Math is hard: U.S. still likely to get to next stage of World Cup
It mostly depends on what Ghana and Portugal do, and how well they do it
The United States missed a tantalizing opportunity on Sunday when Michael Bradley turned over the ball in the final seconds of the match against Portugal. The last minute goal from Selecção das Quinas midfielder Silvestre Varela denied the United States a sure ticket to the elimination rounds.
Did it end the Yanks’ hopes of a getting through? That would be a qualified no.
First, a word on how the group stage of the World Cup works. Non-soccer obsessives may be a bit confused by hearing the phrases “three points” and “one point.” In just about every soccer league in the world, standings are determined by points. Each win, no matter by what margin, gives a team three points, while a tie only gives one point. For decades, a winning team would get only two points. That was ditched in the 1990s to discourage teams from playing for ties.
In the opening round of the World Cup, teams are broken up into groups of four; each group acting like its own small league. Each team only plays three matches, with a total of nine possible points up for grabs for each team. The two top finishers in each group move on to the elimination rounds.
By the way, no one worries about points in the elimination rounds. That’s win or go home, as Charles Barkley would say. Also, you can’t have ties in the elimination rounds. Those matches will go into extra time rather than remain tied.
Even though nine points are possible, a team that manages two wins in its first two matches is guaranteed a berth in the next round. This doesn’t mean they don’t have to play a third match, but their tournament won’t be on the line when they do. The reason for this is that it is mathematically impossible for two teams to score more than six points.
Here’s how this works: Team A wins its first two matches, a blow out against Team B and a close one against Team C. They’ve got six points. This leaves both Team B and Team C with only two games. They can each win one against Team D, but they are also going to have to play each other. They can’t both win that one.
Which brings us to the situation of the United States: a win, which would give the Yanks seven points, or a tie, leaving us with five points, would put us past the reach of both Portugal and Ghana. Those two teams have racked up a tie and a loss. Either one winning their final match would only give them four points.
The intrigue comes should the U.S. lose to Germany. That would leave the U.S. with four points, level with the winner, if any, of Portugal versus Ghana.
Who is ahead under that scenario?
Under FIFA rules, there are two tie breakers. The first is what is called goal differential. That’s the number of goals scored by a team minus the number scored against a team. The second is whoever has scored the most goals.
By the way, if you think this is complicated, blame whoever was supposed to mark Varela.
It is here that Portugal is in a bit of a quandary. They got squashed by Germany in their opening match 4 – 0, leaving them with a minus 4 goal differential. Ghana is better off on this score. Their differential is only minus 1.
For Portugal to overcome this, they would have to either beat Ghana by five goals, or Germany would have to do the same to the United States. Or, things can add together right to make it happen. A chart floating around the internet tries to show the various permutations of German and Portuguese goals that would give this result. In any case, Portugal would have to score a lot. The narrow wins typical of soccer by Germany and Portugal would keep the US in contention.
Ghana, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same deficit to overcome. One goal wins by Germany and Ghana would keep the U.S. qualified, but a bigger margin by Ghana would in all likelihood keep us out.
Of course, if both teams tied, the U.S. would be comfortably in second place no matter what the result.
In case you are wondering about any arrangements between U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann and his former understudy, German coach Joachim Löw, the Portugal-Ghana match is played at the same time as the United States-Germany match. Third matches in the group stage are done like this to prevent shenanigans, because as we know, FIFA frowns on such things.
So, what you should do as a USA fan is cheer for a Ghana and Portugal to tie, or maybe a Portugal win, or maybe … just cheer for the USA. It can happen. Plus, seven points make the math much less complicated.