KANSAS CITY, Kan. – One after the other, the CONCACAF and Asian nations that filled Pot 3 emerged.
First, Mexico was paired with host Brazil in Group A and gasps (along with a little laughter) filled the crowded Members Club here at Sporting Park. Australia came next and was sent to face world champion Spain. Bullet dodged.
Moments later, Honduras hit the lottery – Switzerland and Ecuador – and at that point, the U.S. national team’s World Cup fate came into focus. There had been weeks of speculation that the Americans might face a “Group of Death” at Friday’s draw, and now an almost perfect one was taking shape. Beckoning were second-ranked Germany -- the high-powered home of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann -- and Ghana, the Yanks' arch-nemesis.
“Yeah, it looked like the stars were just going to align that way,” defender Brad Evans said shortly after the U.S. was slotted, seemingly inevitably, into Group G. “It was kind of cool to see that and think back to all those teams and the results you’ve had against those teams. And obviously Jurgen coaching the [German] national team [in 2006].”
Said U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez, “Once Germany and Ghana got paired together, I figured this is probably going to be us. Fate is going to align, and it's all going to happen.”
When asked if drawing Ghana seemed like destiny, Clint Dempsey said, “It seems like that’s been the case. The past two World Cups [in which Ghana defeated and eliminated the U.S.], maybe it’s an opportunity to get them back for that.”
Throw in Portugal, which will be fueled by the world’s most marketable (and arguably its best) player, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the desire to exact revenge on the U.S. for a stunning World Cup loss in 2002, and the Americans got a group that’s just about as difficult and dramatic as possible.
The U.S. players who gathered to watch the draw at Sporting Park, where Sporting Kansas City will host Real Salt Lake in Saturday’s MLS Cup final, met the media and put on brave faces. They acknowledged the difficult road ahead. But with adversity comes historic opportunity. The Americans might have had an easier time escaping several other quartets, but they’ll be legends if they finish first or second in Group G.
“It would be a huge statement and a huge step forward for soccer in this country,” Dempsey said. “That’s what the World Cup’s about. It’s about playing the best teams. We’ve got a good group as far as that’s concerned and I think we have the quality that if we play our best ball we can get out of our group.”
Kyle Beckerman said, “It’s not a bad spot to be the underdog, going in when nobody really believes you can get out of the group and have that ‘Us against the world’ type of mentality.”
The RSL captain immediately recognized that the spotlight had just intensified.
“There's gonna be so many story lines that you guys can write about, and we'll be able to go and play it and hopefully rock the boat and see if we can do something special. It's great,” Beckerman said. “We think this is going to be the most watched, most talked about World Cup ever. Doing something special in this World Cup would be great.”
The pursuit of something special is what inspired Klinsmann’s hiring back in the summer of 2011. The U.S. had competed in six consecutive World Cup tournaments but had managed to win only four of its 22 matches. From the moment he took the job, the 1990 World Cup champion said his plan was to fashion a squad that could stand toe-to-toe with the sport’s entrenched powers. The goal: a U.S. national team with the confidence, composure, depth and fitness to beat the world at its own game.
“It’s really simple. This is why the United States hired Jurgen Klinsmann,” former U.S. forward and current ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman said Friday. “Because the Bob Bradleys, the Bruce Arenas of the world, yeah, they did great. They got us here. But there was a change that needed to be made. They made that change for this sole reason. Some of us might say we have to go to the quarterfinals [to have a successful World Cup] but now that changes. This is the Group of Death. If Jurgen Klinsmann gets out of the Group of Death, that’s one hell of an accomplishment.”
The players insisted they were ready.
“They’ve done a fantastic job of preparing us for just this,” Sporting’s Graham Zusi said. “We’ve played against some of the top teams in the world -- the Belgiums, Germanys, Italys -- the past couple of years. Playing those types of games is going to prepare us well for these games.”
Said his SKC teammate, Matt Besler, a U.S. defender, “Our approach for the past 12 months, at least, has been to focus on our game and I think we’ve proven that we can play anybody and we can beat anybody. I think that’s why we scheduled so many hard friendlies. We’ve gained a lot of experience over the past 12 months and we’ve gained a lot of confidence.”
Evans even argued that the depth of Group Gauntlet might work in the Americans’ favor.
“I actually think it’s better that it’s all tough teams,” the Seattle Sounders veteran said. “There’s no easy points to be had and I think that’ll be valuable come the third game. If teams keep knocking off points off each other it’s one of those groups where anything can happen. For us, we’ve got goals to advance and that will remain no matter what the group is.”
The U.S. will play Germany in its first-round finale June 26 in Recife. By then, especially if Klinsmann’s former team already has secured advancement, the underdog Americans might be in decent shape.
“Sometimes there’s too much pressure on you. You’re expected to win the World Cup. You’re expected to do well, and anything less would be devastating. It’s really a lot of pressure for those players to try to deal with,” Dempsey said of the men suiting up for the favorites. “For us, as it goes on, more of America gets behind [soccer] and it’s becoming more popular in the States and it continues growing. Yeah, you have a responsibility to be part of that continuing growth in the game, but everyone puts pressure on themselves just to do well because you don’t know how many World Cups you’re going to play in.”
Now a World Cup regular with a growing domestic league, the U.S. has surpassed the point where qualification is sufficient. Group stage elimination, in most cases, would be considered a failure. While a first-round exit would be a disappointment next summer, ESPN’s Kasey Keller – who manned the U.S. nets at the 1998 and 2006 World Cups – said the “definition of success” might have changed Friday.
“In the end it’s a results-driven business and if you don’t get out of the first round it’s a failure. But then you look at that group and it’s far more difficult,” he said. “Now you’re saying that to get to the quarterfinal, you’re going to have to face four very good opponents as opposed to saying ‘Here’s a team we can beat. We can get a draw here.’ The question you have to ask is, ‘Have we advanced that far as a soccer country that we can play other teams above us in rank – or right around us – and consistently get those results in a row?’ We’ll find out. It’s tough.”
The U.S. knows it, and the 2014 World Cup might be shorter than Klinsmann and Co. would like. Instead of four or five games, there may be only three. But what a three those will be. Matchups like the ones drawn on Friday are, as several players and pundits said, what the World Cup is all about. “We all want to advance as far as we can,” Twellman said. “But the elite player now looks at the Group of Death, you get out of that group, that is an unbelievable accomplishment. That’s why this one’s unique.”