The following is an email I received from Josh Patten on June 6, 2010:
Here’s a quick World Cup primer. You have no idea how much I enjoyed writing this.
So, here’s the deal with the World Cup—it’s a tournament of national soccer teams that’s played once every 4 years. It’s the only major tournament in soccer that has such a wide swath of national teams, and every single country sends their best players—think Super Bowl and Olympics all tied up into one. This year the World Cup is being held in South Africa.
Here’s how it works; For the past three years, every National Soccer Team has played a bunch of regional tournaments (essentially broken up by continent) to find out who gets into the World Cup. There are 32 teams every year that make it and they are broken up into 8 groups of 4 teams each. There are two rounds to the competition.
FIRST ROUND (also known as the Group Stage)
As mentioned, the field of 32 is broken up into 8 groups of 4 teams, Full group matchups are here: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/standings/index.html These groups aren’t exactly arbitrary - theoretically, each group contains one of the top 8 teams in the tournament, one team ranked from 9-16, one team ranked 17-24, and one team ranked 25-32, to provide a nice competitive balance across the whole tournament.
The point of the Group Stage is to whittle the total field down to 16 teams—2, and only 2, teams from each group move on to the Second Round of the World Cup. To figure out which teams move on—each one of these groups plays a round robin style tournament (i.e. each team has a match against every other team in that group). We’ll use the United States Group as an example:
So, each team is going to play three games in the Group Stage—if you win a game, you get 3 points. If you lose, you get 0 points. If games end in a tie, each team receives 1 point. So let’s say England wins all of their games, the US loses to England but beats Slovenia and Algeria, and Slovenia beats Algeria. The final group standings would look like this (hope this formats correctly in your email
W L T Points
England 3 0 0 9
United States 2 1 0 6
Slovenia 1 2 0 3
Algeria 0 3 0 0
Under this hypothetical, England and the US both advance on to the Second Round, which is WAAAAY easier to understand. Let’s understand it!
SECOND ROUND (or, Elimination Round or Knockout Round or Round of 16)
With 2 teams advancing to the Second Round, our field is whittled down to 16 teams, who play a straightup, one game elimination tournament. In terms of how the teams are seeded, there’s a pretty straightforward slotting system for the winners and runners-up of each group (that bracket can be found here: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/matches/kostage.html ) it’s a little wonky to understand now with no team names—there’s just things like 1H and 2B and 1D. But remember how the US was in Group C? If we win the group, we are “1C” and play a game against “2D”, the runner up from Group D. If we come in second in our group, we are ‘2C” and play “1D”, the winner of Group D.
Anyway, the actual Second Round is simple—win, and you advance. Lose, and you’re out. To deal with that pesky issue of ties, any tied game plays another 30 minutes of overtime, and, if still tied after that, they go to penalty kicks, which are awesome. To understand how penalty kicks work, watch the end of D2: The Mighty Ducks. Same system.
A LITTLE ABOUT THE HISTORY OF US OF A SOCCER
We sucked at soccer for a very, very, very long time. We didn’t make the World Cup for like a 40 stretch that ended in 1990. As I mentioned way towards the top, qualifying for the World Cup is based off regional continental tournaments—so, not only did we get beat by Mexico, but we also got the shit kicked out of us by the likes of Guatemala, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago, etc. Which is to say, we sucked, a lot.
The seminal moment of US Soccer was landing the hosting gig for the 1994 World Cup…this spawned our own professional soccer league (Major League Soccer, or the MLS), and gave enough exposure and money to the sport to help us really develop actual, good players…now we regularly kick the crap out of every other team in North America and make every World Cup. And we’ve gotten good at the actual World Cup play, too—in 1994 we advanced to the 2nd Round and in 2002 we advanced to Second Round AND won a Second Round Match, beating those jerks from Mexico to be among the last 8 teams standing.
And that’s been reflected in this year’s World Cup seeding—looking at that group, England is the best team, but we are clearly the second best and are favored to move on to the Second Round along with England. The match against England is this Saturday at 2:30PM, and if we can win or even tie that, it’s smooth sailing into the next round—go USA!
A LITTLE ABOUT THIS YEAR’S US TEAM
The name you may have heard before is Landon Donovan, who is pretty much widely agreed to be the best player in U.S. Soccer history…he’s played the most games for the national team, scored the most goals and had the most assists. Also, he looks a little like Dave Matthew: http://www.footyfootball.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/landon-donovan-asd654ddgdg.jpg
We also have one of the best goalies in the world—Tim Howard, who has a day job playing soccer in England’s league, and he is outstanding. Also of note is Jozy Altidore, a 20-year forward who scores a ton of goals—the problem with U.S. Soccer players is that all of our countries best athletes tend to play football, basketball or baseball, and so soccer is filled with second-tier physical talents. Not Altidore, he’s an absolute beast. The biggest question mark about this team is Oguchi Onyewu, our giant defensemen—think a big, strong dude who muscles out players and skies high to head the ball away from the goal—last year, though, he ruptured his patella tendon and is only now returning to action. Our defensive hopes rest a lot on him.
That’s really all the main points, if you want to know more or have any questions, let me know…due to the time difference, games will be at 7:30AM, 10AM and 2:30 PM…unlike other sports, soccer games don’t take any timeouts and move along quickly and commercial free, with 2 halves of 45 minutes each. They are super fun to watch and we’re all going to get laid!