In many ways, the U.S. national soccer team’s draw for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil makes perfect sense.
Of course the Americans ended up paired with Ghana, which crushed their dreams in each of the past two competitions. Of course they’ll face Germany, the global titan that ousted them a dozen years ago and is the birthplace of U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann as well as several of his dual-nationality players.
And of course, a program still selling the sport to an increasingly engaged public will step into the spotlight with the brightest star in the game right now, Cristiano Ronaldo, from a Portugal team victimized by the Americans in their 2002 opener.
Perfectly logical but hardly perfect in terms of advancing beyond Group G — that’s G, as in goodness gracious. The Americans may need group therapy.
“Obviously it’s one of the most difficult groups in the whole draw,” Klinsmann said Friday. “It couldn’t get any more difficult or any bigger, but that’s what a World Cup is about.”
While there was almost no avoiding a treacherous group, there was also hope for a little better outcome. As the splashy presentation unfolded at a resort in Brazil’s Bahia state and balls were pulled from four pots, the Americans remained in the running for a spot in the group with the weakest seeded team, Switzerland.
Contrary to Klinsmann’s assertion, it could have been worse. Consider Australia, which has almost no chance of finishing among the top two in Group B with 2010 finalists Spain and Netherlands plus Chile.
Klinsmann’s crew will also face the prospect of long journeys in a country almost as large as the United States. From its southern base in Sao Paulo, the Americans will have to charter to Natal, a coastal city in the northeast, to play Ghana on June 16; Manaus, situated in the Amazon region in the northwest, for Portugal on June 22; and Recife, near Natal, for the June 26 group finale against Germany.
The USSF estimates the team will travel some 8,800 miles over 11 days. Only Italy, which received the same venue assignments, will collect comparable frequent flyer miles.
“We hit the worst of the worst,” Klinsmann said of the first-round itinerary.
Travel aside, the Americans will confront three difficult 90-minute tasks against teams with strength, skill and experience.
“Sexy group,” U.S. forward Aron Johannsson posted on his Twitter page.
With talent placed all over European leagues, Ghana has risen to the top of Africa, a potent but underachieving soccer continent. Three-time champion Germany has reached the semifinals in each of the past three tournaments and draws a wealth of players from 2013 UEFA Champions League finalists Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
The United States defeated Germany, 4-3, in May at Washington’s RFK Stadium, but because of club conflicts, the German federation sent a watered-down roster.
Klinsmann, one of Germany’s most accomplished players and a World Cup champion in 1990, coached his native land on home soil in 2006. His assistant and primary tactician, Joachim Low, has guided the squad ever since.
In fifth-ranked Portugal, the Americans will plan for Ronaldo, Real Madrid’s suave, stylish superstar. He lifted Portugal into the World Cup with a hat trick of enormous quality in the deciding leg of a playoff with Sweden last month.
The key for the Americans is winning the opener against Ghana. A loss would destroy their outlook. Even a draw would leave them in a tight spot against the group heavyweights.
In 2010, when the sides met in the round of 16, Ghana’s speed bedeviled the U.S. backline, leading to a 2-1 overtime victory.
Injecting perspective, second-choice goalkeeper Brad Guzan said: “All games are tough at the World Cup. Chance is there to progress.”
Since his appointment in the summer of 2011, Klinsmann has tried to build his team to not only continue conquering CONCACAF, the region encompassing North and Central America and the Caribbean, but to compete with the planet’s best. He has enjoyed increasing success, winning friendlies in Europe, capturing the CONCACAF Gold Cup and finishing atop the World Cup qualifying group.
After initial discomfort, players have bought into his pressure-and-possession tactics. While Klinsmann will lean on veterans Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Landon Donovan, he has introduced emerging players such as MLS-based Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez. He has also integrated German Americans from the Bundesliga (notably Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson).
Klinsmann is confident his squad is well-positioned to shake up the group.
“The program is on another level now.”
Notes: Klinsmann will conduct his first 2014 training camp next month in Southern California and Brazil, culminating with a friendly against South Korea in Carson, Calif. With most European-based regulars unavailable, Klinsmann will tap mostly MLS and Scandinavian players.
The first opportunity to gather all top-choice players is for a March 5 friendly, probably in Europe, against an opponent to be determined.
Klinsmann won’t name the 23-man Cup roster until May.