Neil W. Blackmon
The United States Men’s National Team was drawn into Group G of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil yesterday afternoon, alongside perennial world power Germany, perennial US nemesis Ghana and Portugal, the highest-ranked team in the FIFA rankings that didn’t earn a seed, and a side that boast likely FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo.
It’s a draw that many American fans and writers alike feared heading into what is widely considered the most talented World Cup field in at least a decade: no matter how many times you did a World Cup draw simulator, there were always a handful of draws that dealt a “death” blow- that screamed “short trip to Brazil” and set a backdrop for six months of angst. Sure, there was a chance the Americans would escape doom– but their placement in POT 3 (where they were the best team), exponentially increased the risk that they would draw two European powers– which they did– and made it at least possible they would draw a very talented side from soccer-rich Africa– they drew the best one.
An hour or two after the draw, Jurgen Klinsmann confided in SI’s Grant Wahl: “Well, it couldn’t have gone any more difficult.”
No, it couldn’t, coach.
This is a tournament, it turns out, that, for the first time since 2002, will feature two “Groups of Death”, and arguably, one “Group of Agonizing Bloodsport.”
And, with all due respect to the other Group of Death: Group B (see above) and the Group of Agonizing Bloodsport– Group D– the Americans group is without question the most difficult. It has the highest average FIFA ranking (at just around 11- Ghana are the lowest ranked side, at # 24). It features two countries who won their group at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa: Germany and the United States. It features four teams that reached the round of 16 in South Africa, two that reached the quarterfinals (Ghana, Germany) and one that reached the semifinals (Germany.) Throw in three of the world’s hottest players (the aforementioned Ronaldo, Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil and Bayern Munich midfield conductor Toni Kroos), and a partridge in a pear tree, and you get the idea.
If you were saving a bottle of Woodford Reserve cask whiskey for a rainy day, now might be the time…
And that’s before you realize the Americans also drew the toughest travel schedule of any country in the tournament. The Americans have chosen Sao Paulo as their home base for the World Cup next summer. Sao Paulo is in the more temperate southeast of Brazil. The American matches, you ask? They are all in the hot, humid and sticky north, with the first coming June 16 in Natal, a coastal tourist haven home to about 1 million people in the northeast of Brazil, about 1,775 miles from Sao Paulo (about the equivalent of traveling from Miami, Florida to Las Cruces, New Mexico.) The Americans will then return to their hotel in Sao Paulo and travel, a few days later, to the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, Manaus, where Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo will await June 22. It will be oppressively hot and sticky and an environment and stadia similar to what the US face on the road in CONCACAF, which could help, I suppose, except that to get there the US will have to travel through the jungle a distance of 2,400 miles (about the distance of a trip from Miami to Salt Lake City). Finally, the Americans will travel to Recife, another coastal tourist city in the Brazilian northeast, 2,800 miles from Manaus in the Amazonian interior, or, about the distance from Miami to Los Angeles. All in all, that adds up to around 9,000 miles of travel in and around Brazil in a two week period, all while preparing for three of the world’s finest international sides. And this doesn’t even begin to address the issue from a fan’s perspective– the US was expected to have some of the best traveling support in Brazil- Americans have bought a great deal of tickets– but the costs of this sort of travel will likely limit where that support is greatest– meaning the US could have the least crowd support in the rainforest, in a match they almost certainly will need a result in to have any chance of advancing to the second round. While it’s true the other countries have to make the trips too- the US
could have used needed some sort of break, didn’t they?
