USWNT’s awful World Cup draw features a hidden blessing
The United States could possibly fail to get out of their group. They could also get a virtual pass to the semifinals.
The United States’ World Cup draw is a nightmare. They’ll have to play one of the tournament favorites, a darkhorse contender and another team that went undefeated and untied in qualifying, and that’s all before they get to the knockout stages.
This is the worst group stage draw the United States could have imagined. This can’t be exaggerated; they got matched up with the best team from each of the other three pots. Group D is not a group of death, it is the group of death, and the USWNT’s tournament only gets worse if they fail to win it.
Australia were the first team to get drawn with the United States. In this group, three points and qualification as one of the best third-placed teams is a decent showing, but they’re good enough that they would have been favored to finish top two in most others.
Around half of Australia’s first-choice XI will feature first-team regulars from NWSL. And the Australian W-League has become a viable place for top pros to play, meaning the Aussies have a deep pool of players who have high-level experience, even if they’ve stayed at home. Even though the U.S. owns recent wins against Australia, they’ve been challenged in those matches. They’ll be a tough opener for the Americans, and the USWNT didn’t start quickly against inferior opposition in CONCACAF qualifying.
Nigeria came next. They’ll be favored to finish last in this group, but that doesn’t mean they’re pushovers. The Super Eagles absolutely breezed through African qualifying and should be competitive in all of their matches. They have a handful of players who play professionally in the United States and Europe, which is more than can be said for the other teams from their pot (save for Mexico, who are partners in NWSL). They’re good enough that the USWNT can’t bank on coasting to a win against them in the final game if their previous two go poorly.
Sweden were the final team drawn into Group D, but U.S. fans were making jokes about them well before the draw snaked around to UEFA’s pot. Once Australia were slotted in with the United States, fans all elicited the same response. “Watch, we’ll get Sweden too.” And that’s exactly what they got.
It’s seriously controversial that Sweden were even in the UEFA pot in the first place. They entered the draw with a higher FIFA ranking than the final seeded team (Brazil), but it would have taken some serious geographic gymnastics for FIFA to make three pots if Sweden was given a seed. So to avoid a messy draw, the No. 6 side were seeded and the No. 5 side weren’t. And Sweden were punished, landing in the tournament’s toughest group. Brazil, meanwhile, should coast to the knockout rounds.
The Swedes gave eventual champions Japan a difficult game in the semifinals of the last World Cup before going on to pull a minor upset over France in the third-place game. They won their groups at both the Olympics and UEFA championships, and their huge stars from those tournaments — Lotta Schelin, Caroline Seger and Nilla Fischer are their biggest names — are still in the primes of their careers. Since 2011, the Americans are 2-3-2 against Sweden, including a loss in the 2011 World Cup. Toss in manger Pia Sundhage, who led the U.S. to Olympic gold three years ago, and the Swedes are a miserable matchup for the Americans.
But that’s not even the worst of it for the United States. Even if this is the hardest group possible, they’re talented enough that they could still manage to get out of it while playing some bad soccer. Their biggest issue is the post-group stage draw if they fail to win their group. Two good performances against Australia and Nigeria, but a loss to Sweden or draw that allows the Swedes to finish top sets up a disastrous knockout stage gauntlet for the Americans. Brazil would be their most likely Round of 16 opponent, then probably defending champs Japan if they win that match, then likely Canada in the semifinal. By the time the U.S. gets to the final, they would have already faced four of the five other best teams in the tournament.
However, there is a silver lining here, and it’s in the draw for the team that wins Group D. If Jill Ellis’ team manages to top Group D, they’ll face a pair of relative minnows in their first two knockout stage matches. They’d take on a third-place team in the round of 16, then the runners-up from Group A or Group C — Switzerland or China, probably — in the quarterfinals. The Americans would be heavy favorites to win both of those games.
So yes, this is a bad draw. A really bad draw. The worst group stage draw imaginable, and one that’s spectacularly punishing to the team that finishes second from their group. But if they get through it, they’re rewarded with a clear path to the semifinal, so this draw could end up being a blessing in disguise.