The U.S. drew a daunting task for next year’s World Cup: difficult opponents, tropical venues and a wearying 9,000-mile zigzag journey across Brazil.
The Americans wound up with the potentially punishing group they feared and will play Ghana, Portugal and Germany next June as they try to achieve a U.S. first: reaching the knockout phase twice in a row.
While Ghana eliminated the Americans in 2006 and 2010, the Black Stars won’t do it again. The U.S. opens its seventh straight World Cup appearance against Ghana on June 16 at Natal.
The U.S. meets Portugal and 2008 FIFA Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo six days later in the Amazon rain forest city Manaus. The Americans have just three off days to recover before closing Group G on June 26 in Recife against three-time champion Germany.
“I think we have the quality, if we play our best ball, to get out of the group,” U.S. captain Clint Dempsey said after Friday’s draw set the eight four-nation groups. “You can’t think about, ‘Am I the favorite? Am I the underdog? What’s it going to be like playing in the heat? What’s it going to be like with the travel?’ Those are factors that come into it, but at the end of the day both teams have to deal with it.”
After having the shortest group-play travel in South Africa, the U.S. will have the longest in Brazil. The Americans will be based in Sao Paulo and face trips of 1,436 miles to Natal, 1,832 miles to Manaus and 1,321 miles to Recife. They will play all three games in the tropics, with the second and third matches in the afternoon.
“I think guys who have played in MLS are used to taking 3,000-mile trips across the country to play,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan said.
The U.S. group has the best average FIFA world ranking. Odds on the Americans winning their first World Cup more than doubled after the draw, from 60-1 to 150-1.
“It’s definitely one of the tougher groups, if not the toughest, but at the same time, this is what the World Cup’s all about. You go there to play against the best,” American forward Jozy Altidore said during a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “I think the boys will be excited, will be up for it.”
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who replaced Bob Bradley 2½ years ago, played for Germany’s 1990 World Cup championship team and coached his native country to third place at home in the 2006 tournament, commuting to Europe from his California house in Orange County.
“It couldn’t get any more difficult or any bigger,” he said at the draw in Costa do Sauipe, Brazil. “It’s a real challenge. And we’ll take it. We’ll take it on, and hopefully we’re going to surprise some people there.”
The U.S. and South Korea were the last remaining teams in draw pot three. While the Americans landed in a group with an average FIFA ranking of 11.25, South Korea wound up in Group H, creating a group with the poorest average at 28.25.
“I think the team’s mentality is that we can go and play with anybody,” American defender Matt Besler said. “Now we’re going to have to prove it.”
Germany beat the U.S. 2-0 in its 1998 World Cup opener in Paris — with Klinsmann setting up the first goal and scoring the second — then edged the Americans 1-0 on a controversial goal in the 2002 quarterfinal in South Korea.
Die Mannschaft is coached by Klinsmann’s former assistant, Joachim Loew. The Americans beat a second-tier German roster 4-3 in a June exhibition at Washington.
“With Jurgen Klinsmann, they have another mentality,” Loew said. “I learned a lot from Jurgen, so this is special.”
Ranked 14th in the world, the U.S. has alternated quick exits with advancement since returning to soccer’s showcase in 1990 after a 40-year absence.
After the draw four years ago, one British paper used a headline “EASY” for England, Algeria, Slovenia and the Yanks, and The Sun called it the “best English group since the Beatles.” The Americans wound up atop a group for the first time since the first World Cup in 1930, and England advanced as the second-place nation.
This time, second-ranked Germany and fifth-ranked Portugal are the favorites to reach the second round. If the U.S. qualifies for the round of 16, it would face Belgium, Russia, Algeria or South Korea from Group H.
As for the rest of the field, Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico were put in Group A; Australia, Chile, Netherlands and Spain in Group B; Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan in Group C; Costa Rica, England, Italy and Uruguay in Group D; Ecuador, France, Honduras and Switzerland in Group E; and Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria in Group F.
The U.S. will feel pressure to open with a win against 24th-ranked Ghana. The Black Stars defeated the Americans 2-1 in the 2006 group stage and by the same score in overtime in the round of 16 at the last World Cup in South Africa.
“They’re the team that beat us, kind of crushed our dreams of being in the World Cup, so I think we’re due a little bit of luck and we’re due a win against them,” Dempsey said.
At the 2002 tournament, the U.S. opened with a 3-2 upset of Portugal after taking a shocking three-goal lead in the first 36 minutes. Several of the American players are of German descent, so all three matchups are intriguing.
The U.S. will train at home from mid-May until early June and plans a series of exhibition games, which likely will include England as an opponent, before heading to Brazil.
“Everybody is saying that this is the ‘Group of Death’ and it’s such a hard challenge,” former American captain John Harkes said. “I still think that the U.S. can rise to the occasion.”