There are 32 teams in the 2014 World Cup final. For now, the United States only has to worry about three of them. And worry they should.
For the next six months, it's all about escaping Group G.
Germany, Ghana, Portugal or death.
"I kind of had it in my stomach that we were going to get Germany," U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap during the World Cup draw televised coverage. "Obviously it's one of the most difficult groups in the whole draw…it couldn't get any more difficult or any bigger.
"But that's what the World Cup is about," he continued. "It's a real challenge and we'll take it. We'll take it on and hopefully we're going to surprise some people there."
Klinsmann refused to call any team, let alone the USMNT, an underdog. It's the World Cup, and every team qualified to be there. Still, some teams are certainly more suited for surviving the tournament than others, and tiny balls in giant bowls did the United States no favors this time around.
As well as the U.S. has played under Klinsmann, the team will have to play "out of their skin," as ESPN commentator Ian Darke put it, in order to advance.
There's no comfort to being the 14th team in the FIFA World Rankings when you're grouped with two teams in the top five—Germany is second and Portugal is fifth—and a third, No. 24 Ghana, that is a notoriously tough matchup for the United States.
If you don't recall recent World Cup history for the United States, Ghana knocked out the Americans in each of the last two World Cups: a 2-1 defeat in the Round of 16 in 2010 and a 2-1 defeat in the final group stage match in 2006 to prevent the United States from advancing.
Klinsmann talked about his team's ability to get ready for the first match against Ghana, telling Schaap, "after two losses, it's about time to beat them I guess."
Two World Cups, and two demoralizing losses to remember against Ghana. The World Cup before that? A controversial 1-0 loss in the 2002 quarterfinals to Germany after—silver lining—defeating Portugal in the group stage.
While the foes are certainly familiar for the 2014 Cup, the U.S. team is very different. This team is much more balanced with more depth and dynamism than the 2010 team. That team had enormous holes, some—like center back—that Ghana completely exposed in extra time of the knockout stage.
This year's team may not have any truly world-class players, but Klinsmann has put together a unit with a much more stronger foundation and, hopefully, a greater understanding of what they'll be facing in the first three matches.
It's taken quite a while to get back to where we thought the USMNT would be after 2002—one of the greatest tournaments in American history. The failure of 2006 hung over everything for years. But that's long gone now, even if there is pessimism about the country's chances in 2014.
In 2002, the United States advanced farther than anyone expected, and the loss in the quarterfinals to Germany was demoralizing because of the result, not the effort.
There was hope after the 2002 season, and much of that was stripped away after a dismal showing four years later. In many ways, 2010 also was a disappointment despite making the knockout stage and facing an African nation on African soil. We expected better of that team.
The Group of Death notwithstanding, we can expect better of this 2014 team as well. This isn't a time to worry about results, yet.
The Unites States has one goal for the next six months: Get out of Group G.
The two advancing teams of Group G will face those in Group H, which could mean a game against a Belgium side that is insanely talented but incredibly young and inexperienced at the World Cup. If the United States can advance to the knockout rounds, there is hope.
How far can the U.S. men go in the 2014 World Cup?
Again, before we get that far, it has to be about Ghana, Portugal and Germany—in that order.
That could help the United States, come to think of it.
As well as Ghana has played recently, the United States could match up well against the African side, giving the Americans an opening match they could (read: should) win.
The second match will be in Manaus, which is far away from everything else, tucked up in the murky Amazon rainforest. But Portugal will have to play there as well, and the conditions could serve to slow down Cristiano Ronaldo and his exciting, but often underwhelming, countrymen.
Optimistically, the United States might just match up well against Portugal. While it's assumed that Ronaldo will get his—unless Klinsmann locks two players on him, including Jermaine Jones, who can frustrate the best players on any continent—the rest of that team has wildly underachieved. They needed Ronaldo to carry them in the playoff over Sweden just to qualify. Contain Ronaldo, and there's a chance for a positive result.
Optimistically, the Americans could—could—be looking at four or six points in Group G before heading to a final match against Germany. And then anything can happen.
With all three matches, anything can happen. The United States is talented enough to beat anyone in the world on the right day. I firmly believe that. If a match was played 10 times, would the United States beat any of the other three teams in Group G more than five times? Probably not. Would they beat Germany or Portugal more than once? Unlikely.
But they only play once, and you never know what can happen at a World Cup. Heck, the draw just came out and I'm already on the third stage of grief, through denial and anger and onto bargaining. There are six more months for depression and, ultimately, acceptance.
That's for the fans, of course. The United States has to be looking at the draw with concern, but optimistic excitement. Getting out of the group would be an enormous accomplishment, but failure to advance won't be a death knell for Klinsmann, or what he has built so far.
Three and a half years ago, before the USMNT embarked on the journey to South Africa, goalkeeper Tim Howard told me, "We know that the standard that the U.S. has set that getting out of the group is the first hurdle. You can't just go there and perform and not get out of the group. There's a little bit more pressure. I think there's more excitement for us. The fact that the media hype has been so big and the fans have come out in waves—it's been awesome."
The media hype is only going to be bigger and the pressure more intense this time around, which should make the excitement for this World Cup as great as any. This could be the World Cup we write stories about for years.
For the U.S. to advance, it might have to be.