The World Cup draw is a 20-minute blur, with consequences. It can make heroes, and it can destroy dreams. And however you try to couch it, there’s no way around the conclusion that, whereas the Americans got an exceedingly favorable draw for the 2010 World Cup, they were handed a wretched one for the 2014 edition in Brazil next summer.
The United States men’s national team couldn’t have done much worse than Ghana, Portugal and Germany. The former knocked the Americans out both in the round of 16 in 2010 — on an extra-time goal — and in the final group game of 2006, when the USA could have advanced with a win. Germany, meanwhile, brought to a screeching halt America’s run into the quarterfinals in 2002 — the modern high-water mark. Oh, and then there’s only mighty Portugal, serial reachers of semifinals, as they did at the 2006 World Cup and the 2000, 2004 and 2012 European Championship.
You almost have to chuckle at the USA’s rotten luck. For them to have drawn their two most recent World Cup executors as well as one of the world’s most gifted sides, spearheaded by perhaps the world’s greatest player in Cristiano Ronaldo, is nothing short of incredible. That’s to say nothing of having drawn the shortest straw on the travel front, too. The Americans will travel some 9,000 miles from their Sao Paulo base to Natal; dreaded Manaus at the gateway to the Amazon; and Recife, with their three games all coming within 11 days.
Then there’s disgust at the karmic injustice of it all. There is loathing at the notion that archrivals Mexico, with just two wins from their ten games and half the points won by the USA in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, has not only stumbled into the tournament through the back door — a playoff with New Zealand by the grace of two late American goals against Panama that saved El Tri’s hide, no less — but now skips off with a much better-looking draw. If Mexico can summon the form its players are fully capable of producing, rather than that of its qualifying campaign, joining Brazil in the round of 16 at the expense of Cameroon and Croatia should be a cinch. Honduras, with seven fewer qualifying points than the United States, fell into the weakest group with Switzerland, Ecuador and France.
But most of all, there’s the consternation brought on by the effect that overproduced minute when the word “USA” was blithely drawn from a little ball by a half-interested former player at some luxury resort could have on the growth trajectory American soccer will trace. In a fine flash, the good work of not just the last two years, but even of the last two decades, could be undone. USA’s peppy head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a former World Cup winner as a West-Germany player, was brought on to wrest the United States to the top shelf of world soccer.
Stumble in the group stage, however, and all that momentum, all that confidence mined from friendly wins in Mexico and Italy and Bosnia and at over Germany at home, from a Gold Cup recaptured and two record-setting years, drains away. A tipping point of sorts seems to have been reached.
If the Americans somehow survive this deathly group, they will have reached the knockout stages in four of the last six World Cups, confirming that they belong. If they go home after three games, stripped of glory and dignity, they will have done so in three of the last five editions, underscoring an incontestable mediocrity.
Such is the cruelty of the draw in general and of this draw in particular. The merits of those conclusions will be meek — but they will be the conclusions nonetheless. Prestige is a matter of perception, not fact.
But even as it faces down seven daunting months of apprehension over the tallness of the task until their June 16 opener with Ghana, it isn’t in this team’s zeitgeist to bow down, now or ever. “We’re not underdogs,” Klinsmann declared defiantly. “I’m not worried at all. I’ll just take it the way it is. … We’ll build up confidence and believe that we can get good results to get into the next round. … We’re excited about this, big time. That’s where you want to be in a World Cup. It’s a difficult draw but we’ll find a way to go through it.”
“The fact that it’s tough does not mean that we can’t advance through the group,” said captain Clint Dempsey. “I think we can.”
“The hard part is getting to the World Cup, and that’s something that we have done already,” added forward Eddie Johnson. “Once you qualify for the World Cup I think it’s anyone’s opportunity to lift the trophy and be considered the best country in the world.”
Instilling a kind of self-delusion where it isn’t already present will be paramount. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s how you get ahead on the world stage. For when the Yanks gets to Brazil this summer, they will find themselves at a pivotal juncture in their existence, either continuing their climb, or tumbling back down, getting buried beneath the rubble of their towering ambitions.