Better make that whiskey a double. But before you pour more than one…
This group is, as Jozy Altidore put it yesterday, a “group of opportunity.” The US have the quality to advance. Had the US drawn this group in any previous World Cup– your writer would readily acknowledge that is not likely the case– but the Americans are certainly capable this time around. The Yanks are coming off the finest year in the history of the federation- one that saw them hold the longest winning streak in the world at one point before losing at World Cup qualifier Costa Rica this autumn. They won the Gold Cup and became continental champions for the first time in six years with relative ease. They held Mexico at the Azteca, earning points there for the first time in a World Cup qualifier. They defeated Germany– albeit a watered-down version of Germany- in Washington this summer. They beat a legitimate World Cup sleeper side, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Sarajevo in August. They competed with Belgium before losing 4-2 in Cleveland. The results of 2013 are a reflection of the best World Cup cycle in federation history, one that also saw the Americans win for the first time in Mexico City, defeat Italy in Genoa, draw Russia on the road, and play aggressively and close against France in Paris. Klinsmann has scheduled difficult friendlies and pushed his players precisely because this type of draw was always a possibility, and the Americans are deeper, more confident, and more capable because of it. Klinsmann believes it too, telling Grant Wahl that (he was) “confident we can challenge all three teams and get our points to go into the second round.”
And it’s here where it’s worth mentioning what isn’t being said stateside: the United States are in the “Group of Death”, yes, but that absolutely has something to do with the fact that the United States were the best team in their pot, and the United States are good. Any group that involves them, is, by its nature, more “Death like.”
A closer look at the three sides the Americans will face reflects that possibility. The Ghana match is full of biography and demons, yes– the Black Stars have eliminated the US from the last two World Cups and just this summer sent the US U-20 team home from a youth tournament– but the Black Stars aren’t an invincible force.
Ghana have been the most consistent African country in the world for the past five or six years, and their dominant 6-1 defeat of Egypt and Bob Bradley to nearly seal qualification has been well-documented. The Black Stars defend with an organization you don’t see at very many levels of football, and are, as history has shown, one of the only countries who can match (and probably exceed) the Americans in terms of speed and physicality. But they are prone to fits of inconsistency, falling to non-qualifiers Burkina Faso and Zambia in the past two African continental championships and they, perhaps more so than the United States, suffer from a dangerous lack of depth. They are without question reliant on bulldog Michael Essien in the midfield, where he is flanked by longtime mates Sulley Muntari and Kwadwoh Asamoah. Both Essien and Muntari have been in and out of the team due to injury, or, in Muntari’s case, injury and disinterest, and without their midfield triumvirate they can struggle to score. Kevin Prince-Boateng, whose opening goal should haunt every American fan reading, came out of international retirement for the World Cup qualifying playoff against Egypt, but didn’t play, so there are questions as to what his level of contribution will be as well.
Beyond Asamoah Gyan (Curse His Bill Buckerner-like name!!), the Ghanians aren’t particularly frightening at forward, and the backline, while compact and organized and familiar with each other, isn’t a “who’s who” of central defenders like you’ll sometimes see at a World Cup, or like you’ll see with another African side, say, the Ivory Coast.
In other words, Ghana are beatable, and the Americans were far more competitive against the Black Stars in 2010 (when they didn’t have as good a team and Ghana weren’t as old) than they were in 2006. Indeed, Clint Dempsey and company dictated that match for large portions of the second half, and were it not for a communication error between Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit (see in video linked here, but don’t watch it if you’re three or four scotches deep, or at least sign a liability waiver so we don’t get sued)- the Americans would have been favorites to defeat Ghana in penalties.
There’s also the Wyatt Earp factor: not only are the Americans due– they aren’t even seeking revenge. They’ll be seeking a reckoning. And they’ll have six months to prepare to deliver one.
Portugal, on paper, represent the most winnable game for the Americans. The Portuguese are ranked fifth in the FIFA standings, that’s true– but they did need a playoff to qualify out of Europe and they did need Cristiano Ronaldo to score five hundred twenty-seven goals to survive the playoff. (Okay, it was less than that, but it didn’t feel that way.)
The Portuguese are a fascinating case. Defensively, they are the aforementioned “who’s who” of defenders- Bruno Alves and Pepe, his age notwithstanding, are one of the finer pairs in the field, and that’s before you get to slick passing, pacy fullback Fabio Coentrao. Joao Mountinho and Raul Meireles are capable passers of the ball and ought to give the Portuguese midfield more thrust, but for whatever reason, that isn’t always the case. Manchester United’s Nani is as enigmatic a player as there is in the field as well, and while he ought to compliment Ronaldo enough to make Portugal constantly threatening, he has only fourteen international goals in 72 appearances– hardly the type of numbers you’d expect from a dynamic playmaker on the flank. Throw in the fact that Portugal’s best striker is probably Heider Postiga, who by kick next summer will be 33 years old, and you begin to see how this is a side that struggled with the likes of Northern Ireland and Israel in their qualifying run.
