Photo: The U.S. Men’s National Team
The draw for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil completed this morning, and on first glance, it couldn’t have gone much worse for the United States Men’s National Team. The U.S. was drawn into Group G with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana, the first of which is among the favorites to win the entire tournament and the third of which has eliminated the United States from the previous two World Cups.
With all four teams ranked, according to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index, in the top 24 in the world (Germany is 4th, Portugal 16th, the U.S. 17th, and Ghana 24th), this isn’t quite the Group of Death, since the absurdly-drawn Group B, which features Spain (3), Chile (5), and the Netherlands (9) (along with No. 53 Australia), and Group D’s meshing of Uruguay (9), England (10), and Italy (13) are both tougher at the top. But it won’t be easy.
On top of that, because of its position in the draw, the U.S. has to travel to Manaus, a city in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, for the second game of the tournament against Portugal on June 22. American coach Jurgen Klinsmann this week said that Manaus was the one place he wanted to avoid, given that it is in a separate time zone from the rest of the tournament sites, boasts a muggy, tropical climate that could wear down players, and also requires longer travel than any other site.
What makes it even more painful is how close the United States was to falling into easier groups: as the draw unfolded, the U.S. was still eligible to land in Group E, headlined by Switzerland, the weakest of the seeded teams, or Group H, which features a tough Belgium team thought to be a sleeper to advance far into the tournament but, in Algeria, South Korea, and Russia, not much else in the way of better-than-the-Americans competition.
Instead, they landed in Group G with old foes Germany — for whom Klinsmann played his international soccer and the team that knocked the U.S. out of the 2002 World Cup, thanks to a handball that went uncalled in front of the net — and Ghana. If you’re in the business of drawing optimism from historical context with no present consequence, the U.S. dominated Portugal in the 2002 Cup when the Selecção were considered a pre-tournament favorite.
There are, however, reasons for at least a sliver of hope to fester among the American faithful over the next seven months. For one, the schedule sets up in the USMNT’s favor. They open with Ghana in Natal on June 16, and though the easy reaction to seeing the Black Stars on the schedule is fear, the Americans are better than this Ghana team and should be favored to take three points out of the match. There’s also the fact that Germany, which plays Portugal and then Ghana, should be comfortably through to the next round by the time they play the United States on June 26 in Recife. If the United States can indeed take three points off Ghana, it should enter its duel with Portugal in good shape, and while American fans have a mental block that cedes superiority to any traditional European power, the Portuguese and Americans are evenly matched in the world rankings — and on the pitch too. At least right now, Portugal offers the possibility of at least a single point, and another three from a win wouldn’t be wholly shocking.
There’s also the fact that this American team is stronger and more experienced than the 2010 team, which won its group thanks to Landon Donovan’s miraculous goal against Algeria and had a path for advancement deep into the tournament before Ghana derailed it. Donovan is still around, as are World Cup vets Michael Bradley and Tim Howard. Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore are better international players now, and the U.S. midfield and front line showed a measure of competence over the last year that was exciting to watch. This team is good, and after reeling a bit to start World Cup qualifying, it will enter Brazil coming off one of the best years in the history of American soccer. And then there’s the historical context: the Americans have always, for whatever reason, thrived as underdogs, as in 2002 when they emerged from a tough group and proceeded to the tournament’s quarterfinals, their best finish in the modern Cup era.
If anything, though, this group will add emphasis to the biggest problem this team faces: its questionable back line. Ghana will bring back quality striker Asamoah Gyan, who stunned the U.S. with an extra-time goal in 2010, and Portugal boasts a world player of the year candidate in Cristiano Ronaldo. And Germany is Germany, a technical giant that will shred a team that isn’t on its mark defensively. The U.S. defense struggled at times in Cup qualifying, though it improved toward the end and came up with shutouts in both matches against Mexico, its most talented opponent (though, in fairness, Mexico didn’t score much against anyone else either). Centerbacks Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez showed improvement over the course of the qualifying stages, though Gonzalez has to get better. It’s also hard to look confidently at DaMarcus Beasley, a former winger turned fullback who will be 32 years old when the World Cup opens, as the preferred left back option against talented strikers, and the right back position was a revolving door of question marks early in the year, though Geoff Cameron, Timmy Chandler, and Brad Evans could turn into a quality options there by the time the USMNT reaches Brazil. This American team should be able to score. How, and whether, Klinsmann figures out a way to keep Germany, Portugal, and Ghana off the board will determine whether the U.S. finds any success.
Should the U.S. advance to the knockout stage, it will play one of the top two teams in Group H, likely to be Belgium and Russia.
Ultimately, the U.S. shouldn’t be expected to advance out of this group. Germany is an overwhelming favorite to win it. Portugal is a slight favorite to finish second. But the Soccer Power Index still gives the U.S. a nearly two-in-five chance of making it through, and given this team’s ability to come together over the last year, there are plenty of reasons to believe the U.S. can make it happen even though the road will be anything but easy.