Posted December 07, 2013

U.S. draws incredibly difficult group, but one filled with opportunity

2014 World Cup, FIFA World Cup, Grant Wahl, U.S. Soccer
2014 FIFA World Cup Group G (top left to bottom right): Germany, Portugal, Ghana and USA (EPA/LANDOV)

2014 FIFA World Cup Group G (top left to bottom right): Germany, Portugal, Ghana and USA (EPA/LANDOV)

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.

STRAUS: U.S. players ready for the challenge

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.”

CREDITOR: Group G full of history

“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.

WAHL: Initial thoughts on the draw

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.

63 comments
dnsteinle
dnsteinle

The Americans will go 0-fer and score 0 goals. Book it. I'd forfeit the match in Manaus. It won't matter. 

ceejaysquared
ceejaysquared

Good article, though it perhaps overplays the "group of death" narrative. Fundamentally, whichever group the US landed in would have been the group of death, as they are the highest rated team from the CONACAF/Asia pot, so their presence skews the group.  In terms of the other three teams in the pod, the US got the middle tier -- two tougher groups, three easier groups, two about the same.  


On paper, Germany and Portugal should advance, but both the US and Ghana have decent chances to overtake one or the other. A lot will depend on that outcome.  


I, for one, look forward to slaying that demon and putting ourselves in a good position to advance.  Ghana is a good side, but so is the US. Should be a great game, and will give the winner a lot to play for in match 2.  

AJ33
AJ33

Sorry, but Australia got the tougher draw. Netherlands, Spain and Chile are all playing better football. The US got Germany, but the rest of the group is wide open.

TimGrisham
TimGrisham

" To be the best, you've gotta beat the best,  wooooo!!!!"   Ric Flair

DSM
DSM

It is an odd system where there are 8 groups and two teams ranked in the top 5 and 3 teams in the top 14 are in one of them. Unless I am missing something, it would seem a logical and fair system would have the 1-8 teams each in separate regions, paired with 1 each of the 9-16 teams; 17-24 and 25-32. Note that this suggests this grouping is arguably least fair to Portugal and Germany, as their third opponent should be a team ranked 25-32 rather than each other. Granted, the fact that 2 teams come out of the group compensates somewhat.


If that system cannot be used because of geographic considerations, it would still be fairer to start with such as basis and then adjust it as little as possible to accommodate geography.  Geographic diversity, obviously, would still not call for 2 European teams in the top 5 to be in the same group.

JohnG1
JohnG1

I think there are a few problems with some of the prevailing sentiments among US fans.


1. Everyone assumes that beating Ghana is a must, so the US will pull it off. I agree that the US has to beat Ghana. But the problem is that Ghana knows that they must also beat the US to have a chance of advancing. So while the US will give its best effort, Ghana will too. And as we've seen in the last two World Cups, Ghana's best effort is better than the US' best effort. I suspect this will continue in 2014.


2. There's a lot of talk about how Portugal is over-reliant on the best player in the world, so it's just a matter of shutting him down. I agree that over-relying on any one player (well, except for Maradona in 1986, maybe) is unlikely to be enough to win the World Cup. But winning the World Cup and beating a pedestrian US team are two entirely different things. Think about LeBron in Cleveland. As great as he was, it just wasn't good enough to beat the best teams in the playoffs. But it *was* good enough to beat everyone else. Unfortunately for the US, they're not one of the best teams in the world, and I think Ronaldo will not have much difficulty lighting them up for a couple of goals.


3. Everyone assumes that Germany will have assured passage into the next round by the time the US plays them. While this is a strong possibility, they may not have the top spot wrapped up and will have incentive to earn that. And even if they have the top spot wrapped up, I can't imagine a team the Germans would like to beat down more than an American team coached by Klinsmann.


Add it all up, and I think the US is looking at between 1 and 0 points, depending if they tie Ghana. Even if they beat Ghana, I suspect Portugal will as well, and 3 points won't be enough.

brs386
brs386

I suspect that Grant reads the comments and as a critic of him in past articles, I feel this has been some of his best work. Neutral and respectful of all opposing nations. Impressed there wasn't any mention of the World Cup match in 2002 against Portugal. Why is it that people enjoy referring to that match as a point of reference for 2014?