In the end, Portugal plays Pascal’s wager: either Cristiano Ronaldo is God or he isn’t and Portugal is less likely to exist. And that’s a prospect that is both terrifying for the United States and exciting. After all, there isn’t much anyone can do about Ronaldo when he plays God, but Portugal are quite beatable when he fails at that endeavor. In the heat and muck of Manaus, the Americans will find out. But there are worse things to bet on.
Finally, Germany awaits on June 26 in Recife. One could, I suppose, point out that the Americans defeated Germany in DC, but that was a “B team” and how much you take from that win is entirely up to you. The good news? The Americans should be prepared. Klinsmann, who is still widely admired in Germany, knows the personnel better than anyone outside of Jogi Low, Germany’s sartorially eloquent manager, and he should be able to put the US in a tactical position to succeed.
The Germans position in the group should also matter a great deal heading into that match: should the Germans beat both Portugal and Ghana, they will likely win the group with just a draw against the Americans, and could be tempted to rest some of their stars.
The problem, of course, is that there are so many stars– Ozil and Kroos we’ve mentioned but the Germans also feature Max Kruse and Tomas Muller, two attacking players who can beat you in different ways, as well as mainstays like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Phillip Lahm and the group’s best goalkeeper (GULP, THE US DON’T EVEN HAVE THE BEST GOALKEEPER!!!) Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich. The Germans are the most complete, dynamic side in the field from Europe (including holder Spain and 2010 finalist Holland), and even if the Americans play their finest game- expecting a point in this match is a bit naive.
Then again, history suggests the Americans play their best against the best at the World Cup. In 2010, they drew group favorite England. Ditto 2006, where they battled Italy down a man and drew the side that ultimately lifted the trophy. In 2002, prohibitive tournament favorite Portugal was beaten by a young, brash Landon Donovan and a steady, calculated veteran corps led by Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride. 1998 was a fiasco but the Americans stood tall in 1994 against eventual champion Brazil in the round of 16 and defeated, with great fanfare and sad history, pre-tournament darling Colombia. In 1990, Italy struggled but finally held off a group of largely college kids from the United States on their home soil. Lesson? The Americans have a history of rising to the occasion.
I’m here to deliver hope. Maybe I have. Or maybe your right–
(RADIO CACKLES… DECEMBER 6th, 2013 (MORE CACKLES)… A DAY THAT WILL LIVE IN INFAMY…)
—maybe this is just too big an ask.
The players don’t seem to view it that way. They’ve said the right things, about what a huge opportunity this is. About how you can’t be your best if you don’t play against the best. The Americans will be underdogs, to be sure. But is that necessarily a bad thing?
“[Being] underdogs in that group, that’s not a bad place to be,” said U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman. “But I think anything is possible. There’s going to be surprises in this tournament that the outside doesn’t see. I think we’ll be prepared to go in there and really believe that we can get out of the group.”
And what’s different about the underdog role anyway? The US have been underdogs in nearly every World Cup they’ve entered, and now, playing in their seventh consecutive tournament, that hasn’t changed. Perhaps the real “opportunity” here is the opportunity to “profile-build”- to win a game or advance in this group and change the global perception of US Soccer as “plucky underdog” in the future.
Certainly, this group will give the Americans a chance to do that. And the reality is, there’s no sense in moping around. I tweeted yesterday that this was “The Group of Shawshank”, and I meant it.
There’s a splendid scene (BELOW) in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne and Red are talking about what they’d do on the outside of the prison walls, and Red is recalcitrant to continue the discussion because of “the reality is they’re in here and the world is out there.” Andy refuses to accept that. “Get Busy Livin’, or Get Busy Dying,” he says.
And that’s what this US group is, in the end. It’s the tunnel of shit that Andy Dufresne had to swim through to find his freedom. And he came out clean on the other end.
Why can’t the US?
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.