Fans of the U.S. national team might feel down after the last-minute draw with Portugal on Sunday, but they shouldn’t feel out. The Americans still have a pretty good chance of making it to the round of 16.
The United States is currently tied for the lead in Group G with Germany, who it will play next. Both teams have four points.
That means that if the United States wins or draws vs. Germany, the team will move forward into the knockout round.
If the Americans lose, things start to get dicey. But even then, however, Clint Dempsey and crew can still advance. Here’s what would need to happen in that event:
1. Ghana and Portugal draw. Germany would win Group G with seven points, the United States would finish second with four, and Portugal and Ghana would be eliminated with two points apiece.
2. Ghana or Portugal wins, but not by enough.
This is when it would things would get truly complicated.
First, let’s address the scenario if Ghana wins and the United States loses. Both teams would have four points, meaning who would move on would come down to goal differential. Right now, the United States has a plus-one goal differential, while Ghana is at minus-one. So Ghana must not only win, but by a greater margin than the United States loses make up at least two goals against the United States (for example, through a one-goal win over Portugal combined with a two-goal loss by the United States). If the U.S. loses by the same amount Ghana wins by, that would make their goal differentials are equal (for example, after a one-goal Ghana win combined with a one-goal U.S. loss), it would send matters to the second tiebreaker, total goals scored.
Still following? Great.
So, the U.S. has cumulatively scored four goals in this World Cup so far. Ghana has scored three. That means then if the U.S. lost to Germany in a high-scoring game (something like 4-3, for example) and Ghana beat Portugal in a low-scoring effort (say, 1-0), then Ghana and the U.S. would have the same goal differentials, but the Americans would move on by virtue of a total of seven goals to Ghana’s four.
But, let’s say Ghana scores just enough to tie the total number of goals. Then the question of which team moves on comes down to who scored the most in the match that already happened between Ghana and the United States. This one’s quite clear. The U.S. team would go through since it won their head-to-head match, 2-1.
Now for Portugal. It’s mathematically possible for it to knock out the United States, but it would have to overcome its minus-four goal differential to beat or tie the U.S.’s plus-one. To do that, the team would basically need to be made up of entirely fit Cristiano Ronaldo clones while the United States gets utterly trounced by Germany.
Phew. The end.
Well… not quite. There is one more even less likely scenario in which Portugal could got through instead of the United States: If Portugal ties the U.S. in terms of goal differential and goal total, the winner would then be decided by a random draw.
No, seriously. That’s because the U.S.-Portugal match ended in a draw and FIFA’s last stop in its determination hierarchy is literally a random draw organized by the FIFA Organizing Committee. If that seems silly to you, that’s because it is. It seems it’d be more fair — and exciting — to organize a shootout, but by this point, everyone’s probably so sick of doing simple math that fate seems like a more logical option than fair competition.