The US continued its inexorable (and some might say inexplicable) climb up the FIFA world rankings with another jump this month to a new height, from tied for sixth place (with Mexico) to sole possession of fifth. Ahead of us are several undisputed world powers: Brazil (of course), the Czechs, Holland, and Argentina. According to FIFA, we're better than Spain, England, Italy, Portugal, and a bunch of other teams we actually are better than (like Mexico).
The FIFA rankings are a source of both pride and ire. The pride part derives from a monthly measure of something that can only be gained from much rarer head-to-head competition or tournament results: a sense of where your national team stands in relation to the world. Plus, the FIFA rankings are issued by the world's major soccer organization (hence some sense of authority), and they provide an enumerated ranking so you know exactly what they think of each team relative to others (unlike a tournament in which teams that go out at the same stage are regarded as roughly equal).
But anyone who knows much about how these rankings are derived and has a shred of sense about soccer understands that they're bunk, and thus that any pride people take in them is misplaced. The rankings are afflicted with a host of problems that I won't enumerate here, though most egregious among them is that they stretch back to an arbitrary point in years past, including all results after that benchmark and none before, and weighting all such results equally (so that last week's win over Croatia is perfectly though nonsensically offset by a loss to Croatia in 2003).
That's not to say that the rankings are irrelevant. This is a common misunderstanding. They're strongly related to whether you get a seed in your World Cup group. But now that we missed that boat (barely) the only thing the rankings are good for is increasing expectations; and I feel that this is a detriment since the US do better as a stealthy underdog. At the very least, though, the rankings illustrate what a tough draw Group E was for the US--it contains three of the world's top 12 teams.