Any way you slice it, the United States have a huge task on their hands at this year's World Cup. The group draw was brutal. The travel schedule is the most taxing any country will face. And, just to make things a bit more interesting, the USMNT will be a fairly inexperienced group, at least in World Cup terms.
Temper your expectations, folks.
We'll get into the individual matchups in a moment, but let's talk about just how taxing the team's schedule is. The Associated Press, via LehighValleyLive.com, wrote about the team's schedule in December:
Making their seventh straight appearance at soccer's showcase, the Americans were drawn into Group G and will open on June 16 in Natal against Ghana, which eliminated the Americans from the last two World Cups.
With the longest travel schedule of any World Cup team at almost 9,000 miles, the U.S. meets Portugal and Cristian Ronaldo on June 22 in the Amazon rain forest city Manaus.
The Americans close group play on June 26 in Recife against Germany, which beat the U.S. in the 2002 quarterfinal.
With the United States making their base camp in Sao Paulo, the squad will have quite the hick between each game. Sam Borden of The New York Times wrote in more depth about the travel conditions after the draw was announced:
Making matters worse, the game against Portugal will take place in the humid climate of Manaus, a port city in the Amazon rain forest that seemed to be the host site that every coach wanted to avoid. Only the top two teams in each of the eight groups will advance to the knockout rounds.
'We hit the worst of the worst,' United States Manager Jurgen Klinsmann said of his team’s schedule. He added: '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, and we’ll take it on. Hopefully we can surprise some people.'
For all of those reasons, the opening match against Ghana is an absolute must-win for the United States. Not only is Ghana the weakest opponent they'll face in Group G, but being the first game, it's unlikely the USMNT will be all that bothered by the travel schedule at that point.
But Ghana is no easy foe. They've beaten the United States in the past two World Cups, and boast a talented roster that includes Kevin-Prince Boateng, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah and Asamoah Gyan, among others.
Ghana's midfield in particular is excellent, with a strong blend of athleticism, creative playmakers and swarming tacklers that will cause chaos for players like Michael Bradley. Quick, incisive passing and maintaining width will be important for the States.
The second game against Portugal comes down to one key aspect—containing Cristiano Ronaldo. Good luck with that, Timmy Chandler. The electrifying left winger is arguably the best player in the world and has little if any weaknesses on the pitch.
The rest of the Portuguese roster isn't exactly chopped liver. They'll play strong defense and look to physically boss the midfield. And with Ronaldo and potentially Nani on the wings, they are also devastating on the counter-attack, so the United State must be very measured going forward.
The best case scenario? The United States earns four points from their first two games, likely beating Ghana and drawing with Portugal in that scenario. That will give them a fighting chance to advance.
Because it is really, really hard to imagine them taking points against Germany. Look long enough and you might spot a weakness on the Germans, but chances are you're reaching to do so. So talented are the Germans, one or two of the group of Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Toni Kroos—some of the top attacking midfielders in the world, period—will spend time in this tournament riding the pine.
If the United States doesn't go into the German game with four points in the group, they aren't advancing to the knockout phase, it's really that simple. Their only hope will be that the Germans win their first two games and have a spot assured in the next round, but even in that scenario they'd likely be playing to ensure they finished with the top spot in the group.
But let's say, for the sake of optimism, that the United States somehow advances to the round of 16. Let's say Germany wins all three games, the United States beats Ghana and draws with Portugal and Ghana either beats Portugal or the two teams draw.
In that unlikely scenario, the United States would likely end up facing Belgium, the clear favorites to win Group H. That would be another tough matchup, as the Belgians are loaded, led by Eden Hazard Vincent Kompany. Then again, if the United States manage to escape their group, they might be playing well enough to give Belgium—far from a traditional power, even if this iteration is loaded—a run for their money.
They could also potentially face Russia, a draw they could certainly win. But that's really a best-case scenario.
But realistically, all signs are pointing against the United States surviving their group. The draw is brutal. The travel is brutal. The decision to leave Landon Donovan and his priceless internationl experience off this roster was brutal.
Well, they might be brutal, too. But at a World Cup, anything can happen.