DerekOsley
DerekOsley

Travel time is being made into such a big story, but so why aren't we told how far our opponents are traveling?  I.e. where are Portugal/Germany/Ghana based?  That's the info we need to know whether the USA is at a competitive disadvantage.  And why are we stuck in Sao Paolo anyway.  If USMNT had reserved an option of other bases such as Natal or Recife (which are big cities), our "dreaded" travel log would be cut by about 75%.  Perhaps it would be too difficult logistically, but  I wonder if any other teams did this.

KedOut
KedOut

I see you guys underestimate Portugal, in your maths Portugal is where you get points...

In Euro 2012 (2 years ago) they have been in a "group of death" with Germany, Netherlands (vice-world-champion) and Denmark, and they went to the semi-final and lost only on the penalties with Spain.


Since 2002 the Portugal team is not eliminated on the groups in world and european cups...


And Portugal is not only Ronaldo, they have Pepe and Bruno Alves (considerated the best defense in Euro 2012), Fabio Coentrão, João Moutinho, Nani...


About Ghana, I think they're the best african team and they proved to you that they are not underdogs.


Germany, nothing to say.


I really expect US to be in 4th on the group.

paapi
paapi

Any comments on any other team's draw? US is one of many teams.



Sean McMahon1
Sean McMahon1

"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."

Doesn't anyone understand that it is the very presence of the U.S. in the Group that makes it such a hard group? For example, swap the U.S. for Australia (the team from our pot) and the average FIFA ranking in Group B becomes 9.75.

Or... swap the U.S. for Costa Rica (the team from our pot) and the average ranking for Group D drops to 10.0. 

Furthermore, if the U.S. was in Group D, it would be the WORST team in the group, according to FIFA rankings.


That means the U.S. is technically in the THIRD-HARDEST group it could have actually been drawn into ... not the hardest.



ButchWright
ButchWright

Please, Grant, pass along the message that they won't need the malaria pills. They'll only make the players sick to their stomachs. Let the Portuguese take them.


ButchWright
ButchWright

I am an American living in Manaus. Having lived here already for 13 years, I can state for the record that I have never taken malaria pills. It is the most ASININE idea in the world. Manaus is on the Negro River, which is highly acidic and does not provide a good environment for the malaria-bearing mosquito. Nobody who lives here takes the pills; why do tourists always feel the need?

Personally, IF THE US IS SMART (ie DOESN'T take malaria pills), there is no better place to play a European team than Manaus. Our players are used to playing in Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, and Jamaica, then traveling thousands of miles to play in cooler places like Salt Lake City, Columbus, or New York. The Europeans are going to suffer here. If we can hold Portugal in the first half, in the second half they'll wilt. Trust me.

mfurtadom
mfurtadom

Final standings: 1 - Germany; 2 - USA; 3 - Ghana; 4 - Portugal

godfather361
godfather361

On another note, future Cup drawings should, but won't, be drawn based on rankings.  For instance, the top 8 rankings should be together, followed by the following 8, etc.  That will give the best and most appropriate drawing, but would eliminate the drama of these "Group of Death" draws.


godfather361
godfather361

If the USMNT was smart, they'd start their pre-Cup training in Key West or Miami (somewhere as comparable as possible to the Amazon.  The US has that advantage over the European countries and if they're able to adapt to those conditions, they'll be much better off.  Germany is coming out of this group, but I actually think the US can get out of this group as well as Portugal hasn't been very impressive as of late

RomarioDelLago
RomarioDelLago

While we can all agree there this presents a great opportunity and that we should want and need to play the best of the best, there's also nothing wrong with being realistic and realizing that we're probably 3 and done in this one.  There's also NOTHING wrong with wanting a better draw.  


I wish us the best of luck and we have pulled off miracles before but this may prove just a bit too daunting for us, honestly.  One blowout loss (very possible against the one-man wrecking crew named C. Ronaldo) and we're really boned.  Sigh.

