The anguish was palpable from sea to shining sea when FIFA’s World Cup draw was over on Friday, after U.S. fans and the rest of planet futbol learned the national team’s daunting fate next summer: A spot in what many believe is the 2014 tournament’s group of death alongside Ghana, Germany and Portugal.
The response from Jurgen Klinsmann said it all afterward.
“I wanted actually to have Brazil, rather, in the opening game,” the Americans’ German coach -- who said he had a hunch the U.S. would end up in a group with his former team -- told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap after the draw.
While Klinsmann could be forgiven for wanting to switch places with CONCACAF rival Mexico (here’s why he may have preferred the hosts), which ended up with the host nation plus Cameroon and Croatia, getting out of Group G isn’t impossible for the Americans.
Sure, they’ll need a little luck. But the truth is that this draw isn’t significantly more difficult than the ones they recieved in 2002 (Portugal, Poland and host South Korea) or '06 (Ghana, Czech Republic and eventual champion Italy).
And compared to some of the other heavyweights the U.S. could have come up against, the Yanks actually match up fairly well against all three group foes.
“The fact that it's tough does not mean that we can't advance through the group,” veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard told U.S. Soccer. “We'll have to play at our best, but I think we can."
They’ll certainly know what to expect.
The U.S. lost to Ghana at the last two tournaments, and they met both Germany and Portugal in 2002. While it’s true that they only won one of those, all four matches were decided by a goal.
Ghana boasts world-class players like Kevin-Prince Boateng (Schalke) and Sulley Muntari (Milan), but might be the most beatable of the Americans’ three opponents this time around. Opening against the Black Stars is a shiny silver lining for the Americans, who are no doubt aware of how much a victory would increase their odds of advancing.
“Starting a World Cup with three points is ideal,” Klinsmann said in an email to ESPNFC.com relayed by a team spokesman. “It not only helps in terms of confidence; having points early allows you a chance with the next game to secure a spot in the knockout stage. The first game is very, very crucial -- you definitely don’t want to lose.”
Part of the reason the U.S. was able to upset the Portuguese in Suwon, South Korea, almost 12 years ago was because they spent the six months preparing almost exclusively for that match. That’s not to say the hosts and Poland -- which beat the U.S. 3-1 in the first-round finale -- weren’t scouted heavily. But the coaching staff barely discussed tactics with the Americans in advance. If Rule 1 at the World Cup is to not lose your opener, Rule 2 is to never look past the next match.
After Ghana, the Americans’ next match is against Portugal. The Selecao the U.S. will face in the Amazonian city of Manaus isn’t as strong as the Figo-led version the Yanks memorably upset back in '02, but it’s undoubtedly more dangerous.
That’s because the current squad has Cristiano Ronaldo, this year’s Ballon d’Or front-runner and one of the few true game-breakers in the sport. For a team particularly susceptible on the flanks, the prospect of shutting down the Real Madrid star is terrifying.
“Ronaldo is the best player in the world right now,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “He has the ability to, in a way unlike any other player in the world, put his team on his shoulders and will them and carry them.” But if the U.S. can merely contain him, Ronaldo’s supporting cast is suspect.
Klinsmann’s team was always likely to get a superpower, of course. And while the coach, if taken at his word, would have preferred Brazil, Germany’s more direct, less-technical approach could be easier for the Yanks to deal with. Secretly, Klinsmann may relish the opportunity to beat former understudy (and close friend) Jogi Loew, who ended up taking much of the credit for Klinsmann-coached Germany’s run to the semis in 2006. So will players such as projected U.S. starters Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones, both of whom previously represented Germany at various levels before switching allegiance to Uncle Sam.
“As tough as Germany is,” Howard said, “we feel like we have an edge because we have Jurgen's experience and his inside knowledge of that team."
The Americans had better hope Howard is right. For if the U.S. is to advance, chances are it will need a result heading into that final match against the group’s top team. For a country with aspirations of joining soccer’s elite nations, that scenario would provide the ultimate test.
“That last game,” Bradley said, “is going to really show if we're ready to move on to the knockout stages."