular styles, and it would be hard to see the Americans forcing them out of their comfort zone. I wouldn't have minded Italy. But I honestly think England gives the Americans the best chance to steal a result out of the seeded teams.

I'm not saying they should be favored to win, and I'm not disputing that England doesn't have more exceptional players at every position. But England's more direct, physical approach actually plays to the Americans' strengths. They struggle with crafty, skillful and deceptive teams. England -- even the new and improved version under Fabio Capello -- is still coming right down Main Street. If the Americans can win enough of the individual battles early and keep the English in front of them, there's no reason they can't steal a draw in the opening game.

Prediction: England takes the group with the United States following in second.

Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana

The group obviously belongs to Germany. The Germans might be down in terms of talent from past years, but it's never been smart to bet against them in a major competition, and it's not wise to start now.

Beyond that, I can't really distinguish who else I like to get out of this group. I'm inclined to lean toward Ghana, who, along with Australia, exceeded expectations in the previous World Cup.

But Serbia will feel that it has a point to prove after its 2006 run. The Serbs weren't as bad as their result in the previous World Cup indicated; they just had the misfortune of being placed in an impossible group.

Prediction: Germany wins, with Serbia following behind.

Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon

The best thing this group has going for it is that Denmark and the Holland open with each other, making the two group favorites force the issue in the opening game instead of navigating through their lesser opponents first. That also means Japan and Cameroon's opening-round game is probably an elimination game, with both needing to grab maximum points to position themselves the rest of the way. Always good fun.

Prediction: Holland wins the group. Cameroon beats Japan in the opener and rides that momentum to the next round.

Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia

If Italy hasn't clinched a place in the next round by the end of the second game, the Italians will probably be disappointed. That's how pleased they must have been after this draw. It will be interesting to see Marcello Lippi's approach in the early going. Will he be a little more ambitious or favor a more conservative, play-it-safe approach?

Prediction: Italy cruises, with Paraguay following the Italians to the next round.

Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal

Pity poor Ivory Coast. I was among those who pegged the Ivoirians to be a breakout team this year, but alas, they find themselves in yet another group of death. All is not lost, however. The inclusion of North Korea essentially makes it a three-team race. Portugal versus Ivory Coast in the opening game figures to be the most important and exciting opener in the tournament.

Prediction: Brazil wins the group, but Ivory Coast beats Portugal in the opening game and uses the points over North Korea to book its ticket to the next round.

Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile

What is there to say, really? Could Spain win the group fielding a secondary starting 11? Probably.

Prediction: Spain and Switzerland.