EnashWaca
EnashWaca

Is there any way to incorporate common sense into this? Some sort of seeding system that uses both current form/rankings as well as past WC history and divide up the teams geographically as they do now? NCAA basketball has done it for years without much of an issue. They set it up where the best teams have easier starts and then the games get harder as they move along. That way you don't lose really good teams in the group stage (as least not very often) and have lightweights move on just because they got lucky in a draw. Could corruption become a factor? Sure it could if FIFA is involved. But that is always an issue.

 Every group should be equal in strength or as close as you can get. There should be two obvious teams that are favored to move on and two teams that will have to knock off one of the better ones if they want to move on. And don't give me how groups of death make things more interesting or more fun to watch. That's BS. The world Cup is only every 4 years. People will watch it no matter what. And since it's only every 4 years, then why not make it as balanced as possible? Don't we want to see the very best teams move on to the knock out stages? Or do you want to see a Greece or a Russia or South Korea make it just because they didn't have to take down anybody of stature to move on? There is no perfect system, so I'm sure many of you will say, if it's not broken don't fix it. But it just doesn't seem like this is the best way it could be organized, either.

SandHills
SandHills

Well Americans can cheer without getting high hopes.  IF they make it out of such a group, and play an opponent from a pattycake group, then we can raise our expectations.


It's now a matter of expecting the worse and hoping for the best - not disappointed either way.

BenjaminHopper
BenjaminHopper

Great article, Mr. Wahl. Sums up the situation perfectly. At first, I was crushed to see this draw, but now I think while it may be the toughest ever first-round group for the Americans, it'll also be the most exciting.


I mean, getting results against such high-caliber teams would really put this US team on the map. To advance out of this group would really be an accomplishment, and it also sets up a favorable draw in the knockout stage.


June seems an eternity from now.

manhattanproject9
manhattanproject9

The more I think about it the more comfortable I am with this draw. 


Just bear with me (this is wishful thinking):


The US plays Ghana and beats them. Plays Portugal (in the hot, humid jungle that nobody wants to play in) and draws. The US loses to Germany. USA: 4 points. 


Portugal plays Germany in the first game and loses. Draws USA (as mentioned above) and draws Ghana. 2 points. Let's pretend that they DRAW GERMANY (not likely I know): Portugal 3 points. 


Germany would finish with 7 points and win the group. Ghana would finish with 1. USA advances. 


As far as the travel, the USA is FAR better acclimated at travel then the two European countries and Ghana. Let's remember that our European based players have to fly back to the states to play friendlies and qualifiers during the international break. Also the MLS players are better used to traveling cross country that those of our counterparts. It's the reason I think we can pull out a draw against Portugal in the jungle. 


Finally, Germany did a lot of rotating in the Euro cup to keep players fresh (and because his squad is so deep). Germany plays the US last and if, as expected, they arrive to the game on 6 points it would mean a draw would win them the group at worse. I expect Germany to rest players against the USA because of fatigue (not to mention yellow card accumulation is an issue for them in that third game). It wouldn't surprise me if that game ends in a draw either. But as I said before, we can lose that game and still advance so long as we beat Ghana and tie Portugal (and Portugal ties Ghana). 


Nate Silver gave the USA a 39% chance of advancing, 40% for Portugal, 29% for Ghana and 92% for Germany. That's actually not THAT bad. Have I convinced you yet? I'm going to bed. 

kenc29
kenc29

I agree. 3 really interesting games. Germany aside, the US isn't that far from Portugal or Ghana. They're due for a breakout performance. And, as the article notes, Germany will be the last game when it might not matter to Germany, though I imagine Low would like to beat Klinsmann. Anyhow, if you are going to not win the title, why not go out with a bang against 3 excellent teams!

80kdot
80kdot

YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME.

carg04
carg04

they're done.  it's not even remotely debatable, as to whether or not they'll be advancing out of their group so lets get that out in the open.  getting cast in a "group of death" was bound to happen eventually.  it sucks but it is what it is... *shrug*


the only positive left to hope for is that they don't get embarrassed and at least keep the games close.

BrendanMiles
BrendanMiles

You yanks think you've got the pool of death ?what about us Aussies ! Spain (ranked 1), Netherlands (ranked 9) and Chile (ranked 15)....we're in the pool of hell!

