USA’s World Cup Draw Not as Bad as It Seems

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With the World Cup finals fast approaching the United States finds itself in Group G—what most pundits are considering this year’s Group of Death—facing first round matches against Ghana, Portugal, and Germany. When the groups were drawn back in December there was a good deal of handwringing from commentators and fans about the USA’s bad luck. I spent a good twenty minutes on the phone myself talking my dad off the conspiracy ledge once the groups were settled.

Maybe it sounds like whistling past the graveyard, but the USMNT’s World Cup draw is, upon consideration, not as bad as it might initially seem. Let’s talk this through.

The USA opens against Ghana, the side that has busted them out of the last two World Cup tournaments. As both a measuring-stick and a demon-exorcising match, this really couldn’t be a better setup.

To be frank, a USA team worth talking about absolutely needs to beat a team like Ghana. The USA currently sits at 13 14 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking Table, and you’ll need to scroll down a ways to find Ghana at number 38. And while I’m aware that the USA benefits from some consistent positive bias on this metric, the fact remains that this match slots favorably on the USA schedule. Beat Ghana (which they should do, and are due for) and the next two matches suddenly seem less daunting. Even a loss would not be the automatic death knell of previous tournament (which would be admittedly small consolation).

Next up for the USA is Portugal, which is rightly regarded as a worrisome matchup. It’s easy to envision Cristiano Ronaldo lighting up a questionable defense in a marquee performance. But it’s also just as likely to imagine a forgettable session from the superstar as well: while the theory that Ronaldo disappears in big games has largely been debunked, World Cup dominance still awaits.

Beyond lineups, the key factor here will be match location. This game will be played at Arena Amazonia, at the end of a six-hour flight into jungle heat and humidity. Which team will be better prepared for these conditions? It’s tempting to imagine a strong Portuguese team nevertheless out of equilibrium, coming off a brutal first match against Germany and suddenly troubled by playing conditions markedly different from the aridity of the Iberian peninsula and the temperate climes of Europe. Meanwhile, players on the USMNT—many of whom see action throughout the summer months in the MLS—are more used to training and playing in conditions that might legitimately be described as hot and humid, if not sweltering.

Granted, weather conditions are a difficult element to factor into a future game-time equation. The needle, however, has to move a bit in the Americans direction given the locale. It’s not hard to imagine these two teams slogging toward a goalless draw. A surprise American upset, echoing 2002, is certainly in play.

Finally, the USA faces off against Germany. There’s no gilding this matchup, with the USA as clear underdogs against a tournament favorite and one of the world’s best teams.

And yet.

Surely Jurgen Klinsmann, of all people, understands the German system intimately and is planning tactically and strategically to build on this advantage. Will Klinsmann surprise the Germans with an unorthodox change of pace, perhaps through overloading attacking midfielders? I expect a physical match ultimately decided by a set piece or two—not a risky prediction by any means, but one that gives the USA opportunities. The Americans, robbed of a clear handball penalty kick against Germany in a 2002 WC quarterfinals match in which they were the better team, are due for the kind of signature victory that Klinsmann has long been touting. You simply can’t be considered a serious football nation without beating good teams when it counts.

I understand that this argument is a shade optimistic. And I admit to hoping for a cushier group for the USA during the draw last year. But consider this: in the 2010 World Cup finals, the USMNT landed in what was widely considered a fortunate group, placed with England, Slovenia, and Algeria. But even with a surprising opening tie against the English, the USA barely escaped this group. After fighting back from a 2-0 deficit to draw against Slovenia, the USMNT could not manage a goal against lowly Algeria until Landon Donovan’s miracle stoppage time strike vaulted them to the top of the table. That USA team was three minutes away from a second straight World Cup three-and-out, in a relatively easy group… so perhaps we should be careful about what we wish for.

The bottom line: it’s simply time for the USMNT to perform against top-flight opposition. Advance against the teams in Group G, and the USA will gain noteworthy credibility, much more than they would gain by squeaking through versus lesser teams in an easier group. I’d rather get an accurate reading of the state of USA football, whatever it might reveal, than a series of lucky breaks.

Consider Group G an appropriate barometer of the USA’s international soccer respectability. Are we still second or third tier, or are we ready to really compete with the top dozen football nations in the world?

Either way, we’ll know in June.

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