Ghana knocked the USA out in the round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup and in the group stage in 2006. Germany bounced the Americans from the 2002 World Cup in the quarterfinals. Portugal, meanwhile, is one of the world’s strongest and deepest teams.
Ahead of Friday’s 2014 World Cup draw in Brazil, the United States men’s national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was characteristically bullish and brazen. He was quite happy to be grouped with any of the other 31 entrants making up an uncommonly strong field, he declared, as the team’s fans fretted about a so-called group of death.
An unfavorable draw, made all the more likely by the Americans’ seeding in the paltry Pot 3 — along with the other North and Central American teams and the Asian delegations — could spell doom from the outset, a full seven months before the tournament’s June 12 kickoff in Sao Paulo. In each of the eight groups of four teams, only two could advance to the knockout stage after a round-robin was played, after all. Two strong opponents, then, would make the task for an improving but a still internationally average USA team a dauntingly tall one to climb.
But the Americans didn’t get just two strong opponents, they got three, as one worst-case name was pulled from the blindly drawn balls after another, in Friday’s glitzy and frightfully overproduced draw show in a Brazilian beach-side resort. “In the past year, I feel like the team’s mentality is one that we can go and play with anybody," said USA defender Matt Besler. "Now we’re going to have to prove it.”
Statistically, the chances were more than 500-to-1 that the Americans would get an ideal group of Switzerland, Algeria and Greece. They were roughly the same to draw the worst possible scenario. Yet the Americans very nearly did, getting arguably the strongest teams out Pot 2 — Ghana — and Pot 4 — Portugal — along with one of the favorites for the tournament in Germany from Pot 1.
Worse still, the Americans got the most challenging travel schedule on offer, having to make their way clear across the country from their Sao Paulo base for each of their games in Natal (to play Ghana first), Manaus (to play Portugal second) and Recife (to play Germany last). In all, they will rack up nearly 9,000 miles in the 11-day group stage.
“We hit the worst of the worst,” Klinsmann told ESPN following the draw. “Obviously, it’s a tough one.” USA striker Clint Dempsey also agreed.
“Being able to play in the heat, it’s sometimes good and sometimes bad," said Dempsey. "It’s difficult for both teams to deal with. You just have to manage the game a little bit more. Obviously, the team that has more possession, it’s going to suit them better. The team that is trying to chase the ball will get burned out and get tired."
If there is any silver lining to the gloomily dark clouds assembling over the USA, it’s that should it somehow escape this doomsday Group G, it will cross over with the relatively soft Group H, which includes Belgium, Algeria, South Korea and Russia. As ever, the group winner plays the runner-up of the other group. The other good news, in the cascade of ominous tidings, is that the USA beat Germany 4-3 in a June friendly in Washington, D.C.. They were much the better team that day; they were also facing a glorified B-team.
The memories of their last World Cup encounters with their group-mates, however, don’t inspire much confidence. A long, well-taken volley by Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan goal in the third minute of extra time eliminated in the round of 16 the USA in South Africa. Four years earlier in Germany, the Yanks needed a win in their final group stage game over Ghana. But then, too, the Americans fell 2-1 and the Black Stars advanced to the knockout stages in their stead.
In 2002, the Americans made their deepest run of the modern era — having placed fourth in 1930, the first ever World Cup — reaching the quarterfinals. But they came up against Germany. A Michael Ballack goal sent the US home as Die Mannschaft pushed on to the final. Earlier in that tournament, the United States did defeat Portugal 3-2.
The United States will face Germany, Portugal and Ghana next summer (Image: FOX Soccer).
Yet that didn’t keep the usually chipper Klinsmann from looking rather deflated in a television interview following the draw. “I kind of had in my stomach that we were going to get Germany,” Klinsmann said after the draw. “Obviously it’s one of the most difficult groups in the whole draw. Having Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo and then Ghana which has a history with the United States, it couldn’t get any more difficult or any bigger. But that is what a World Cup is about.”
Klinsmann, as ever, ultimately saw the misfortune that had befallen him and his charges as an opportunity. “It’s a real challenge,” he said. “And we’ll take it on and hopefully we’re going to surprise some people there.”
“We don’t look at ourselves as any kind of outsiders,” Klinsmann added.
Perhaps, but the rest of the world now certainly does, an opinion underpinned by the hard facts. The American odds at the World Cup have just gotten a whole lot worse.