LOS ANGELES — "What time is it?"
Alexi Lalas, U.S. National Soccer Hall of Famer, asks me the question Friday morning, as there are no windows inside the Fox Sports studio in Los Angeles. Plus, it's pitch-black outside. Lalas woke up at 3 a.m. to facilitate a 12-mile soccer carpool with fellow analyst and L.A. Galaxy legend Landon Donovan plus commentator Rob Stone. The trio arrived before 4.
I tell Lalas it's now 6:30. It's 30 minutes before the 2018 World Cup Final Draw, which will be broadcast live around dinnertime in Moscow, Russia, the host of the Cup. All 32 qualifying teams are about to be funneled into groups to learn their first-round matchups.
"World Cups are where perceptions are changed, both of individual players and teams," Lalas tells B/R. "Because of the platform and the power of that platform, it almost defines who you are as a person, who you are as a team, who you are as a country."
And the draw itself?
"It can decide a lot," Lalas says "It can really form opinion. It can, to a certain extent, make or break you in terms of who you're coming up against."
It's an odd thing to watch the draw live in a country that failed to qualify for the Cup for the first time since 1986. It's more clinical than emotional, like watching a party on TV without being invited. The 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago on the final day of qualifying still stings. Making it to the World Cup is something the U.S. has taken for granted at times, Lalas says.
"It's disingenuous to say that it doesn't matter or it doesn't hurt," says Lalas, looking toward the opposite end of the studio, which features a mini soccer field. U.S. soccer fans can only imagine that he and Donovan could exchange their loafers for cleats and somehow change what happened:
Still, Lalas says, "the World Cup is certainly bigger than any one team. It's bigger than 'my team.'
There will be plenty of stars. There will be plenty of stories, there will be plenty of things to talk about, but it'll be a little different."
The draw doesn't disappoint. Assistants whirl their hands inside a bowl, plucking out mini soccer balls that reveal nation names to be scattered into groups A through H.
Reigning World Cup champ Germany will face Mexico in Group F, considered one of the toughest in the tournament. Germany, a four-time champion, is stacked, led by midfielder Toni Kroos,who has won the UEFA Champions League with both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Mexico, a team on the rise, will rely on Javier Hernandez, Mexico's all-time leading goal scorer.
The stars will be out front as Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal face Spain in Group B's opener, while Lionel Messi and Argentina take on a surging Iceland squad in Group D. Iceland midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson had four goals and four assists in the team's World Cup qualifying campaign.
As usual, Brazil is a favorite, and with a disappointing 2014 finish in their collective memory, Neymar and Co. will be chasing revenge. His squad will take on Switzerland first in Group E. France, a force making its sixth straight world finals appearance, will look to quickly move past Australia in Group C.
UEFA has the most participants with 14 (Russia, France, Portugal, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Iceland, Switzerland, Croatia, Sweden, Denmark), but Africa (Tunisia, Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal, Egypt) could make some noise, too.
"The African teams are always interesting because there's such a rich history and undeniable talent," Lalas says. "And the fact that an African team has never won a World Cup, but has entertained us and almost teased us for so long, if and when an African team gets together and really challenges, I think that's going to be really interesting."
The opening matches will be held at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on June 14, with the final held at the same stadium July 15.
Adding a bit of a twist for this Cup is FIFA's decision to use a different method of seeding this year. World rankings from October were used to seed all four pots from the draw, a departure from previously seeding only the top eight nations while the other pots were grouped by confederation. The aim was to create more balance.
"It makes it fairer to the teams that have 'deserved' to be regarded as one of the top teams in the world," Stone tells B/R. "I think it makes it more challenging on the underdogs. I'm an underdog guy, and if it does anything, it strengthens the underdog story if someone can break through and get to the knockout stage.
"The beauty of this tournament is there's always so much unexpected," Stone says. "The tournament always has a way of pulling you along for the ride. Whether your nation is there or not, it takes you in and you are a captive soccer fan for a month and change."
Mirin Fader is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW, SI.com, SLAM Magazine and SB Nation. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.