U-20 WWC: Thoughts on the Probable Draw Procedure

[Edit, 1-June-2012: Based on new information, the below predicted procedure will probably not be used. Please see this newer post for a more likely procedure.]

With the Under-20 Women’s World Cup field of sixteen teams fully settled, it is time to look at the draw procedure, which will determine how the four groups in the group stage of the tournament are populated. The actual draw procedure will most likely not be announced until the day before the draw is held. As the draw is scheduled for Monday, June 4th* in Tokyo, Japan, that leaves two weeks of speculation. However, based on past U-20 WWC draws and other draws conducted by FIFA, the most likely draw procedure can be reasonably predicted.

*According to an early version of the web page announcing the draw, the time for the the draw ceremony to begin is 1400 local time, which is 1:00 am EDT, here in the States.

The full draw procedures for past U-20 Women’s World Cups are not readily available. However, the basic structure and guiding principles can be inferred from other FIFA draws, such as those for the Olympics and senior Women’s World Cups. (For more information on those, see this previous post where past Olympic draws were examined.)

The standard guiding principles for FIFA draws are (1) geographic diversity, as in the number of teams from the same confederation that are grouped together should be limited as much as possible, and (2) the host, plus at least the top teams should be seeded, in order to avoid having those teams in the same group.

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Since 2006, when the tournament moved to an under-20 event and increased to sixteen teams, four teams have been seeded, including the host. The United States has been a seed in every prior U-20 WWC, even when it finished second in CONCACAF:

2006: The four seeded teams were host Russia (also European champions), United States (CONCACAF champions), China (Asian champions), and Germany (reigning U-19 WWC champions, second best team in Europe). (US Soccer news item about the seeding.) Also, the three non-host teams, Germany, China, and the USA were the top three teams at the previous (U-19) tournament in 2004.

2008: The seeded teams were host Chile, United States (even though they finished second in CONCACAF), Brazil (CONMEBOL champions) and Germany (UEFA champions). (US Soccer news item about the draw results).

2010: Germany (host), the United States (CONCACAF champions), Brazil (CONMEBOL champions) and Japan (AFC champions) were the seeded teams (US Soccer news item from 2010).

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Typically, the teams are divided into four pots (the number of teams per group). With 16 teams, each pot will have four teams. The allocations of qualification spots per confederation allows for an elegant distribution of teams which requires no special rules regarding geographical diversity.

Two confederations, the AFC and UEFA,  have four teams each, so each can have one pot. The remaining four federations can be evenly split into two sets of four by putting the CONMEBOL and African teams together, and by grouping the Oceania representative, New Zealand, with the three CONCACAF teams.

Also, this allocation puts the most likely seeded teams into separate pots. Besides Japan, who are guaranteed to be in Group A, the other three seeded teams are likely to be Germany,  the United States, and Brazil.

Germany is the UEFA Champions and the reigning U-20 WWC champions. The United States are the CONCACAF Champions and they beat three of the UEFA teams, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland, in friendlies this year. Also, the USA easily handled the third best team from the AFC, China, in two friendlies last month. Brazil,  is the CONMEBOL Champions, and may not be one of the top three teams  outside the host, but they are from CONMEBOL and they are Brazil, which gives them a political advantage. (The same can be said for Germany and even the USA, but Brazil’s U-20 WNT  has few to zero non-confederation matches to support its seeding.)

In addition, whether or not those three teams are the best teams, they are three of the biggest “name” teams in international women’s soccer, so allocating those teams to different groups could help ticket sales.

Another key aspect of the draw procedure as it relates to seeding is the order of the pots. The top team from Group A  and the second place team from Group B play each other in one quarterfinal, while the top Group B team takes on the second best Group A team. Likewise, the match-ups are similar for Group C and Group D. (Match schedule, PDF) Thus, one additional way to help stack the deck in the host’s favor would be to put the lowest seeded team in Group B. Which, in this case, would most likely be Brazil.

Assuming that Brazil is in Group B, that leaves the seeding order of Germany and the United States. This is more likely to go either way, but placing Europe as the final pot, allows for symmetry, with the two multiple confederation pots in the middle, between the two single confederation pots. In addition, by not placing the United States in Group D, this avoids the USA having to play any matches in Hiroshima, which could lead to awkward situations. (Match schedule, PDF)

So, the predicted pots:

  • Pot #1 (Asia): Japan (host, A1), North Korea, China, South Korea
  • Pot #2 (Africa, South America): Brazil (B1), Argentina, Nigeria, Ghana
  • Pot #3 (North America, Oceania): United States (C1), Canada, Mexico, New Zealand
  • Pot #4 (Europe): Germany (D1), Norway, Italy, Switzerland

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Given the above pots, with the United States as a seeded team, the USA’s group opponents would either be (in order of presumed difficulty):

From Pot #1: North Korea, China, or South Korea

Of the four pots, this one seems to have the most difficult group of non-seeded teams.

Of the Asian teams, North Korea is the hardest to prepare for, given that the team rarely travels outside its country’s tightly guarded borders. Also, they generally perform better at the youth level than at the senior level. North Korea won this tournament in 2006 and finished second in 2008 (losing to the USA in the final) while their U-17 WNT has made the semifinals in both prior editions of that tournament, including in 2008 when they won the inaugural edition (defeating the USA in extra time).

The USA has seen China up close this year, as the two sides played each other twice in friendlies, in April, with the USA winning both matches. Also, China scrimmaged against other teams when they visited the States, giving the USA additional opportunities to scout the squad.

