Clint Dempsey and the USA provided stiff competition for Steven Gerrard and England in the 2010 World Cup. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
Four years ago, British tabloids pegged the USA as a cakewalk. That isn't the case ahead of the World Cup draw.
Four years ago, it was EASY – as in England, Algeria, Slovenia and the Yanks.
According to The Sun, which was responsible for that notorious acrostic, Group C at the World Cup in South Africa was going to be the “Best English group since the Beatles.”
To the Three Lions’ credit, they did advance, finishing second behind the U.S. with a win and two draws. But as that record suggests, it was far from EASY.
The Sun certainly doesn’t represent all media, not by a long shot, and that infamous cover was as much a slight against Algeria and Slovenia as the U.S. But EASY resonated here because it taps into the worry that the sport’s traditional powers don’t really take American soccer seriously – that the Yanks are a World Cup walkover.
As Friday’s 2014 World Cup draw in Bahia looms, a quick survey of the press from some of those powers reveals a far different tone. No one is looking forward to playing coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s team, and, in fact, some regard a first-round quartet that includes the U.S. as the worst-case scenario.
Call it what you will – “Grupo de la Muerte” or “Poule des Doods”, etc. – there are plenty of people beyond U.S. borders steeling themselves for a group of death. The upcoming World Cup will be the deepest 32-team event ever, with all eight former champions present, a powerhouse host, no Cinderellas and only one debutant (Bosnia-Herzegovina, ranked 21st in the world).
The decision to use only the FIFA ranking to determine the seeds (other than Brazil) has left the likes of Italy, the Netherlands and France among the unseeded teams whose pairing with a World Cup favorite would create an instant “Girone di Ferro” (that’s Italian).
The relief theoretically is supposed to come from Pot 3, which contains the CONCACAF and Asian entrants. But on the heels of its first-place group finish in 2010 and a scintillating 2013, the 14th-ranked U.S. arguably is the best side in that pot. The Americans are guaranteed to make a given group of death even deadlier.
U.S. supporters may shudder at the thought of seeing their team drawn with Brazil, the Netherlands and France in the group stage. But fans and media from those nations will be far from thrilled to see the U.S. in their group. Their recent record helps bolster the Americans’ profile, but history also suggests that the Yanks aren’t overawed by the big names. They’ve given the favorites a run for their World Cup money.
In 1990, Bob Gansler’s inexperienced side was a tougher out than expected during a 1-0 loss to Italy in Rome. Four years later, the U.S. stunned highly-regarded Colombia, 2-1, at the Rose Bowl. In 2002, coach Bruce Arena’s team beat favored Portugal and very well could have taken Germany to extra time in the quarterfinals. In ’06, the U.S. drew eventual champion Italy and in 2010, Bob Bradley’s squad shared the points with England.
Those powers are getting the picture.
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The Guardian said Tuesday that England’s “chances of a tough draw” rose when FIFA announced the pots. The paper chose a potential quartet of Brazil, Italy and the U.S. to illustrate the daunting possibilities. The Daily Mail agreed with that worst-case quartet, while The Telegraph’s “nightmare draw” is Brazil, France and the U.S.
The French media seems to dread Mexico, despite El Tri’s miserable 2013, while De Volkskrant said reigning Asian champion Japan is the Pot 3 team destined to give the Dutch the most trouble. That’s understandable, considering the Nov. 16 exhibition between the teams that ended, 2-2.
But the Italians and the Germans, both of whom have lost friendlies to Klinsmann’s U.S., are wary of the Americans. RAI’s group of death includes Brazil, France and either the U.S. or Mexico, and La Repubblica hopes the Azzuri avoids the U.S. and Japan.
Germany never seems to have much trouble negotiating the group stage, and the Südwest Presse said the second-ranked Die Mannschaft should expect "nothing dramatic" next summer. However, the newspaper conglomerate did mention England, Chile and the U.S. as a group that could give the Germans more difficulty. N-tv, a CNN affiliate, said both the U.S. and Mexico would “threaten” Die Mannschaft, while GQ Germany wrote that a “Todesgruppe” featuring Italy, Ivory Coast and the U.S. would present “a very difficult task.”
Spanish soccer statistician Alexis Martín Tamayo, an ESPN and Diario AS contributor, figures that the U.S. is the toughest Pot 3 draw. The most brutal World Cup group he could concoct was Brazil-Italy-Netherlands-U.S.
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Outside Europe, second-round hopefuls likely are far more concerned with landing in a group with two European powers. But the AP in Argentina said both the U.S. and Mexico could factor into a “worst scenario” draw, while a match-up with either Honduras or Costa Rica was “favorable.” Uruguay’s El Observador listed its group of death as Netherlands, France and the U.S.
It’s worth noting that Ghanaian news site Joy Online
conjured two groups of death. One contained Brazil, Portugal and Mexico and the other Spain, England and Japan. After eliminating the U.S. in the past two World Cups, the Black Stars might be the only team that doesn’t fear the Americans on some level. While the U.S. national team’s reputation may be rising, the most powerful message is sent on the field.