ButchWright
ButchWright

Ghana weren't THAT much better than the US in the last World Cup; a bad coaching decision (starting Ricardo Clark), and African home advantage weighed heavily on the outcome there. I for one think Natal will be a different story. Not only are we playing them on our side of the pond, but Natal has historic links to the United States (they have a museum there dedicated to the American presence during WWII); this is tailor-made for the Americans to go that extra step this time.


As for Portugal, they're playing here in Manaus. If Jürgen is halfway intelligent (which he's likely more than that), he'll know that the US will only have to absorb pressure in the first half. By the second half the Portuguese will be sucking wind.

JohnG1
JohnG1

Yeah, I agree. I have no idea why they *have* to stay in Sao Paulo. Like 3500 of those miles (unfortunately, there's really nothing they can do about having to go to Manaus) are entirely due to stubbornness and not being willing to just move to Recife or Natal. The distance between Sao Paulo and Recife is about the same as between El Paso and Seattle (1650-1700 miles). I really can't feel sorry for the US when they're willingly doing this. Why wouldn't they just wait until *after* the draw to make travel arrangements? I guess that would make too much sense.

brs386
brs386

Thank you! Finally somebody that provides the same argument I've been trying to share with these knuckleheads.


Anybody that knows this Portugal team inside an out will tell you to look out for João Moutinho specifically in that midfield. He's one of the best central midfielders in the world.

KedOut
KedOut

@mfurtadom  You really expect that?

I would not be surprised if Portugal finishes 1st

therantguy
therantguy

Wait, you're honestly proposing that the top 8 teams in the world play off against each other while the teams ranked 24th-32nd get to play each other? LOL That is wonderfully insane.

KedOut
KedOut

@godfather361 Portugal is never impressive in qualifications, but they are when really matters.

Take a look on Euro 2012 Portugal performance.

JohnDhoe
JohnDhoe

@godfather361  Key West and Miami are not in the middle of a tropical jungle. There is no tropical jungle in the US at all, unless you want to count  El Yunque in Puerto Rico.

titusxiii
titusxiii

Veracruz, Mexico would be a lot closer to the climate in Manaus, natal and Recife

Puskas
Puskas

Don t see your problem here. The americans got a group as you asked for: Two obvious teams favored to move on: GER and POR and two teams who have to knock off one of them to move on ( Ghana and the US). Clearly, there are easier groups, but its a world cup, so one might expect its the place where the best nations compete.

Personally i think, it s not the drawing system which is unfair, but the qualification mode. There are always teams qualified which certainly to not belong to a World Cup final (This time: Costa Rica, Honduras, Iran), but since the FIFA wants nations from all over the world to participate, its inevitable that there are groups with such weak teams. I especcially dont see why americans complain, their qualification mode is as easy as it gets.... Jamaica and Panama were the first teams which didnt make it to the world cup, enough said.

ButchWright
ButchWright

The US can beat Portugal here in Manaus. I EXPECT us to beat Portugal here in Manaus. We beat them in 2002 in more "familiar" conditions for the Portuguese. Now we're facing a less-talented Portuguese squad in an environment they are in no way used to. We can grab six points in the first two matches, with the right attitude, and face Germany with very little pressure.

ceejaysquared
ceejaysquared

@carg04 Whew, it's a relief to know that.  Would you do the rest of us a favor and let Klinsmann know?  Wouldn't want to waste all that training time now that we know the outcome.  

manhattanproject9
manhattanproject9

@carg04


The US MUST beat Ghana in their first match, if they don't THEN they are done (save them beating Portugal or Germany but how likely is that if they can't do it against Ghana). Beating Ghana is absolutely critical. 

Alt4leto
Alt4leto

@BrendanMiles according the FIFA rankings that were used to seed to the world cup, the Nederlands were actually ranked 8th in the world  - they didn't get seeded though because Brasil was ranked outside of the top 8.   So don't feel too bad, Ozzies - you don't have to face the 9th best team after all !


oh and yeah, that group is way more brutal than group g.

