At the World Cup draw held last Friday, the United States men’s national team drew the proverbial “group of death” as it was paired with Germany, Portugal and Ghana for group-stage play. The average of the four teams' FIFA rankings is 11.25, by far the highest of all eight groups at next summer’s World Cup, per Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated.
In the days since, reactions among USMNT fans have run the gamut from despair to bravado.
But despite the difficulties the USMNT will face, which include a travel schedule of 8,800 miles, a game to be played in the Amazon jungle and having to face traditional USMNT-killer Ghana, there are still multiple reasons U.S. fans can keep their hopes up for the Yanks to advance to the Round of 16.
Experience in Europe
In 2010, the U.S. roster had four of its starters getting regular playing time in the top four European leagues. Tim Howard started all 38 games in the net for Everton in the 2009-10 season, Clint Dempsey started 27 games for Fulham (he missed 11 weeks due to injury), Michael Bradley started 28 games in the midfield for Borussia Monchengladbach and Steve Cherundolo started 23 games for Hannover.
Several other Yanks had experience in Europe—Landon Donovan had a successful loan stint with Everton in early 2010, Jay Demerit gained one season of Premier League experience in the 2006-07 campaign, Carlos Bocanegra was a regular with Rennes in Ligue 1 and Jozy Altidore started 16 games for Hull City in 2009-10—but it simply doesn’t compare to the experience the squad will have in 2014.
Heading into the 2014 World Cup, Howard, despite being four years older, is still proving he can get it done at the highest levels of English football. Geoff Cameron is an automatic inclusion in the starting XI for Stoke City every week. Altidore is back in the English Premier League after scoring 31 goals for AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie only a year ago and looks to finally be gaining his footing. Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones and John Anthony Brooks are all regulars for their respective Bundesliga sides. And Michael Bradley has been a regular starter in Serie A for the past two seasons (admittedly, he has struggled for games this year while battling injury).
Certainly, there are a few worries, like whether or not Donovan and Dempsey’s legs will hold up. But overall, the squad is much more experienced than it was four years ago.
World Cup Experience
One other bonus heading into 2014 is that much of the likely World Cup squad has experience playing on the world stage and is unlikely to get performance anxiety.
Donovan, Dempsey, Howard and Beasley all have multiple World Cups under their belts, and if Steve Cherundolo makes it back to the squad, that will only increase the U.S.’ experience.
Even the USMNT’s “youngsters” like Bradley and Altidore played in South Africa and should be ready to go. Having six or seven likely starters who have World Cup experience should be more than enough to mentor the newbies.
Playing with a Chip on Its Shoulder
There’s no question that the U.S. has a very difficult road ahead of it, but when the pundits give the U.S. no chance is typically when the squad plays its best. Furthermore, it is an attitude that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann seems to have fostered.
Under Klinsmann’s reign, the U.S. has beaten Italy, Mexico and Bosnia on their home turf, Germany on U.S. soil and tied Russia away. Prior to Klinsmann, the U.S. has also tended to get up for the big games, especially in big tournaments as evidenced by World Cup wins over Colombia in 1994, Portugal and Mexico in 2002 and a 2009 Confederations Cup victory against Spain.
And even when the U.S. doesn’t win, it has had plenty of valiant efforts in those type of games, such as its 1-0 loss to Brazil in 1994, outclassing Germany in a 1-0 loss in 2002, the 1-1 draw with Italy in 2006 and the 1-1 draw with England in 2010.
Superior Opponents Allow the U.S. to Play to Its Strengths
One of the big reasons that the U.S. has typically played well against big-name opponents is because those types of games allow it to do what it does best—bunker-and-counter.
Sitting back against the superior attacks of Germany, Ghana and Portugal will force the United States' outside backs to stay home, which is a good thing considering the relative inexperience of the USMNT’s center-backs. It also forces the Yanks to maximize their chances on the counter and set pieces—a U.S. specialty.
The U.S. Is used to Crazy Travel and Difficult Venues
Much has been made of the distance the U.S. will have to travel during the World Cup in Brazil, but it’s not nearly as bad as it seems.
The distance from the U.S. base camp in Sao Paulo to Manaus, its game in the Amazon jungle, is 1,672 miles. That sounds intimidating and all, until one realizes that it is roughly the same distance from New York to Denver. The flight is only four hours long and the most time zones the U.S. will have to travel through during the World Cup is two.
Compared to the normal travel schedule of America’s European-based players coming back to the Western Hemisphere for World Cup qualifiers, that is easy.
Finally, while playing in Manaus is far from ideal, the U.S. is used to crazy venues, much more so than Portugal, the United States' opponent for that game. In CONCACAF qualifying, the U.S. plays in some of the most dangerous cities in the world, in stadiums that are falling apart, in front of fans who routinely throw objects and even bags of urine at them. Compared to that, Manaus is likely to be a cake walk for the battle-hardened Americans.
While the group of death will not be easy, there are still many reasons to think the U.S. can advance to the knockout rounds. Ghana, the United States' first opponent, is the "weakest" of its three group-stage foes. The U.S. should be fresh and well prepared for the African side. Second, as already mentioned, the travel and jungle conditions in the match against Portugal should help even out the odds. Finally, when the U.S. plays Germany in the final group-stage match, it is possible that Germany will already be through to the knockout rounds and may rest its best players. As the U.S. demonstrated this summer, it can beat Germany's "B" team.
If the Yanks can get three points against Ghana and then a draw against either Portugal or Germany, that should be enough to get them through to the Round of 16.
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