STANFORD, Calif. – Being dealt into the mythical "Group of Death" is a World Cup fate no team wants to experience. General expectations for the United States dipped as soon as its draw was announced last December.
With world No. 2 Germany, Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal and World Cup nemesis Ghana to contend with, the Americans are widely considered to be no better than an outside chance to progress from Group G and match their round-of-16 finish four years ago. However, despite the predictions of oddsmakers and critics, U.S. captain Clint Dempsey is refusing to lower his own expectations for the squad.
Heading into what would be his third and likely last World Cup, Dempsey stands by the assertion he made once the team qualified for the tournament by beating Mexico in September – he continues to insist he'd be satisfied with nothing less than a deep run.
"The expectation doesn't change," he said. "Playing in a World Cup you are trying to compete against the best teams in the world. That is what it's all about. That is what is so special about it – that every team has had to work hard to qualify and they deserve to be there.
"Nothing in life is worth having if you don't have to work for it. Our group is difficult and we have our work cut out for us, but that is what it's all about. We will face the challenge head on and put in the work that is necessary and make it count."
Dempsey heads into Brazil on a fine run of form with the Seattle Sounders, having found his feet in Major League Soccer after a difficult transition period toward the end of last season. He has scored eight goals in nine games to rank second in MLS.
While his move from the English Premier League back to North America was a surprise, considering how he was just two years removed from being one of the Premiership's most productive players, he now feels primed and ready to lead the U.S. in Brazil. That leadership role has much to do with Dempsey's personal attributes of drive and desire, a mindset that has served him well his entire career.
It's a philosophy he hopes to convey to some of the younger players on Jurgen Klinsmann's squad.
"Approach it like it is your last," Dempsey said when asked what advice he is trying to impart. "You don't get many chances to play in a World Cup and you don't know when that opportunity will come again so make the most of it. Make sure you are doing everything you can to make the most of this moment so you can look back on it and tell your grandkids about it.
"This is what is so exciting about playing in a World Cup. It is like nothing else."
Group G will surely provide the sternest of challenges. The U.S. will need to be at its absolute peak to have a shot of going through to the knockout stage.
Germany is universally perceived as a genuine threat to win it all in Brazil, having grown in strength and cohesion since losing in the semifinals four years ago. For Portugal, much revolves around Ronaldo and the Real Madrid superstar is in the form of his life, having firmly established himself as the best player in the world over the past year. Ghana, which knocked out the U.S. in 2006 and 2010, comfortably cruised through African qualifying, as its depth in talent made it that continent's dominant force.
Dempsey admitted the size of the task ahead has ensured total focus during the World Cup training camp currently taking place at Stanford University in the Bay Area. The preliminary 30-man roster will be scaled down to a final number of 23 players by FIFA's June 2 deadline.
"You have to stay hungry," he said. "You want to make it count. You don't want to go down there and not be successful. We want to go down there and shake things up. We want to advance from our group and that is what we are focused on."