CharbelIr
CharbelIr

@BrendanMiles

the rankings don't always mean much......Ghana is ranked 24th but are as good or better than chili, they have performed admirably well at the last two world cup, coming out of difficult groups. They outclassed the Czech Republique in 06 and beat the US to the surprise of everyone, and had it not been for that late hand by suarez in 2010, they would have been in the semi's of the world cup. 

bnceo
bnceo

Don't fear Chile.  If my ethnic country of Peru can beat them, they surely are beatable by the Socceroos

Edyras
Edyras

you better get your facts right before you talk about Ghana national team because even Bob Bradley and Klinsman know that Ghana is moving to the next stage fire burn you. this is the real football not american football.

brs386
brs386

Consider this scenario. The United States has an abysmal game against Ghana in the First Leg and lose. Portugal and Germany tie. Portugal vs. United States ends with a 1-0 score at half-time in favor of Portugal. That completely flips the script and forces the United States to pressure hard knowing that if they don't at the very least tie this game and win the last game of the group draw with Germany, it's lights out.

KedOut
KedOut

@brs386 That pass on the 3rd goal Ronaldo scored against sweden was something

Brant
Brant

@therantguy No.  He's saying to eliminate the geographic considerations for the pots.  That way each group gets a team that's 1-8 (pot 1), 9-16 (pot 2), 17-24 (etc), and 25-32 (betcha can see how this is going).

JohnG1
JohnG1

Costa Rica is deserving. They qualified second in CONCACAF (an easy confederation, but still). They also pounded the US 3-1 at home and lost 1-0 on the road in a blizzard. Arguably, they're better than the US head-to-head. For example, if that was a home-and-home playoff, Costa Rica would have won it.

brs386
brs386

@ButchWright 

More "familiar" conditions in 2002?

In the likelihood that you weren't aware, the World Cup is being held in Brazil, which is a former colony of Portugal. It isn't likely to get more familiar than that.

leopoldoguti
leopoldoguti

@bnceo Peru that country that had no chance to get to the WC? .. please... Chile is much superior..  

ButchWright
ButchWright

What did I say that was not factual? Ricardo Clark was a bad coaching decision - thus he was subbed before the half. Second, did not Ghana become the "fans' choice" after hosts South Africa were eliminated? Are we not playing in the Americas this time? Before you accuse someone of not stating fact, it is better to see if the facts are there. Are Ghana a threat? Absolutely. Of the five African sides in the tournament, they are the most troubling, because they play defensively much better than any other African side. However, the Americans have a good team, too - and CAN beat Ghana.

Finally, I loathe "American football", so your final comment is lost on me.

ButchWright
ButchWright

I'm saying that the US is more accustomed to playing in tropical conditions than are the Portuguese. Also, most of my friends here in Manaus (not the American ones - the Brazilians) are going to cheer for the US, not Portugal. If the US can stay with Portugal in the first half, the second half will be much more comfortable for the Americans.
On the pitch "cultural similarities" (which, having spent a lot of time in Portugal, are few compared to life in Manaus) mean very little.
Finally, don't forget with the third ticket draw coming up, Miami is closer than Lisbon - and the Americans have already bought more tickets than anyone but the Brazilians.


brs386
brs386

I wasn't referring to the climactic conditions that Portugal is going to find in Manaus. I was referring to social and cultural similarities between the two countries. Polls in Brazil suggest that Portugal is the 2nd favorite country which the Brazilian people will support. I also don't understand this insistence that Manaus is going to be a hell-hole for the Portuguese but easy grapes for the Americans.

ButchWright
ButchWright

I was referring to the climate of Korea and Japan, which is much more familiar to the Portuguese than the tropical heat of Manaus will be (and which is MUCH more familiar to the Americans, who play qualifiers in Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Jamaica, etc).
As for Portugal being familiar with Brazil because of the colonial period, as we've been independent from Portugal since 1822, unless Portugal has players born before then, they're not that familiar with conditions here.

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

@leopoldoguti @bnceo Not to get in middle of this rivalry (say I'm with UN), but I think that's kind of bnceo's point: if Peru "had no (WC) chance," yet still topped Chile (1-0, 3/13), maybe talented Aussies can play 'em well.