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USA embraces challenge of formidable World Cup draw

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USA embraces challenge of formidable World Cup draw
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USA embraces challenge of formidable World Cup draw

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Omar Gonzalez didn't need to watch. He knew what was coming. It just seemed inevitable.

Once Germany and Ghana — the countries that have eliminated the U.S. national team from the past three World Cups — were drawn into Group G for the 2014 tournament in Brazil, the American center back saw the rest unfold just as he predicted.

The ball was plucked, and the nation unveiled. The USA was joining Germany and Ghana in a group that later added Portugal for good measure.

"Once those two got paired together, I figured this is probably going to be us," Gonzalez said. "Fate is going to align and everything is going to happen."

Gonzalez watched the draw Friday at Sporting Park, the site of Saturday's MLS Cup between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, along with U.S. teammates Clint Dempsey, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Brad Evans.

When the USA's name was drawn, the supporters on hand let out a groan. As many a draw simulator predicted, the Americans landed in a "Group of Death."

Germany has advanced to at least the semifinals of every World Cup and European Championship since 2006. Ghana is the second highest-ranked African team. And Portugal boasts arguably the world's greatest player in Cristiano Ronaldo.

"It's really tough, but I guess the main thing is I'm excited," Beckerman said. "It's the World Cup and you're going to play tough teams, and we've got a group that's got a couple of them. ... Any player would want to play against these teams and test themselves against them in the greatest stage there is."

The fates of Ghana and the Americans have been frequently intertwined in recent years. Needing a win to advance, the USA dropped a 2-1 result in the group stage finale of the 2006 World Cup. Four years later, it was the Black Stars who knocked out the Americans with a 2-1 extra-time triumph in the round of 16.

"They're the team that beat us and kind of crushed our dreams of trying to go further in the World Cup," said Dempsey, the U.S. captain. "I think we're due a little bit of luck and I think we're due a win against them."

The Germans, meanwhile, pose a more conventional threat. The three-time World Cup champions are ranked No. 2 in the world, with a stacked roster featuring the likes of Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller.

While none of those players was on the experimental German side that suffered a loss in June to the Americans in Washington, D.C., the USA — coached by German legend Jurgen Klinsmann and including a slew of German-American players — will still draw on that match.

"We can gain confidence from it," Besler said. "It's going to be a different game, a different team. But I think a lot of the friendlies we've played over the last 12 months have been difficult opponents, and the reason we played those games was to build our confidence and experience for the World Cup."

That the USA did, putting fellow World Cup contestants Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in addition to Germany, on its 2013 friendly schedule, and Italy, Brazil and Russia on the 2012 calendar. Against those formidable opponents, the USA went 3-2-1.

Although Portugal needed a playoff triumph over Sweden last month to qualify, the presence on the left side of Ronaldo — who scored four goals across both legs of the playoff — poses a considerable threat to a U.S. team that has the fairly inexperienced Brad Evans playing out of position at right back.

"You jump into a position and you want to face the best," Evans said. "Obviously he's the best. Certainly, if I happen to be there it will be a great challenge, a great opportunity. Stick to your guns and do the best that you can."

The rest of the U.S. squad seems to be taking a similar approach. After finishing ahead of England, Slovenia and Algeria to win its soft group in 2010, the Americans know they have a much trickier task advancing to the round of the 16 this time around.

"It's tough to get out of your group regardless," Zusi said. "If it was easy, then the hype wouldn't be there."

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