by Jordan Adams - 03/24/2006
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When FIFA released its most recent world rankings in March, the surprise of the group was the United States, ranked No. 5. Moving up from its sixth position, this set of rankings marks the highest the United States has ever been ranked among soccer's elite, ranking higher than world powers France, England and Spain. With the high praise from ranking officials, some may wonder why the United States has not received the same respect when seeded for the 2006 World Cup, possibly hindering its chances to capture FIFA gold this summer.
Arguing about soccer's best may be more difficult than debating traditional sports in the United States. Rankings in college basketball and college football appear to be based on more objective criteria than soccer. These sports have balanced schedules, having conference play, and are judged and ranked on the strength of schedule played. However, the FIFA rankings cannot be viewed similarly. Teams do not play balanced schedules and you often see the national teams missing key players due to their club team commitments or injuries suffered in those games. While international friendly matches are a good tune-up for events such as this summer's World Cup, the teams simply do not play each other enough to validate accurate comparisons. The United States has gained valuable experience competing against European competition throughout the year. Such games as its recent loss to Germany, 4-1, help to forecast how the US will fair in this summer's World Cup. However, one match is not enough to determine if that loss is an accurate indication of US talent. If they played a home-and-home series, would the United States prevail on the back end?
Although the FIFA seeding is primarily dictated by the team's previous two World Cup results, the United States was placed three spots lower than its world ranking. Penciled in as the No. 9 seed for this summer's event, the United States team will have to impress if it wants to retain its lofty position in the FIFA world rankings. Not only are the Americans seeded lower in the 2006 World Cup, sportsbooks have not given the United States the same chances as the FIFA rankings would suggest. The United States sits behind 12 teams as the favorite to win the 2006 FIFA World Cup at 45/1 odds.
Drawing tough competition in Group E, the United States will have its hands full facing the likes of Italy and the Czech Republic. Not just having to win its matches to advance, it seems the United States more than ever will have to prove that it is truly worthy of its high world ranking and status among the soccer elite. The stereotypes of USA inferiority are based on the difficulty of ever making soccer a popular sport in the USA, constantly competing with football, basketball and baseball.
Soccer is dearly loved outside the United States and it is the No. 1 sport in the world. This is why world powers and club teams dominate soccer headlines year after year. But it is the progression of the United States national team that suggests an impressive showing this summer in Germany can alter its worldwide image.
USA goalkeeper Kasey Keller says his team will not accept merely participating in the event. They expect to compete and advance but know it will be difficult. "We have an extremely difficult group when you look at how European teams have traditionally done in Europe. In Korea and Japan it was something new for everyone, and it gave a more level playing field. Being down with two of the European teams in our group, it's tough and I think most people would be looking at the Czech Republic and Italy to get through. And let's say we finished second in the group, in all likelihood we would face Brazil in the second round so it is not going to get any easier. But we do feel confident that we can play against European teams and compete with them."
With the 2006 World Cup approaching within the next three months, the United States will have one more tune-up before heading to Germany. The final week in May, the USA will compete in a fixture match versus Latvia, hoping it can achieve a better result after suffering the lopsided loss to Germany. Knowing its first two matches will be against the Czech Republic and Italy in the World Cup, the United States will have to play its best in order to impress and have any chance at climbing past the traditional world powers competing for soccer's most famous trophy.