By Bruce Arena
The U.S. might be in a ‘Group of Death’ for the 2014 World Cup. But experienced players and a competitive mind-set make the Americans formidable.
My initial reaction to Friday’s World Cup draw is the U.S.’ group will be labeled a “Group of Death.” The U.S. will face Germany, Portugal and Ghana in the opening round, teams with a wide range of skills, styles of play and star players.
However, I’m not convinced that the U.S. is a decided underdog. The Americans have intimate knowledge of all three teams, having played them over the last three World Cups. The U.S. is obviously familiar with Ghana, which eliminated the U.S. in the 2006 and 2010 Cups, and the Americans beat Germany in a friendly last June. U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann, who coached Germany to third place in the 2006 World Cup, knows the German team better than anyone. Meanwhile, Portugal struggled to qualify for this World Cup.
In the opening round, each country plays three games in a round-robin format, with the top two teams advancing to the knockout stage.
The U.S. will devote a lot of time and energy to preparing for its opening-game opponent, Ghana. Ghana has outstanding players in Sulley Muntari, Asamoah Gyan and Kevin-Prince Boateng. The U.S. will need to keep the game at a slow tempo, defend with numbers and look for chances on the break and on set pieces. Getting a point out of this game would be a good result (one point for a draw, three for a win).
Portugal has perhaps the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo. However, I’m not sold on the supporting players, and the U.S. will match up well against them. Additionally, I believe the U.S. will be better prepared mentally and physically to deal with the travel and heat and humidity for this matchup in Manaus, Brazil. This is the game the U.S. needs to win.
Clearly, Germany is the favorite in this group. Its physical qualities match up favorably against the U.S. The Germans have great balance and are strong defensively (Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger), and can create goal-scoring opportunities with players such as Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Marco Reus and Mario Gotze. Playing Germany in the last opening-round game may be a blessing in disguise for the U.S. At that point, Germany may have already solidified its advancement into the Round of 16.
For the U.S., the tactical approach for the last two games will depend on the result in the first game, as well as the outcome in the opening Germany-Portugal matchup. The U.S. may need to move from a defensive posture against Ghana to an aggressive, attacking mode against Portugal. For the U.S., securing a minimum of four points and advancing will be its primary mission in group play.
Let me be clear, the U.S. will not be pushovers. Arguably, the Americans are not a good passing and possession team at this level and will probably be playing a majority of the time on their back foot. However, they will be prepared, have a strong, competitive mind-set, possess a number of good and experienced players and will be able to deal with the difficult travel and climate conditions. Simply put, the U.S. will be a handful to play against.
To advance, the U.S. will need to be outstanding in the defensive half of the field and opportunistic with scoring chances. With Tim Howard, the U.S. has a strong goalkeeper with World Cup experience. However, the back line is inexperienced and will need to be supported by strong midfield play. Here, the experience provided by Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones will be invaluable. The U.S. will look to get out on the break and utilize the speed and strength of Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan. Additionally, the U.S. is extremely dangerous on attacking set pieces.
Although the U.S. will travel about 9,000 miles to three cities in the opening round, charter flights make the travel manageable. The U.S. will be playing in cities that are relatively high in heat and humidity. Those conditions will slow down the pace of the games, making ball possession critical. The U.S. needs to improve in that part of the game if it hopes to advance.
If the U.S. reaches the Round of 16, its 2014 World Cup would be labeled a success. Advancing to the quarterfinals would be incredible.
As for the other groups, Group B and D are the other “Groups of Death.” (Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia. Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy.)
Those teams are loaded with experience and world-class players.
But in the end, I see these 16 teams surviving group play and positioning themselves to win the 2014 World Cup: Brazil, Croatia, Spain, Netherlands, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Uruguay, Italy, Ecuador, France, Argentina, Nigeria, Germany, United States, Belgium and Russia.
Keep in mind that South American countries have always won the World Cup when it’s been held on their continent, and that may again be the case. Regardless, these countries will provide for us one of the greatest World Cups of our time.
Arena is general manager and head coach of the Galaxy and was head coach of the U.S. national team in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.