I absolutely love international sports. There are very few things in the world of sport that I love more than rooting for flags. The national anthems, the emotion from fans and players. The playing out of international relations in the war simulation environment that is sports. Its all beautiful. So other than maaaaybe the Olympics I’m not sure that there is any better sporting event than the FIFA World Cup. I realize for Americans the game itself can appear slow moving, but when you watch it in an international setting and at the highest level, and you let yourself get sucked in with the fans of these nations, and live and die with them for every moment… its just the best there is.
So I love watching the World Cup regardless of whether or not my team has a chance of winning the whole thing. However, this year’s event is different. With former German National Team (and American citizen) Jurgen Klinsmann at the helm, the US has became a team that made naive fans like myself really hope for a magical run. And then this happened.
The notorious Group of Death, and the US has a seat at the table. Germany, not only the #2 team in the world and perennial contender for top honors, but the former team of our coach. What a stomach punch to force Jurgen to compete against his former squad. Then Portugal who… y’know… they only have the reigning Player of the Year is all… no big deal…
… oh… okay maybe its a little bit of a big deal…
And then, of course, there is Ghana. Easy points right? Right. … Wait what? Whats that? Oh yeah… right… Ghana is the team that has knocked the US out of each of the last 2 World Cups. They’re a good team with great, top caliber athletes and not only should the US be afraid of them, but so should Germany and Portugal. They have the athletes to play with anyone in the world. Maybe not the skills and discipline but physically, they’re elite.
However, I don’t think USA Soccer fans need to completely lose heart before the tournament has even started.
The Group of Death, would not be the Group of Death if we weren’t in it. The same goes for Ghana. Two teams come out of every group, so while I’m sure the Germans and Portuguese would have preferred not starting the tournament playing each other, its not like that match should have kept either of them from getting out of the group stage. Then enter the United States and Ghana. Under Jurgen Klinsmann’s leadership the US has been pushed right to the cusp of international elite status. No really! Don’t laugh! Hey stop that! Look! We’re ranked #13 in the world right now!
So I don’t think either Portugal or Germany are happy to see the US in their group, and that should give American soccer fans hope. Now, I also think both those nations are the true elite of international soccer so they’re definitely not afraid of us and they don’t expect to drop any points to us, let alone lose to us, but both are undeniably aware that the US can play with them and probably wouldn’t be surprised to see the US come out of the group (so long as it was in 2nd, behind them).
The path to the knockout round is definitely not easy for the US, but this is probably the best team the US has ever had. As upsetting as it can be for Jurgen and fans of American soccer to watch US players flood back to MLS from Europe (and thats probably a topic for another time) the fact remains that this is the best collection of talent US soccer has put together in my time as a fan.
The talent pipeline into US soccer looks absolutely fantastic, which has always been harder than it should be since the vast majority of the US’s top athletes are filtered into a myriad of other sports (football, basketball, baseball, etc) before they even consider soccer. However, the talent pipeline is undeniably improving and our play on the pitch proves that. Moreover, this is even before you consider the absolute coup engineered by Jurgen to convince Julian Green (son of a US serviceman) to pick the US over Germany for his international soccer-playing allegiance. Green is an elite up and coming player who plays for one of Europe’s top clubs (Bayern Munich) and securing him now means the US has locked up a player with the potential to be one of the best in the world. Green will be the anchor to at least 3 future US World Cup teams, and represents a sign that the US is serious about contending in the crucible of international soccer for years to come. Compare this kind of reckless optimism to the dejection in 2010, just before the World Cup, caused by the loss of Giuseppe Rossi (New Jersey born, but of Italian parents) and its hard to argue that things haven’t changed for the better with the United States Men’s National Team.
So in any event, we can’t lose heart since our team is among the best collections of talent the US has ever brought to the World Cup. Moreover, things aren’t all bad in facing our opponents. One particular problem with the US’s group is that it includes a trip to the dreaded Manaus. Everyone wanted to avoid the Amazonian venue this year because of the terrible weather conditions (heat and humidity), the added travel required to play there (the US will have to travel 9,000 miles just to play their 3 group stage matches) and the reportedly abysmal conditions of the (as yet unready?) venue itself. However, the beauty of being in a “Group” is that the 3 other teams have to do exactly the same thing. Yes this will be difficult and yes conditioning will be an issue, but its not insurmountable, and this trip is just as likely to derail one of our group mates as it is us.
As far as our opponents themselves, yes Ghana has twice knocked us out of the cup, but there is no reason this US team, which is more talented than either of the last two, can’t beat them. Its not like those two losses were blowouts (a 2-1 loss in Germany in 2006 which came off a penalty shot late in the first half and a 2-1 loss in South Africa in 2010 that came on a miraculous goal in extra time [93rd minute]). Both those losses could have swung our way given a little luck, but this time around, when the World Cup starts for the US on June 16th against that same Ghana squad, I think the US will be the more talented squad and that game is ours to lose. We need to win. Not just draw and get points. Three points in that game is a must, but its more than possible, and if we don’t manage to beat Ghana, I think everyone on the US Men’s National team will know they didn’t deserve to move on anyway. (Not that that will be a concern, 3-1 US over Ghana. Vengeance!!!!)
I don’t really have any idea how anyone stops Cristiano Ronaldo (reigning player of the year with Lionel Messi’s injury plagued season) who is so unbearably graceful on the pitch he’s like Tinkerbell out there (which sounds like it should be an insult until he absolutely dismantles your back line with his faery-like flittering and overall astoundingly nimble ways). Just ask Sweden how safe you feel when the King of the Faeries is on the pitch with you…
So against Portugal we definitely won’t have the most talented player on the field, but honestly, when we play elite teams we never have the best player on the field. Doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t win. Just means we’re in for an exciting ride. Portugal will likely lose to Germany in the first game, putting Germany at 3 points and Portugal at 0. All we need to do against Portugal in our second game (as long as we beat Ghana in the first game like we should) is draw. Grab one point to put us at four while Germany will likely beat Ghana (putting Germany at 6 and Ghana at 0) and we’ll end up sitting pretty at 2nd place in the group! [Germany 6, USA 4, Portugal 1, Ghana 0]
If things roll that way for us, our final game against Germany will be meaningless for them. They will have locked up a berth into the knockout rounds win or lose. Moreover, after playing a grueling travel schedule (same as the US) they might even want to rest some players. If Germany sits back and relaxes, giving us a chance to draw with them (a win would be amazing but we don’t need it) we’ll clinch the second spot in the group and a berth into the knockout rounds! (Portugal would only be able to get to 4 points with a win against Ghana leaving us free to sneak past them with 5 points like the victorious little ferrets we are!)
I’m not saying any of this is particularly likely. Portugal and the Faery King Oberonaldo could easily beat Germany which would throw off the whole calculation. We could play terribly against Ghana and draw (essentially ending both teams’ chances of moving on). The real point though, is simply that there is a chance. This team has grown leaps and bounds since 2010. Even if we don’t make it to the knockout stages, this will still have been an incredibly impressive run and a necessary step toward true championship contention for the US on the world stage. However, I’d like to believe that the Group of Death will just be one more proving ground for the US’s continued emergence on the international football scene. So prepare yourself Oberonaldo, you beautiful faery-man you. The US is on the rise.