United States World Cup Draw: Embrace the 'Group of Death'

By Mike Cardillo

We knew the U.S. National Team would get a tough draw for the 2014 World Cup weeks ago. Turns out the U.S. got a brutal draw. Most would call it … (cue the dramatic music) the Group of Death!

You know what? Big deal.

The balls are pulled. The groups are set. There is no going backward. Instead of whining about it or fretting how the U.S. landed in Group G with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, why not take the other approach and embrace it? It’s the World Cup. It’s not supposed to be easy.

Given the history with Ghana and Germany along with the virtuosity of Cristiano Ronaldo, yes, it would be very hard to envision a tougher group although England or the Netherlands might say differently. Would it have been better if the U.S. got an “easier” group? As we’ve seen, whenever there’s a burden of expectation for the U.S. to win a game outside the warm bosom of CONCACAF they tend to crumble. Every World Cup is different, but four years ago was about as “easy” a group as the U.S. could draw with England, Algeria and Slovenia and it took Landon Donovan’s last-minute miracle goal to advance. Four years earlier everyone was gung-ho for the World Cup in Germany based on the success in 2002, only for Bruce Arena’s team to lay a massive egg.

A lot will be made in the next six months about the U.S. performing better as an underdog and that’s mostly true. Or more specifically the team will go in with zero expectations. The only way to go is up. It’s usually a simple equation: expect a lot from the U.S., prepare to be let down; expect nothing, prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

And ask yourself this, wouldn’t you rather see what the U.S. can do with Germany, Portugal along with a chance to exorcise the history against Ghana? This is going to be fun. Even with all the Group of Death rhetoric, ESPN’s Nate Silver gives the U.S. a 39 percent chance to advance. That’s doesn’t sound too terrible, does it?

It doesn’t hurt either that the U.S. avoided a South American team on South American soil. Playing two Euro powers isn’t what you want, but playing them in Brazil makes it much more tolerable.

Realistically the biggest issue facing the U.S. will be the travel aspect, as the draw created the most mileage — close to 9,000 miles — along with a trip to the jungle rainforest in Manaus. Let’s figure in the next six months the trip to Manaus will be made out to be even more dangerous than a trip to Mordor. (And with many of the U.S. players veterans of playing during the summer MLS season in places like Dallas, they should be able to cope with the heat and humanity.)

There are six months to worry about this and a lot can happen in terms of injury and form. Let’s take a brief look at the three U.S. opponents.

Admittedly, this is a more optimistic viewpoint, but all the doom-and-gloom that the draw generated on Twitter is a little much. Make no mistake, it’s going to be quite hard to advance to the knockout rounds no matter which group the U.S. landed in .

Game 1: Ghana, Monday June 16, Arena das Dunas, Natal, 6 p.m.

Facts: Ghana eliminated the U.S. in 2006 and 2010. This will be mentioned about 4,000 times between now and June. If we stripped away the history of the Black Stars vs. the USMNT, would this game be as imposing?

The good news? Ghana can’t eliminate the U.S. this time around. Even better? The U.S. gets its most winnable game on paper first.

Ghana is blessed with plenty of speed, which could trouble a still unsteady U.S. defense. It’s midfield is strong with Juventus’ Kwadwo Asamoah maybe the key man, as Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari age. Kevin-Prince Boateng, Jermaine Jones’ teammates at Schalke, remains as unpredictable as ever. Even so, there will be goals to be had against the Ghana defense. (Hard to say Ghana beating Bob Bradley-coach Egypt in the Africian qualification playoffs has any bearing come June, though it will be talked about.)

Although Ghana came within a Luis Suarez handball of the semifinals in 2010, if the U.S. can’t hang with the Black Stars at this stage in the development of soccer in America and pull off a result why even bother playing? If the team fails for a third straight time vs. Ghana at the World Cup, throw in the towel, back up the truck and start over.

Lastly, Ricardo Clark probably won’t play in this game, so if the U.S. loses it’ll need a new scapegoat.

Game 2: Portugal, Sunday June 22, Arena Amazônia, Manaus, 3 p.m.

For me, Portugal is the hardest game by far here. Since Portugal drew Germany in its first game, it could enter the match with the U.S. desperate for three points. The result of Germany/Portugal is going to set the tone for the rest of the group and changes how everything will unfold.

Oh right, and that Cristiano Ronaldo dude. If he comes to play the U.S. aren’t going to be able to contain him without using a soccer version of Hack-A-Shaq, and unlike Shaq with free throws, Ronaldo is deadly on free kicks. Omar Gonzalez, sax or no sax, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley and whomever plays right back aren’t going to hang with Ronaldo if gets to run onto a ball in space. Best hope Tim Howard is at his absolute best that day in the steamy, hot Amazon jungle.

Everyone tends to gloss over the rest of the Portugal team due to how great Ronaldo is, but they’re not slouches. The team is catered around the brilliance of Ronaldo, true, but there are tough tacklers and ball winners across the field.

If the U.S. is going to be on the backfoot, penned in, with minimal chances to score — this is the game.

The last time the U.S. played Portugal at a World Cup, back in 2002, it produced one of the greatest results in the team’s history, so there’s that to cling onto.

Game 3: Germany, Thursday June 26, Arena Pernambuco, Recife, noon

Two things that will be written about extensively in the build up to this game: Jurgen Klinsmann coaching against the team he won a World Cup for in 1990 and the 2002 quarterfinal between the two team that produced a Michael Ballack winner and a Torsten Frings’ hand ball that wasn’t called. Let’s save that for another day. There will be time.

Germany is ranked No. 2 in the world. The bulk of its team comes from May’s Champions League finalists: Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Players like Marco Reus, Mesut Özil, Philip Lahm and keeper Manuel Neuer et al are pure class.

Still in 12 games in 2013, Germany has only produced five clean sheets — the U.S. put four past them in May, but that was a German B/C team. A decent record, but the defense remains susceptible. Real Madrid defensive midfielder Sami Khedira tore up his knee and might not play. Dortmund defender Mats Hummels has gone from underrated to overrated in the span of a few months. On top of that, for all the goals Germany scores, it doesn’t have a great out-and-out striker and might rely — AGAIN — on Miroslav Klose, although mock him at your own peril since he’s scored 14 goals in the World Cup but will be 36 come June.

Germany might already have enough points to qualify, meaning the U.S. game isn’t a do-or-die. Even if it is, in the last four major tournaments Germany has lost to Italy in the World Cup semifinals on homesoil, lost to Spain in the Euro 2008 final, lost to Spain in the 2010 World Cup semifinals and against to Italy at the Euro last summer in the semifinals. There just seems to be an air of over-confidence from the German team, like they’ve bought into all their press clippings … with only coach Jogi Löw’s extensive collection of designer scarves, rather than a trophy to show for it.

Maybe Bayern’s win in the Champions League, where Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lahm shook the “loser” tag changes things. Obviously the group stage vs. the U.S. isn’t the same as Spain or Italy in a semifinal, but Germany’s status as an unbeatable machine might be a little much.

If — it’s a big if — the U.S. gets through the Group G they’d pair off with either Belgium, Russia, South Korea or Algeria. Those are all winnable games.

If you think the sky is falling for the U.S. on this Friday in December, go right ahead. The alternative is to embrace the challenge. Here’s guessing that’s what Klinsmann and the team will chose to do.