If you’ve been paying attention to World Cup qualifying in Europe, you may have noticed something about the balance of teams in some of the groups. France and the Netherlands are in the same group, the same goes for Italy and Spain. Meanwhile, on paper at least, Wales and Romania have come away with incredibly easy groups. How did this happen?
This article from The Set Pieces has the answer. Wales and Romania partook in some serious FIFA Rankings manipulation to get themselves in to Pot A for World Cup qualifying, essentially earning themselves an easier draw. In 2013, Switzerland did the same thing to get themselves seeded for the World Cup, essentially taking England’s spot in Pot A and condemning the Three Lions to a much tougher group.
It’s important to note that none of these teams have done anything wrong. They simply took advantage of the quirks of the very terrible FIFA rankings. FIFA’s rankings system awards points based on your results, the quality of the opponent, and what was at stake in the match. As Switzerland, Romania, and Wales discovered, playing friendlies, even if you win, can end up hurting you in the rankings. By not playing friendlies at certain points, these countries were able to rise in the FIFA rankings.
With the USMNT playing what was almost the furthest thing from a real soccer game in Cuba last week, one of the most prominent soccer writers in America, Grant Wahl, began wondering if the US should have bothered playing October friendlies at all.
Would have preferred US not play any friendlies during this window than risk injury in meaningless games. FIFA ranking would be better too.
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 7, 2016
In friendlies, most definitely. Wales increased ranking by not playing these games. And FIFA rankings actually do matter in seeding. https://t.co/0iQx5ZCU44
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 7, 2016
Citing the injury risk for the United States is one thing, but citing Romania and Wales makes no sense. You simply cannot compare the USMNT to teams from Europe. The US plays such a different schedule than those from Europe that friendlies are unfortunately a necessary evil.
Teams from Europe can afford to skip out on a few friendlies here and there because most of the time they don’t need to play friendlies. As soon as the World Cup ends they start qualification for the European Championships two years later. As soon as the Euros end they start qualification matches for the World Cup. With the upcoming formation of the UEFA Nations League, European teams will always be playing competitive matches.
For CONCACAF teams like the United States and Mexico, it’s completely different. Once the World Cup ends they don’t play a competitive match until the following summer in the Gold Cup. Once that ends they often don’t play another competitive match until World Cup qualifying begins the following March. They simply need to play friendlies just so that they can get their players together and acclimated with each other.
While the whole notion that friendlies are for experimentation and learning is completely overblown (you learn more from competitive matches) it’s still important to get your players playing with each other as often as you can.
There’s also the difference in style. European teams usually see all of their players based in Europe. The United States has players based in MLS, Liga MX, Germany, France, England, and other parts of Europe. Those are a lot of different styles that have to blend together. The only way to do that is to play games with each other.
There are certainly positives to both strategies but the question is for United States is the juice of playing October friendlies worth the squeeze of falling in the FIFA rankings.
The answer is an unequivocal yes. As we know, the FIFA rankings are flawed and don’t mean much. The rankings will tell me that Argentina is the best team in the world even though in the last three years they’ve lost the World Cup final, and back to back Copa America finals.
The FIFA rankings come into play in one situation, when it comes to seeding for the pots in the World Cup draw. If the US climbs high enough they would be able to be in Pot A and get an easy draw. In theory the US, which currently sits 22nd, could use their World Cup qualifying matches and next summer’s Gold Cup as a springboard to climbing into the top seven and be placed in Pot A.
That’s not going to happen. Whether the US plays friendlies or not, they would need to essentially go undefeated in the Hex and Gold Cup while hoping that several other teams fell out of the race. Everyone is playing competitive matches these days, so unless everyone between Nos. 7 and 22 completely went into the tank, the US would have no shot.
There’s also the question of if it really matters. If you look at the last four World Cups — 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014 — three of those times (2002, 2006, 2014) the US were drawn into a very difficult group. Of those three times, the US advanced out of the group twice. In last summer’s Copa America, the United States was said to have drawn the hardest possible group they could have. That didn’t stop them from winning the group.
So the US played these October friendlies. They will fall in the FIFA rankings and won’t be a seeded team for the World Cup draw. They’ll likely draw a difficult group simply because they are the US. But at the end of the day it won’t matter, the US has proven they could get out of a group even with the best of them.
So play the October friendlies, in fact play as many friendlies as you can. Because when you’re a team like the United States, sometimes the only way to get better is to play as many meaningless friendlies as you can.