Things aren't looking good for the U.S. men's national team heading into the 2014 World Cup.
They're in one of the tournament's most difficult groups, with Germany (the second-ranked team in the world), Portugal (Cristiano Ronaldo's team), and Ghana (the team has knocked the U.S. out of two straight World Cups).
To make matters worse, the U.S. travels to Brazil with question marks along the back line (who's the left back?), in the midfield (will Jermaine Jones stay disciplined in front of the back four?), and up front (can Jozy Altidore score for the first time in 2014?).
Getting out of the group is a monumental task that no one seems to be betting on.
But optimism is one of the defining characteristics of the American personality. So if there is an argument to be made that the U.S. will make it out of the so-called Group of Death, we're going to make it with gusto.
Here it is.
1. Step One: The U.S. beats Ghana, because Ghana isn't actually that good.
Ghana eliminated the U.S. in its final group stage game in 2006, and then knocked the Americans out in extra time of a round 16 game in 2010.
The 2010 loss, where Asamoah Gyan scored the game-winning goal in the 93rd minute, was particularly painful:
While the history here is intimidating, the current Ghana team is not, or at least not as intimidating as past incarnations.
Ghana comes into Brazil with just as many question marks as the U.S.
The team is 38th in FIFA's rankings — the lowest they've been since October 2009. If you don't like FIFA's rankings (we don't), Nate Silver's SPI metric has Ghana at No. 27 sandwiched between Greece and Nigeria.
Some of the team's best players are coming off up-and-down club seasons. Michael Essien started only a handful of games at AC Milan. Asamoah Gyan (the guy who scored the goal above) left the Premier League to play in the United Arab Emirates. Kevin-Prince Boateng hasn't scored a goal for Schalke since Feb. 1.
There are only six defenders on the entire 23-man Ghana roster, and everyone seems to think the back line could be a problem against high-level international competition.
Ghana will still present problems to the U.S. going forward, but there's reason to be optimistic that the Americans can get three points of out this opening game on June 16.
2. Step Two: The U.S. ties Portugal, because Cristiano Ronaldo is (maybe) hurt and they're playing in the middle of a jungle.
Portugal says Cristiano Ronaldo is hurt. He has a thigh injury and knee tendinitis, according to the team. We're still willing to bet he's going to be good to go on June 22. But if he's slowed or out entirely, everything changes for the U.S.
The U.S. has a hole at left back and a tendency to get out of their defensive shape, making Ronaldo the absolute worst player they could possibly come up against. If he's not there, the U.S.'s chances of grabbing a point go up ... because he can do anything like this:
The U.S. has another thing going for them in this game — the conditions.
This game will be played in Manaus, a jungle outpost in the middle of the Amazon that every team in the World Cup wanted to avoid. It's oppressively hot and humid, and the trip there is a long slog. There were also reports a few months ago that the unpredictable conditions were making it difficult to grow an even playing surface.
All of this is good for the U.S.
American players, specifically MLS players, are used to traveling distances that European players find absurd. The chief complaint from European players who come to MLS is always that the coast-to-coast travel demands are brutal.
Since the MLS season runs through the summer (Europe's offseason), a lot of these American players have experience playing in the extreme heat of places like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Houston. Even places like Philly, Chicago, and New York can get as hot as Manaus in the meat of the MLS season.
The U.S. spent World Cup qualifying playing on the hilly pitches of the Caribbean and the hostile, hot atmospheres of Central America. They're used to bad conditions. If there's a team that's going to be affected by the demands of Manaus, it's Portugal.
3. Step Three: The U.S. doesn't get destroyed by Germany, because Germany isn't peaking right now.
The shakiest step yet!
If the U.S. beats Ghana and ties Portugal, and Germany wins its first two games against those teams, the U.S. can still lose to Germany and get out of the group on goal difference.
The only caveat is that the U.S. can't get blown out by Germany.
The good news for the U.S. is that Germany doesn't look like the juggernaut that they did a few months ago.
Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinstiger missed the team's last game due to injury. Defender Marcel Schmeltzer, a presumed starter, didn't make the final 23-man roster. The only true striker on the team is Miroslav Klose, who's 36. It looks like they'll play a strikerless, false-9 formation in Brazil — something they haven't tested in major competition.
They're still one of the favorites to win the whole thing, but there are now at least a few questions around the team. Right? Right.
Getting out of the group the realistic best-case scenario for the U.S. in Brazil. And it's not as far-fetched as you'd think.
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