U.S. draws incredibly difficult group, but one filled with opportunity
COSTA DO SAUÍPE, Brazil — Ninety minutes after Friday’s World Cup draw, not long after returning to the Sauípe Class hotel, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann had a quiet moment when he could talk one-on-one. It was a brief respite from the crush of 2,000 other media members from around the world, including the horde of journalists from Germany, Klinsmann’s birth country, who at that very moment had to be physically barred from entering the pool area behind the hotel and accosting him.
“Well, it couldn’t have gone any more difficult,” Klinsmann confided.
The U.S. had drawn Germany, Portugal and Ghana, the hardest opening-round group the Americans have ever faced in a World Cup. Germany, a three-time world champion, could easily win the tournament. Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo, who may be about to win the Ballon d’Or as the world player of the year. And Ghana has been the destroyer of U.S. dreams at the last two World Cups, eliminating the Americans both times.
Group G has easily the most difficult average FIFA ranking of any World Cup group: 11.25. Germany is No. 2, Portugal No. 5, the U.S. No. 14 and Ghana No. 24.
When asked about his thoughts on the draw, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati played coy. “I thought the entertainment was excellent,” he said. “There was a tribute to Nelson Mandela, which was terrific. And the draw was … interesting.”
Gulati flashed a wan smile. What’s more, of the 24 possible spots the U.S. could have drawn into, G4 was the one that involved the most travel miles for the U.S. in this giant country: 8,866 miles, to be exact, taking into account that the Americans will make round-trip flights from their base camp in São Paulo for every game. (Klinsmann said the U.S. would not move its base camp farther north from São Paulo, where the Americans have all but finalized plans to stay in a five-star hotel and train at São Paulo FC.)
Before the draw, Klinsmann said, he wanted to avoid two things: Drawing Germany and having to play a game in Manaus, the outpost in the Amazon rain forest that features high temperatures and humidity, a different time zone than the rest of the tournament and the need to take malaria pills.
On Friday, Klinsmann got Germany and Manaus. “It is what it is,” Klinsmann said. “But we don’t complain. We take it on and we do the travel and we adjust to the climate and this is what a World Cup is all about: These challenges. It’s exciting in a certain way, a big challenge, and it’s what we want.”
When it comes down to it, Klinsmann is a relentless optimist, the kind of guy who can giggle repeatedly on a day when the U.S. had no luck and find the silver lining in the situation.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” he said. After all, the U.S. players won’t need any motivation to kick off the competition against Ghana given the history of the two teams. “Some [U.S.] players have played against them in the last World Cup and the previous one, and some players … have never faced them. [Ghana] is a very good team, but I look at every opportunity that you can beat them on a given day, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
“I’m confident we can challenge all three teams and get our points to go into the second round.”
Indeed, if you’re an optimist, the U.S. draw doesn’t have to look so grim. Beating Ghana in the opening game is by no means impossible. Given the lack of a big talent gap between the two teams, it would be surprising for Ghana to beat the U.S. in three straight World Cups. “If we start off there well, it builds even more confidence for the next two big ones,” Klinsmann said.
Perspective is in the eye of the beholder. Ghana coach Akwasi Appiah told me he groaned about drawing the Americans. “When I saw the draw with the U.S. joining the group, I said, ‘Oh no, not again,” Appiah said. “Our group is a really, really tough group with Germany and Portugal and the United States. With all these teams, their performance is really, really high, and for that reason we need to prepare very well to compete with them.”
The U.S.’s second foe, Portugal, may well come into that contest behind the U.S. in points after an opening game against Germany. And the Germans may already be qualified for the next round and have their guards down by the time they have to face the U.S. in game three.
As for the travel, it may not be that bad after all. The games are several days apart, the U.S. will fly in a private charter plane (giving new meaning to “drawing into G4,” Gulfstream-style), and the distances are no different from flying in the United States. It might even be a competitive advantage over the other teams in the group, which are much smaller countries.
We also watch sports to see the best against the best at their best, and all three of these group games will be heavyweight battles. How can you not get excited about the storylines: Klinsmann coaches against his home country! The U.S. tries to stop Cristiano Ronaldo! The Americans try to slay their demons with Ghana!
Let’s see if the U.S. can succeed in a World Cup when it’ll need to perform in its big-boy pants. “They’re all tough groups at some level,” said Gulati, “and if you want to advance in the World Cup you have to beat some good teams.” That opportunity starts next June 16, which can’t come soon enough.