Somebody told me the other day that it's very difficult to be rational around this time—when your team is gearing up for a World Cup—and I realized this applies to me.
I like to think I'm pretty level-headed when it comes to most games, but I can't help but find myself as a fan of the team I represented on 44 occasions. As the United States national team continues its preparations for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, I'm finding myself in a situation where I feel almost like a cheerleader.
The U.S. has been put in a so-called group of death alongside Germany, Portugal and Ghana. Given the make-up of Group G, few are giving the U.S. a chance, with the one notable exception being the 23 players on the team—which is, of course, as it should be.
But there's something you can't know about this team unless you've been there. For me, being born in Poland and having represented that country at the youth level, I didn't notice it until I first came to the United States. Within the team there is such patriotism, such an insatiable self-belief—no matter who the opposition.
It might sound arrogant, but it's not in the word's true meaning.
See, for the U.S., it's about respect. Call it a chip on their shoulder or a point to prove, but the U.S. team will always be an outsider in the world of football. And they've heard it all before—that there's no football culture in America, that soccer is not an American sport, that the team lacks a sophisticated youth-development system. We all know the American team has made huge strides in the last couple of decades, but it's never enough.
And now they find themselves in a World Cup group with Germany, Ghana and Portugal. So they have no chance, right?
But here lies the strength of the American team: proving the doubters wrong. I know it, because I lived it.
Remember Portugal in 2002, Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup and Brazil in 1998? Over the years, we've had some tremendous results against teams we shouldn't have beaten. Even though some were friendly matches, for the U.S., there really are no friendly matches. The USMNT treats all games equally because of that chip on their shoulder.
It also often finds a way to get good results against good teams. Take Sunday, for instance. The U.S. beat a very good Turkey team despite having a few issues in the team and a few players underperforming. Still, it was a good win, and it showed that the players don't change whether they're winning 1-0 or losing by the same score. Very few teams play to the final whistle that way, which makes the U.S. tough to put away.
Enough cheerleading for you? I hope not, but let's get down to reality and logic.
The opener against Ghana, of course, is the biggest game. That's been said already, and it's obvious. Ghana proved they were a better team in the last two World Cups, but these games are one-offs. You have to take them one at a time and keep yourself in the game. So much has been said about needing to win, but even a draw would give the U.S. a chance to progress.
It's useless to compare ourselves to Ghana—and especially Portugal and Germany—on talent alone. Over the course of 10 games, we might win just one, but that's what the World Cup is: a one-off. And, as I said previously, the U.S. has shown that in one-off games it is capable of beating anyone.
Ghana must be respected, but if you look at guys like Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari, they're not necessarily in their prime anymore, and they don't have the quality they once had. Jordan Ayew and Andre Ayew were once extremely promising, but the jury is still out as to whether they have achieved their potential.
Germany can be considered in a class of their own. The Germans are always among the favorites at the World Cup, but you could make the case that this is the most undisciplined German team for some time in terms of organization, defending in transition and even defending in general. We saw it twice in qualifying against Sweden, and we saw it again in Sunday's draw against Cameroon. Injuries aside, there are serious questions about the back four, which would never have been the case when I was growing up.
Are you still with me? I hope my cheerleading does not offend you.
Portugal certainly will have learned their lesson from Japan and South Korea in 2002, but remember that they were overwhelming favorites against the U.S. that year as well—and they found themselves on the outside looking in after the first half.
There's no doubt that Cristiano Ronaldo, when healthy, can single-handedly cause the U.S. problems, and I'm not sure the team has a player who can deal with him. But when I look at this Portuguese team—while being extremely respectful of the others—I could again make a case that this is perhaps one of the weakest Portuguese teams in some time.
For the benefit of being truthful, one could easily make the same case about the U.S. team. To be honest, I have been a lot more excited about some of these teams in the past, as on the balance, this side isn't quite as good.
But when you put all of that aside, you really have to take a look at the group—the teams, the players and the managers—and be careful in deeming the task impossible. In my opinion, nothing is impossible about this group if the mentality, concentration and team spirit are at a level that I know exists within the team.
Talent is important, but as I've said, it's not everything. There are intangibles on this U.S. team that, together with some uncharacteristic weaknesses in the opponents, lead me to believe the U.S. has a better chance in this group than many think.
See, I told you that it's going to be difficult to be rational. In the end, some may say that logic wins out, and we know that on paper these matches could very easily end up in three defeats.
But for this one time, I will refuse to believe that. I will put on the U.S. jersey and cheer for the boys.
I hope you forgive me this one time, as I hope I'm usually less biased.
This is the World Cup, and everyone should be allowed to pull for their team. And since Poland did not make it this time, I'll only have one dog in this fight.
Polish-born Janusz Michallik played 44 times for the United States national team, and in MLS for Columbus Crew and New England Revolution. Now a respected commentator and pundit for ESPN, Fox, SiriusXM FC, OneWorldSports and others, Janusz will be covering matters USMNT for B/R during the World Cup.
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