The 2014 FIFA World Cup promises to provide an important litmus test for the progress of the United States soccer program. Drawn into the "Group of Death," the USA face an uphill climb against the trio of Germany, Portugal and Ghana.
However, after reaching the knockout round in two of the past three World Cups, group-stage exits are no longer acceptable. While Jurgen Klinsmann made waves by suggesting that winning the World Cup was impossible, reaching the round of 16 is certainly far from improbable.
Thus, this year stands as one of the most critical tournaments in the history of U.S. soccer. For fans wanting to catch the Americans' progress at the world's biggest sporting event, check out full TV and live streaming information below:
|Team USA World Cup Schedule|
|Date||Matchup||Venue||Time (ET)||TV||Live Stream|
|Mon, June 16||Ghana vs. USA||Estadio das Dunas, Natal||6 p.m.||ESPN||WatchESPN|
|Sun, June 22||USA vs. Portugal||Arena Amazonia, Manaus||6 p.m.||ESPN||WatchESPN|
|Thu, June 26||USA vs. Germany||Arena Pernambuco, Recife||12 p.m.||ESPN||WatchESPN|
So what should the U.S. expect from each of their Group G foes? Below are quick previews of how the Americans can earn points in all three matches.
Though ostensibly the squad the U.S. stands the best shot of obtaining three points from, Ghana have defeated the Americans in each of the past two World Cups. Once again facing their arch-nemesis, the U.S. could see a team that eerily resembles their own.
The Black Stars' strengths line up similar to the Americans in that they are anchored by their midfield but burdened by a young and suspect back line. Longtime Chelsea veteran and current A.C. Milan star Michael Essien is the biggest name, but he has plenty of support in Kwadwo Asamoah, Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng.
As the first opponent, the U.S. cannot afford to drop all three points in a loss. As Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl notes, teams that have lost the first game have rebounded to advance less than 10 percent of the time:
Going back to World Cup 1998, when the tournament expanded to 32 teams and just two teams per group were able to advance, only 9 percent of teams that lost their first World Cup game (4 of 46) advanced to the knockout stage. Meanwhile, a tie in the first game was hardly a killer—56 percent of those teams (20 of 36) advanced from their group.
Look for Fabian Johnson to make the difference for the U.S. As a versatile hybrid midfielder/defender, Johnson possesses terrific vision capable of initiating the offense from either side of the field. Though he might play right back in Brazil, Johnson will have an important role in limiting forward bursts from the midfield, especially from Asamoah.
Portugal's star, Cristiano Ronaldo, is the obvious impediment here. Ronaldo has been dealing with a bothersome knee, but is apparently returning back to full health:
The Real Madrid superstar effectively dragged his side through qualification, scoring all four goals in their aggregate playoff victory over Sweden. Along with Manchester United's Nani, Portugal present a deadly attack up the wings.
However, despite their status as the No. 3 ranked team in the world, Portugal possess enough holes for the U.S. to stand a reasonable chance. The Portuguese have had chronic problems in the middle of the field and lapses in concentration have plagued the European side throughout qualification.
The Americans could take advantage of their strength in the middle. Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey should have their best games of the group stage in this contest, and will have plenty of possession against a side that prefers to sit back and strike on the counterattack.
Aging Portuguese striker Helder Postiga is not nearly the force he once was, so the primary defensive onus will fall on outside backs Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley. Containing Ronaldo is one of the most difficult tasks in the world, so the Americans must limit the quality of his chances and live with the results.
There may be a slight advantage to playing the group's strongest side in the final match. If the Germans capture six points in their first two contests, they could theoretically have clinched the top spot in the group. Though that scenario is a bit far-fetched, that may be the Americans' best hope against a team full of world-class talent.
Joachim Low's side is absolutely stacked throughout. It's difficult to pick one player that stands out, but attacking midfielder Mesut Ozil could be Germans' most important playmaker. A traditional No. 10, Ozil had some difficulty assuming an increased burden at Arsenal, but believes he is fit to commandeer the German engine:
If the U.S. only need a point to advance, it will be interesting to see their strategy. The Americans might opt for the conservative three-defensive-midfielder diamond formation they employed in their final tune-up friendly against Nigeria. The U.S. won that game, 2-1, exhibiting excellent discipline and ensuring that no defender was ever left in a one-on-one situation.
Such a strategy might also be in effect against Portugal, but Germany has enough stars that the U.S. will probably need to play conservatively to protect central defenders Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron. The Germans' playmaking is difficult to repress, but if they execute as well defensively as they did against Nigeria, a draw becomes a very real possibility.