The US has a brutal group in the Women's World Cup, but it might not even matter

The U.S. women’s national team enters the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada as one of the favourites to win it all.

But if they’re going to win their first World Cup since 1999, they will have to do it out of the toughest group in the tournament.

The U.S. landed Sweden (ranked 5th in the world), Australia (10th), and Nigeria (33rd) at the draw in December. It was declared the Group of Death by FiveThirtyEight and others at the time, and things haven’t changed much in the six months since.

The groups:

Some quick notes on why the U.S. group is so tough:

  • The U.S.’s three opponents have an average of 1869.7 FIFA ranking points (highest of any group) and an average rank of 16th (2nd-highest of any group).
  • Sweden is the best non-seeded team in the tournament. They’re ranked higher than seeded teams Canada and Brazil. Apparently, Brazil was seeded over them by FIFA for geographical reasons.
  • Australia, the third-ranked team in the U.S.’s group, would be the second-ranked team in all but one other group.
  • The average U.S. group stage opponent (16.0) ranks 34 spots higher in the world rankings than the average Japan group stage opponent (40.0).

It’s a tough group. The U.S. lost to Sweden at the Algarve Cup in 2014 — the same competition at which they lost 5-3 to Denmark, a team ranked below Australia.

But as bad as it looks, the U.S. still has a good shot at making the knockout stages even if they stumble a bit. There are 24 teams at this year’s World Cup and 16 will make the knockout rounds. At the last World Cup in 2011, there were 16 teams and eight made the knockout rounds.

This year the top two teams in all six groups advance to the Round of 16 — as they do in the men’s World Cup — but so do the four third-place teams with the most points. That gives the USWNT a good amount of wiggle room. Over the last three World Cups, half of the teams that finished in third place in their groups ended up with exactly 3 points. So even if the U.S. loses to Sweden and Australia, they have a chance to advance if they beat Nigeria by enough to make up the goal difference. If the U.S. finishes with 4 points or more, they should be all but guaranteed a place in the knockout rounds.

It’s a rough draw, but the tournament format means it might not matter all that much.

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