The United States will not be at the 2018 World Cup. But you know what? They’re not alone. They aren’t the only national team to fail spectacularly in the face of expectations. They aren’t the only World Cup mainstay who won’t be in Russia.
In fact, you could organize a pretty darn entertaining tournament of nations that would otherwise be watching the World Cup from home next summer. So, what the heck … let’s do that.
We’ll use American college basketball as our model. It has the NCAA Tournament, its 64- — er, 68- — team extravaganza. It also has the National Invitational Tournament, or the NIT, a 32-team consolation bracket of sorts. Occasionally, big schools will decline bids, and Italy or Chile might just emulate them. But for most, the NIT is an opportunity for power-conference teams to end the season on a muted high note, and mid-majors to play for a real prize – something they wouldn’t really be doing in the Big Dance.
To be clear, there is virtually no chance that a soccer equivalent actually materializes. But it’s fun to think about.
Our Soccer NIT would be 16 teams – half the size of the World Cup, just as the real NIT is (basically) half the size of the NCAA tournament. And like the basketball version, we’ll hand out automatic bids. The top non-qualifier in each region, based solely on World Cup qualifying performance, gets a berth.
The remaining 10 invitations will be sent to at-large participants. They’ll be selected subjectively based on recent performances, general quality and other vague criteria that allow our selection committee to do whatever the heck it wants. (Again, just like the NCAA committees.)
Of the six auto bids, two have already been claimed. Italy will represent Europe as the top non-qualifier. The Democratic Republic of the Congo will get Africa’s as the best second-place team – it missed out on the World Cup by one point.
The other four will depend on the losers of the two intercontinental playoffs. The two losers will qualify automatically. But if Honduras wins, the United States will get CONCACAF’s auto bid; if Australia wins, Syria will get Asia’s auto bid; if Peru wins, Chile will get South America’s; if New Zealand wins, the Solomon Islands will get Oceania’s.
Here’s where things get complicated – just like NCAA Tournament bracketology. Two of those teams, the U.S. and Chile, would receive at-large bids if they don’t receive automatic ones. But the other two, Syria and Solomon Islands, wouldn’t.
That means we have at least eight more at-large bids to hand out, but as many as 10.
At first look, there are between three and five at-large locks. Two, as discussed above, are Chile and the U.S. The other three are the Netherlands, Paraguay and the Ivory Coast.
That leaves between five and seven spots. The contenders for those spots are: Ecuador, Ghana, Wales, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Austria, Slovakia, Cameroon, Turkey, Northern Ireland, Greece, Algeria, and the loser of Tuesday’s final European playoff between Denmark and Ireland.
Of those 14 – soon to be narrowed down to 13 – who would you pick? Is there anybody not on that list that deserves consideration?
Our 16-team Soccer NIT field
In the interest of imagining a competitive tournament, let’s assume Peru and Honduras win the intercontinental playoffs, and Ireland knocks off Denmark. In that case, here’s our field, seeded 1-16:
1. Italy 2. Chile 3. Netherlands 4. Paraguay 5. Denmark 6. United States 7. Ivory Coast 8. Australia 9. Ecuador 10. Wales 11. Ghana 12. Bosnia and Herzegovina 13. Northern Ireland 14. Slovakia 15. Congo DR 16. New Zealand
If New Zealand upsets Peru, Solomon Islands would replace New Zealand, Peru would slot in at No. 4, and Slovakia would be bumped out. If Australia also beats Honduras, Syria would replace it and come in at No. 15; Honduras would come in at No. 13; Northern Ireland would also miss out.
The draw and the tournament
Like the real NIT, our NIT would mirror its big brother. That means a central location, so we’ll let the U.S. host. It also means four groups of four – no more than one team from each region in one group, but with the European exception – and an eight-team knockout round.
Here’s a hypothetical draw:
Group A: Italy, United States, Ghana, Slovakia
Group B: Chile, Denmark, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Congo DR
Group C: Netherlands, Australia, Ecuador, New Zealand
Group D: Paraguay, Ivory Coast, Wales, Northern Ireland
Are you not entertained? We could basically recreate the 2006 World Cup’s Group of Death – and could if our corrupt committee selected the Czech Republic solely for this purpose. Group D would be completely up for grabs. And there’d be enticing matchups in all four.
In the quarterfinals, we could get U.S.-Chile, Italy-Denmark, Netherlands-Ivory Coast and Wales-Australia. In the semis, we could get Chile-Netherlands (or U.S.-Netherlands) and Italy-Wales.
Italy would probably be the favorite, as long as the whole country doesn’t get burned to the ground in the aftermath of the Sweden loss. But the tournament really would be competitive. You could almost get a dozen World Cup-caliber teams. Such has been the peril of the 2018 qualifying cycle.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.