Is USA in World Cup’s Group of Death?
Everybody seems to think so. The draw happened in Bahia, Brazil this morning, and the Ping-Pong balls did not fall kindly for USA, as we drew Germany, Portugal, and Ghana in Group G. The American sports media has come to the consensus that this is the Group of Death, as witnessed by the headlines at Bleacher Report, ESPN, Fox Soccer, USA Today, and lots of other places. But not everyone thinks so around the world.
Since my temperament dictates that I always see how things could have turned out worse, I note that we could have been drawn into Australia’s spot in Group C and had to play Spain, Netherlands, and Chile. Or we could have gotten Costa Rica’s spot in Group D and had to face England, Italy, and Uruguay. This group of opponents is ever so slightly easier than those, though I can’t help but look longingly at Honduras’ spot in Group E (with Switzerland, Ecuador, and France) and think that we might have been playing those milquetoasty opponents. To add to USA’s woes, the team will have to travel about 9,000 miles to play those three games. Other teams have murderous travel schedules in this tournament as well, Brazil being such a big country. The tropical heat of a midday game in Manaus figures to wear players down, too.
Nate Silver’s Soccer Power Index puts our odds of advancing out of this group around 40%. That sounds about right. Going three-and-out at the 2014 World Cup is a distinct possibility, but remember that if we scrape through the group stage, anything can happen.
Keep in mind that USA was the team all the established soccer superpowers were hoping to avoid. Remember, too, that the nation of Ivory Coast made its first World Cup in 2006 and proceeded to get screwed by the draw both that year (Argentina, Netherlands, Serbia & Montenegro) and in 2010 (Brazil, Portugal, North Korea). The draw guarantees no country any favors, even when it seems to, like it did to the English four years ago.
My editors here don’t want me to blog 8 zillion words on the tournament like I did back in 2009, so I’ll limit my analysis to the three teams that USA will play. Here goes:
The Germans knocked us out of World Cup 2002 despite consensus among the German press that the Yanks had outplayed the mighty Germans that day. (German prevailed in that knockout match because of the heroics of goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. There’s some consolation in making one of the all-time great players play one of the greatest games of his career.) The talk in Germany is of USA Coach Jürgen Klinsmann facing off against his home country and his former protégé Joachim Löw. I’d add that several players in USA’s talent pool are partly German (Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams, Timothy Chandler) and have faced Germany’s stars in the league over there, so that experience might well come into play. The Germans will have midfield creativity to spare with Mesut Özil, Marco Reus, and Mario Götze, with Max Kruse and Julian Draxler available if something happens to the frontline guys. However, defensive midfielder Sami Khedira is rushing to come back from a knee ligament injury in time for the tournament. If he can’t go, what effect will that have on the team’s cohesiveness? In qualifying for this tournament, the Germans showed defensive fragility in a 4-4 draw to Sweden, in which the Germans scored the first four goals and then blew the whole lead in the game’s last 28 minutes. Also, we beat the Germans in a friendly this past summer. It was their second-string players, but still, that’s impressive. To amuse you, here’s a farcical own goal that the German defense scored on themselves for us that day.
The Black Stars put us out of the last two World Cups, so USA will want revenge. The book on Ghana remains the same as it was four years ago: excellent midfield and defense, shaky finishing and goalkeeping. Some of Ghana’s key midfield guys are getting old (Stephen Appiah, Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien), but they still have the likes of Kwadwo Asamoah, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Anthony Annan, and Emmanuel Agmeyang-Badu to hold down the middle and the Ayew brothers to tear down the sidelines. They are the opponents for USA’s opening match, so if we assume that USA won’t defeat Germany, winning this game will be crucial.
We played Portugal at World Cup 2002 and inflicted a surprising and humiliating defeat on a team billed as “The Golden Generation.” The Portuguese no longer have that type of talent, but they do have Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s capable of beating teams all by himself (see his hat trick in the playoff victory over Sweden). However, too often the rest of the team just stands around and waits for him to work his magic, which is why the Portuguese have taken care of business against inferior teams but struggled against world-class opposition. Interesting fact about Ronaldo: He fathered a son with an anonymous American woman, so don’t be surprised if USA shows up to World Cup 2034 with a terribly handsome winger who scores lots of goals and falls down in the penalty box at the slightest contact. Portugal’s defense is led by Bruno Alves and Pepe. They are very good and not afraid to play dirty, so start hating them now. The game against Portugal will be the one taking place in the Amazon, so finesse might be in short supply, which might very well benefit us.
One other note about the World Cup draw: As has come to be the case, the ceremony was presided over by a hot female celebrity from the host country. Four years ago I predicted Gisele Bundchen, but this year’s hottie turned out to be Fernanda Lima. I think I would have preferred Alessandra Ambrosio myself.