US World Cup draw: The worst of all possible worlds (almost)
The USA landed a true Group of Death on Friday, drawing Germany, Portugal and Ghana. What are their odds of advancing?
Hey, remember the 2010 World Cup draw? When the United States drew arguably the weakest of the eight seeded teams in England, the hands-down weakest African team in Algeria, and a Slovenia team that ranked among the weakest European teams, too?
The gods of the World Cup draw repaid the US for that good fortune in brutal fashion Friday, handing the Americans 1. a Germany team that ranks among the three heaviest favorites to take the trophy 2. the same rock-solid Ghana team that eliminated the US from the past two World Cups, and 3. a Portugal squad that boasts arguably the world's best player and as much raw talent as any side not named Brazil or Spain.
And hey, if you needed another reason for pessimism on top of that, the US drew the toughest travel schedule possible, an itinerary that will criss-cross Brazil to the tune of 8,866 miles. But aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
It's true that even this isn't truly the worst-case scenario for the U.S.; the Americans could have landed in Group C, where advancing to the Round of 16 would have required of finishing ahead of Spain or the Netherlands. But this is the absolute next-worst-case scenario, and given the US's history with the Ghanaians, would the Americans have preferred seeing Chile (or anyone other than maybe the Ivory Coast) in Ghana's slot? Yep. Group G is a true Group of Death, and the U.S. will likely have to play better soccer than it has ever played to escape it.
But there are some reasons for optimism:
• The US had made a habit of overperforming vs. the world's heavyweights in the group stage, drawing England in '10, drawing Italy in '06, beating Portugal in '02 (and later scaring the pants off of Germany), going all the way to beating favored Colombia in '94. That Klinsmann knows the German side inside and out and that the U.S. beat the Germans in a friendly earlier this year (albeit against an understrength German side) means the U.S. won't lack for confidence in that game.
• Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo, but they also have a nagging tendency to perform poorly under pressure at times, as witnessed by the 1-1 and 3-3 draws with Israel during their qualification that dropped them into this year's make-or-break UEFA playoffs ... and of course, their famous pratfall against the US in 2002, for whatever it's still worth.
• Ghana is a team of battle-hardened professionals from across Europe's top leagues and it's no real surprise they've advanced out of the group stage at either of the last two World Cups. But they're still, on paper, the sort of team without the consistent success or bevy of world-class talent the US should feel some level of confidence in defeating. The U.S. ranks higher in both the FIFA world rankings and ESPN's Soccer Power Index. If the U.S. had drawn the exact same team wearing jerseys that said "Burkina Faso," there wouldn't be nearly so much consternation.
If nothing else, the draw was also a positive from a storyline perspective, what with Klinsmann facing his home country, the U.S. getting its shot at revenge vs. Ghana, and, well, any match featuring the likes of Ronaldo is likely to please the neutrals. Say this, too: if the US gets out of this group, it will be a headline-splashing triumph unlike any US soccer has enjoyed before.
But since the day Klinsmann was hired, the goal has been for him to get the U.S. a notch further than they went in 2010 and into the quarterfinals. There's absolutely no way to argue that goal didn't become dramatically, dramatically tougher Friday.
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