As disheartening and shocking as it was to watch the U.S. national team ousted from World Cup contention by Trinidad and Tobago a few months ago, the reality of the news didn’t really sink in fully until Friday morning during the 2018 World Cup Draw.
The reality hit home hard when Argentine legend Diego Maradona, dapper in a golden bow tie, plucked 32 ping-pong balls out of a jar as Vladimir Putin looked on at Kremlin Palace and not a single one of them contained the letters “USA.” The world’s biggest party of 2018 — from June 14 to July 15 in Russia — will go on without us.
Given the tension between the United States and Russia these days, the United States’ omission from the 2018 Cup is even more glaring.
Iceland, a nation of 334,000 people, will have a team there. The United States, a nation of 323 million, a nation that had sent a team to the World Cup seven times in a row, will not. Other heavyweights missing from the party include four-time champion Italy (Mama Mia!), Netherlands (we’ll miss their Orange fans), and Chile (no “Chi-Chi-Chi, Le-Le-Le!”).
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ESPN commentator Taylor Twellman said it made him sick to his stomach to see a World Cup Draw without the USA, and surely many fans watching felt the same way.
Taking a look at the draw, here are some things that jump out....
Host Russia (surprise, surprise) should have an easy time advancing as a top-two finisher in Group A. With a FIFA ranking of 65, Russia is the lowest-ranked team in the entire field, and its group includes the second-lowest ranked team (Saudi Arabia at 63), Egypt (in its first World Cup in 28 years), and Uruguay, which should win the group. The World Cup opening match June 14 features the two lowest-ranked teams in the tournament.
France, the 1998 champion, also appears to have an easy path out of Group C, which includes Peru (in its first World Cup in 36 years), Denmark, and Australia. Things will get much tougher in the second round, however, as the winner of Group C plays what should be a strong second-place team from Group D (Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria).
Best early matchup? Spain versus Portugal, June 15 in Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. The Iberian neighbors and soccer rivals find themselves together in Group B, along with Iran and Morocco.
Second-best early matchup? Defending World Cup champion Germany against CONCACAF champion Mexico on June 17. Although there isn’t a true “Group of Death” in this World Cup, the toughest group does seem to be Group F, with Germany, Mexico, South Korea and Sweden, which edged the Netherlands in group play and knocked out Italy from the field.
If Germany wins that group and Mexico finished runner-up, El Tri would then likely face Brazil in the next round. Brazil, eager to avenge an embarrassing exit from the 2014 Cup it hosted, is the top seed in Group E, which also includes Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia.
England and Colombia got favorable draws. The English team is in Group G with Belgium, Tunisia and Panama. Los Cafeteros of Colombia are in Group H with Poland, Senegal, and Japan.
It remains to be seen which of the 32 teams will take home the trophy, but winner of the funniest line in Friday’s draw ceremony goes to English host Gary Lineker, who joked as Maradona pulled out a ping-pong ball that “He was always good with his hands,” a reference to his infamous Hand of God goal.
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2018 World Cup
When: June 14-July 15, 2018
Where: 11 Russian cities
Defending champion: Germany
Number of teams: 32
Early favorites: Germany, Brazil, France, Spain, Argentina