Regardless of how it determines the seven seeded teams to join host South Africa, FIFA prefers to group the remaining teams geographically, even though its current rankings place the USA (No. 14) and Mexico (No. 15) much higher than the countries they are grouped with.
In 2006, as a seeded team, Mexico drew Portugal, Iran and Angola, a mix of Europe/Asia/Africa that was much easier than what the unseeded Americans faced. This time around, the USA, Mexico and Honduras will face a seeded team, a European team, and one nation from a pot that includes the five African qualifiers other than the host, and three South American teams -- Paraguay, Chile and Uruguay - that join Conmebol seeds Brazil and Argentina.
Twice (1990, 2002) the Americans have been drawn with the host, and once (2006) it was grouped with the eventual champion. Its two "easiest" draws, relatively speaking, came in 1994 and 1998, when no group foe got past the quarterfinals even though when the draws came out, going up against a hot Colombian team ('94) and the always tough Germans ('98) didn't instill confidence.
Except for '98, when it failed to garner a single point and looked outclassed in all three games, the USA has done well against the teams perceived to be the toughest. It stunned Portugal in 2002 and Colombia in 1994, managed a 1-1 tie with champion Italy in 2006, and battled the host Italians to a tight 1-0 defeat in 1990.
Here's a ranking of U.S. groups, toughest to easiest, since 1990 along with a quick rundown of how the U.S. and its foes eventually fared:
1. 1990 - Italy (host), Czechoslovakia, Austria
In its first World Cup since 1950, the U.S. froze up in the opening match and lost Eric Wynalda to first-half red card in a 5-1 hammering by Czechoslovakia, which eventually advanced to the quarterfinals and lost to eventual champion West Germany, 1-0. A more determined U.S. team lost narrowly to Italy, 1-0, in Rome, then succumbed in its final game, 2-1, against Austria. Italy infuriated its fans by losing to Argentina on penalties in the semifinals.
2. 2002 - Portugal, South Korea (co-host), Poland
The much-fancied Portuguese paid dearly for their pre-tournament party stay in Macao with a 3-2 defeat, and the Americans rode that momentum and some spectacular Brad Friedel goalkeeping to tie the host, 1-1. In the final group games, South Korea redeemed a 3-1 U.S. crash against Poland by beating and eliminating Portugal when a tie would have been enough for both to qualify at the expense of the USA. Then came a spectacular 2-0 defeat of Mexico and a bitter 1-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals; the ebullient South Koreans swept past Italy and Spain before falling to Germany in the semis.
3. 2006 - Czech Republic, Italy, Ghana (host: Germany)
In the "Group of Death" the USA played its best game against the best team, but despite that 1-1 tie in its second match, it had stumbled badly against the Czechs to open with a 3-0 loss, and couldn't handle the tough Ghanaians in the finale (losing 2-1). Italy plowed through to the final and prevailed on penalties against France; Ghana, which blasted the Czechs in its second game, did everything right but finish and play the offside trap in a 3-0 second-round loss to Brazil.
4. 1994 - Colombia, Switzerland, Romania (host: USA)
After tying the Swiss, 1-1, to open the tournament, the USA went up against favored Colombia, which had been picked by Pele to win the competition yet had lost its first match to Romania. Colombia stumbled again, losing 2-1 in the Rose Bowl. The USA, as it usually does, lost its final group game, but squeaked through as a third-place team into the round of 16, in which it lost to eventual champion Brazil, 1-0. Switzerland advanced and fell at the same stage as the USA; Romania upset Argentina before losing a penalty-kick shootout to surprising Sweden (third place) in the quarterfinals.
5. 1998 - Germany, Yugoslavia, Iran (host: France)
Three and out never felt so bad. Germany prevailing, 2-0, in the opener could have been forgiven, but in game two a politically charged crowd roared the Iranians to a 2-1 win that left the final match, a 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia, as a formality. Germany shocked the world by falling in the quarterfinals, 3-0, to upstart Croatia, and Yugoslavia's World Cup ended in the round of 16 with a 2-1 loss to the Netherlands.