After the usual double-helping of pomp, pageantry and pomposity, FIFA eventually got around to drawing the group placements for the 2018 World Cup on Friday, and the results provide plenty to chew on for the cadre of MLS players aiming to star in Russia next summer.
So who might be poised to make a deep run? Let’s take a look – albeit with the mandatory disclaimer that no one on our list is certain to earn a spot on their national team’s World Cup roster. Those aren’t finalized until late spring, a few weeks before the event kicks off, and plenty can happen between now and then.
Group E: Tough, but so are the Ticos
We’ll start with what’s likely to be the largest MLS contingent in Mother Russia, that of Costa Rica. Los Ticos have seven MLSers in their recent player pool, not including Christian Bolaños, whose 2018 contract option was recently declined by the Vancouver Whitecaps but remains in talks to return to the club on a new deal.
Costa Rica were dropped into a rugged Group E with Switzerland – who may well feature Montreal Impact playmaker Blerim Dzemaili – Serbia and mighty Brazil, with games being held at a fairly far-flung set of venues: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Rostov-on-Don and the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
It’s a stout assignment. But the Ticos are unlikely to be overly fazed, considering that they strolled into a “group of death” in Brazil three years ago – alongside Italy, Uruguay and England – and won the thing. Kendall Waston, Marco Urena & Co. probably prefer the order of their games, too: opening vs. Serbia, then facing Brazil in St. Petersburg before closing the round vs. the Swiss.
Dzemaili’s country, meanwhile, must open vs. the five-time world champions from South America and will travel from Rostov-on-Don in the south to Kaliningrad in the west, then on to Nizhny Novgorod in the Russian heartland for their three games. That’s a lot of mileage.
Outlook for MLSers’ advancement: Russian Bearish
Group G: Los Canaleros the underdogs as usual
Panama are another MLS-heavy bunch, and they’ve been handed a heady slot for their debut World Cup, drawn into Group G with England, Tunisia and Montreal Impact defender Laurent Ciman’s Belgium, who are seen as dark-horse cup contenders by some.
The group slate opens with Belgium vs. Panama in the Olympic city of Sochi, and Roman Torres, Anibal Godoy and the rest of Los Canaleros move on to face England in Nizhny Novgorod, then Tunisia in the centrally-situated Saransk.
Few outside of CONCACAF – or within it, for that matter – will expect anything but three-and-out from Panama. But those of us who witnessed their unlikely, and euphoric, surge past the United States in the Hexagonal may not write them off so easily. If they can snag a point or two from their first two games and meet Tunisia with a win-and-you’re-in scenario, who knows? Meanwhile Ciman and the Red Devils will be the marked men here, and will have to wear that crown with swagger if their larger ambitions are to be nurtured.
Outlook for MLSers’ advancement: Good for Ciman, long-shot for Panama – just like they like it
Group F: Prediction? PAIN
Mexico and their SoCal trio of Carlos Vela (LAFC) and brothers Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos have been placed in a tricky quartet with defending champions Germany, skillful South Korea and Italy-slayers Sweden, who may feature the Seattle Sounders’ versatile Gustav Svensson.
It’s an intriguing array of diverse challenges for El Tri, who do have a history of rising to the occasion against elite opposition in the World Cup. The opener vs. Germany at the famous Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow will be an occasion to survive above all – a draw would be great and a loss must be held to a tight margin so as not to take on a big negative goal differential.
Then it's on to a massive clash with South Korea in Rostov-on-Don, followed by a final-day meeting with Sweden in Ekaterinburg, the tournament’s easternmost venue. Svensson’s Swedes open vs. South Korea and play Germany second, so the winner of Mexico-Sweden may find themselves in the knockout round. All in all, this group promises plenty of drama, quality and contrast.
Outlook for MLSers’ advancement: Steady as she goes
Group C: Peru can do it!
Surviving a group with France, Denmark, Australia? It’s a tricky but not impossible task for Vancouver's Yordy Reyna, Orlando's Yoshimar Yotun and perhaps NYCFC's Alexander Callens too as Peru make their first World Cup appearance since 1982.
Like Costa Rica, Peru may like the order of their matches in strategic terms: They open vs. Denmark, then meet group heavyweights France before facing the Aussies on the final matchday. Take a point or three off the Danes (no easy thing, it’s true), then intelligently manage that tangle with Les Bleus and they might just have a chance to advance with a good result against the Socceroos.
I’ll say this much: After navigating a path through South America’s intense qualifying gauntlet as well as the intercontinental playoff vs. New Zealand, there’s not too much that will truly scare Los Incas.
Outlook for MLSers’ advancement: Why not?
As for the rest…
Sounders star Nico Lodeiro and Uruguay should feel good about their Group A placement with Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With the host nation at their lowest ebb in decades, the Saudis carrying limited danger – for now – and Egypt’s Pharaohs making their first appearance in nearly a quarter-century, the South Americans will be the clear favorites to advance.
Elsewhere, David Villa still harbors hopes of making what would be a sensational return to Spain’s squad and Portland’s Fanendo Adi will try to overcome this year’s injury woes and turn the heads of Nigeria’s coaching staff in the early months of the 2018 MLS season. Either scenario would be a laudable individual triumph and possibly a cameo role in a deep tournament run.