South Korea finished fourth in Asian qualifying, which originally meant that they had failed to qualify for this tournament, But, thanks to the tournament moving from Uzbekistan to Japan, South Korea was given Uzbekistan’s spot. Although the team is technically the fourth-best Asian team, their U-17 WNT did win the 2010 tournament and last time, in 2010, at this tournament, they finished in third place.

Also, in 2010, South Korea was in the USA’s group and the two met on the final match day, with the USA winning that encounter 1:0. However, South Korea had already qualified for the quarterfinals and did not need a win, while the USA needed at least a draw to avoid a tie-breaker situation with Ghana. This time around, South Korea does not appear to be as strong a team as in 2010, especially without the services of 2010 Silver Shoe (8 goals) and Silver Ball winner Ji So-Yun, who now plays for INAC Kobe in Japan.

In some respects, South Korea could be more difficult than China, so the level of difficulty for those two could be argued as a toss-up. In fact, in qualifying, last year, the two teams tied 1:1. But, China also had a quality 1:1 draw with Japan, while South Korea lost 3:1 to Japan.

From Pot #2: Nigeria, Ghana, or Argentina

Outside of North Korea, African teams are the next most difficult teams to scout, as they tend to play few internationals, and CAF’s qualification format makes in-person scouting rather impractical as qualifiers are spread out all over Africa and over multiple weeks, rather than hosted by one country as a single tournament, so the costs versus benefits of sending someone to scout matches is much higher.

Nigeria is the only African team that has advanced to the quarterfinal stage in this tournament, and has done so the past three tournaments, going back to 2006, when the field was expanded to sixteen teams and the age limit raised to U-20.

The USA has lost to Nigeria in this tournament, but that was under circumstances that should now be rectified: In 2010, Nigeria defeated the USA on penalties in their quarterfinal meet-up. Conventional wisdom puts most of the blame for the USA’s poor performance in that tournament — outside of 5 goals versus Switzerland, the USA only scored a single goal in each of its other three matches — on the shoulders of then team coach Jill Ellis.

The USA also faced Ghana in their opening match of this tournament’s 2010 edition and could only muster a 1:1 draw against the then debutantes. Again, assuming that this year’s U-20 USWNT has heeded the lessons of 2010, then the likely outcome of a rematch this go-around should be much greater in the USA’s favor.

Argentina making the tournament is a bit of a surprise, as they defeated and finished ahead of a Yoreli Rincon led Colombia in the final round-robin group of the 2012 Under-20 Sudamericano held earlier this year. (Colombia had a disappointing tournament and were rather ineffective, as they only scored 7 goals over 7 matches.) Argentine women’s teams have never gotten past the group stage at any FIFA organized event (2 U-20 WWC, 2 WWC, 1 Olympics). This year’s team seems to be no different, as their qualifying campaign had some hiccups: in the preliminary group phase, an 0:1 loss to Colombia and a 3:2 win versus Chile that was decided late on a penalty kick; then a 2:2 draw with Paraguay to open the final group phase.  In the championship decider versus Brazil, Argentina’s offense was practically nonexistent.

From Pot #4: Norway, Italy, or Switzerland

The USA has faced two of the three non-seeded European teams this year, both at La Manga. In the last match there, the USA defeated Norway 2:0 with both goals coming within minutes of the opening whistle.

Norway defeated Italy 3:2 in the semifinals of the European qualifying tournament, which was hosted by Italy. So, the quality of Italy and Norway seems to be a bit of a toss-up. Also, Italy is the only debutante team at this year’s tournament.

On the other hand, Switzerland is the least best team from Europe in this tournament. At La Manga, the USA crushed a somewhat less than full-strength Swiss side 10:0 (yes, ten), which was only half as bad as the USA-Switzerland scoreline (5:0) from the 2010 U-20 WWC.

Edit (May 22): In late April, Norway and Italy played against each other in two friendlies. Only the result of one match is known (NFF), which Italy won 4:2, after Norway led 2:0 after the 24th minute. Italy scored all of their goals in the final 25 minutes (67′ to 90+1′). So, whether Norway or Italy will be more difficult is now definitely a toss-up.

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Teams to Avoid In Each Pot: E.g., the team that would probably pose the biggest challenge for a random opponent–

  • Pot 1: North Korea
  • Pot 2: Nigeria
  • Pot #3: Canada
  • Pot #4: Norway

Easiest Teams: Again, assuming a random opponent–

  • Pot #1: South Korea
  • Pot #2: Argentina
  • Pot #3: New Zealand
  • Pot #4: Switzerland

So, for host Japan:

  • Worst: Nigeria, Canada, Norway
  • Best: Argentina, New Zealand, Switzerland

For Brazil:

  • Worst: North Korea, Canada, Norway
  • Best: South Korea, New Zealand, Switzerland

For the United States:

  • Worst: North Korea, Nigeria, Norway
  • Best: South Korea, Argentina, Switzerland

For Germany:

  • Worst: North Korea, Nigeria, Canada
  • Best: South Korea, Argentina, New Zealand

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Repeat of 2010: A group with the USA, Ghana, Switzerland, and South Korea is a distinct possibility. Although, this time, the USA should be a stronger team than its previous incarnation, while South Korea will probably be weaker. Ghana remains a bit of an enigma. And, Switzerland would probably finish last, again.

No New Match-Ups: In past editions of this tournament, the USA has played all of the teams in the first two pots, including host Japan and likely seed Brazil. The only teams it has not played competitively at this level are Norway and debutante Italy. So, based on the above draw procedure, there is a 1-in-3 chance that the USA will have no first-time match-ups in the group stage.

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As long as the USA, Brazil, and Germany are seeded along with host Japan, none of the potential group scenarios for the USA should be so difficult that a prepared and focused USA would not have a good chance of making it to the knock-out stage.

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