KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The draw was almost as brutal as any U.S. national team fan could have imagined. Three tough opponents. Three teams with history against the Americans. Three teams that could each send the USA home with a loss.
Germany, Portugal and Ghana. A trio of opponents that, together with the USA, make up the 2014 World Cup’s unquestioned Group of Death. It feels like an impossible task on the surface, and the initial reaction to it was understandable shock, but once you take a step back and consider the full picture of Friday’s World Cup draw, the U.S. national team’s task is not impossible.
Extremely difficult? Yes, but not impossible.
It might feel like the Americans don’t have much of a chance because we really haven’t seen the full-strength U.S. team in recent months, and the versions that have taken the field lately have underwhelmed.
What should give U.S. fans some confidence is remembering how strong a close to full-strength U.S. team looked earlier in the year. When the Americans are at full-strength, and top players are in form, they can compete against top competition.
That isn’t to say the draw isn’t brutally difficult. The World Cup draw gods certainly had a sense of humor in pitting the Americans against these particular three teams. In Germany, the U.S. faces a team with many ties to the current U.S. squad. U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann squares off against his former team, while several U.S. players will be taking on their country of birth.
Luckily for the Americans, that emotional and extremely difficult Germany match doesn’t come until the third match day, which might mean facing a short-handed German team if Jogi Low’s squad can win its first two matches and secure passage to the second round.
Before the U.S. can even think about that it has to navigate two tough matches, including an opener against Ghana that is essentially a must-win match. The Black Stars have beaten the Americans in each of the past two World Cups, but it should be noted both those matches were close affairs, including the 2010 overtime Ghana win. The current U.S. team is a stronger and deeper squad than the ones that took the field against Ghana in Germany and South Africa.
Ghana isn’t exactly a pushover though, as we saw in its World Cup playoff thrashing of Egypt. The Black Stars brutalized Bob Bradley’s Pharaohs and flexed their attacking muscles, reminding American fans just how dangerous they can be.
Ghana will be tough, but can be beaten, and securing three points in that opening match in Natal is vital to the U.S. team’s chances, but it is only one step in a tedious path to the second round.
The match against Portugal in Manaus will be a dangerous one as the Americans look to contend with Cristiano Ronaldo, who is playing the best soccer in the world at the moment. Fortunately for the U.S., Portugal as a team has not been playing the most impressive soccer in the past year so that match shouldn’t be seen as an automatic loss for the U.S.
What Portugal will do is severely test the U.S. team’s weakness, which is the fullback position. If Ronaldo and Nani are marauding on the wings, Klinsmann could find himself regretting not having found better fullback alternatives, and you have to wonder if the strengths of Group G, dangerous flank play, won’t force the German coach to start looking at other options. Something he has already started to do by giving Geoff Cameron a start at right back in November and calling in Eric Lichaj.
Beating Portugal won’t be easy, but securing at least a point in the second match could leave the U.S. with four points heading into a group finale against an already-qualified Germany.
That best-case scenario is feasible, though difficult to pull off. It will be up to Klinsmann to pull the right strings, and key American stars like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore to play very well. The U.S. will need young players like Aron Johannsson to step up and its defense to settle on a reliable and consistent foursome.
It will take several things to go right for the Americans to extend their stay in Brazil beyond the group stage, and if the U.S. don’t bring their best, Group G could provide a quick and painful exit.
However, if the Americans play to their potential, the Group of Death that has so many U.S. fans feeling awful on Friday could wind up being the group that confirms this team as the strongest in U.S. national team history.
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