By Frank Gaise / The Star-Ledger
FIFA finally did the United States a favor for the 2014 World Cup.
Soccer’s world governing body changed the starting time for the June 22 game against Portugal, which will be played in the Amazonian jungle city of Manaus, from 3 p.m. local time to 6 p.m.
Now the temperature will only be 100 degrees at kickoff rather than 120.
Hey, every degree counts.
Aside from that, the Americans were hammered about as hard as you can get hammered at Friday’s draw. For the 2010 World Cup, the United States received a favorable draw and a minimal group travel schedule. This time? The Group of Death and a 9,000-mile trek for the first three games.
The upside? After playing Ghana, Portugal and Germany, if the Americans advance as the second-place team, Belgium, their likely opponent, wouldn’t look so bad at that point.
And if a miracle happens and the U.S. wins its group, the team would be salivating at the prospect of playing Algeria, Russia or South Korea in the second round.
Getting back to reality, now that the pain from FIFA’s knife has dulled, let’s examine the tournament scenarios.
The Americans lose all three games and finish last in the 32-team field. In other words, a repeat of the 1998 tournament.
The U.S. plays well in all three games but fails to advance to the knockout stage.
Well, it may not be as bad as first feared. In a tournament, it’s not always the teams you play, but the order you play them.
Looking at Group G, it’s fair to say Germany is the best team, but it’s also fair to say that the United States, Portugal and Ghana can be grouped in any order after that. In tournament play, it’s always important to get at least a point in the first game. Some people feel it’s best to play the worst team in the group last because it’s the easiest game and you can almost bank on three points.
The best case, however, is to play the easiest team first. The reason? Get the three points and you dictate how the group plays out.
Here’s how the U.S. fared in its past six World Cups and see if you can see a pattern on how to advance out of group play.
1990: In the Americans’ first venture into the tournament in 40 years, they were placed in a group with host Italy because, well, FIFA always gives the host an easy group. The United States opened with Czechoslovakia and were destroyed, 5-1, and were immediately behind the 8-ball.
Going into a defensive posture, the U.S. only lost 1-0 to Italy, but were done after two games because of the first result. A 2-1 loss to Austria concluded the class in World Cup 101.
1994: We were a lot more cocky when the tournament was played in the United States, and the team opened with a solid 1-1 tie against Switzerland. That was followed by a shocking 2-1 win over Colombia. Sitting on four points, and with a chance to win the group, the U.S. faltered and lost to Romania, 1-0, and had to play eventual-champion Brazil in the next round. But early points against better teams helped them advance.
1998: There were a number of reasons for this disaster, too many to go into here. But the pattern held up. An opening 2-0 loss to Germany was followed by a 2-1 loss to Iran and a 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia.
2002: An infusion of youth looked to make their mark early, and boy did they. Going against heavily-favored Portugal in the opening game, the Americans scored four minutes in and were up 3-0 after 36 minutes. The 3-2 victory set up a 1-1 tie with host South Korea in the second game and an eventual run to the quarterfinals.
2006: Another overconfident team opened with an embarrassing 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic. A 1-1 tie with Italy put all the pressure on the third game, which they lost to Ghana, 2-1.
2010: The U.S. tied England and Slovenia in its first two games, setting up a 1-0 victory over Algeria and advancement to the knockout round. Unfortunately, Ghana was there again.
That’s six World Cup performances that saw good things happen when you get points from the first game and bad things happen if you don’t.
What does that mean for next summer? Everything may come down to the opener against Ghana. And let’s face it, isn’t it about time we beat them?
For argument’s sake, let’s say the U.S. beats Ghana and Germany beats Portugal in the other game. That would put enormous pressure on Portugal in the second game against the U.S and enable the Americans to play for a tie, which would give them four points. And if Germany beats Ghana, the standings would have Germany with six points, the U.S. with four, Portugal with one and Ghana with zero.
With Germany having ensured advancement, all it would need is a tie to win the group, and with a number the Germany players having played for U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and their coach, Joachim Loew, having been Klinsmann’s assistant with the German national team, who would want to knock him out of the tournament?
It may not be a realistic scenario, but it has merit. Klinsmann has six months to work out the plan to make it happen.
United States striker Jozy Altidore scored his first English Premier League goal for Sunderland in last week’s 4-3 loss to Chelsea. … A goal by U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya gave Nantes a 1-0 victory over Marseille on Friday. …
The Crew re-signed forward Dominic Oduro, who scored a career-high 13 goals last season. … The Sounders declined the option on starting goalkeeper Michael Gspurning. … Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who made two crucial penalty kick saves against Real Salt Lake in Saturday’s MLS Cup final shootout, announced his retirement. … Stage One of the MLS Re-Entry Process will be held Thursday while Stage Two is set for Dec. 18. …
The NCAA men’s semifinals will be played Friday night at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. Notre Dame plays New Mexico at 5 p.m. and Maryland takes on Virginia at 7:30. The winners play for the title Sunday at 3 p.m. … America will play Leon for the Mexican league’s Apertura championship. The first leg will be Thursday in Leon, with the return leg Sunday in Mexico City. America is tied with Chivas Guadalajara for the most league titles with 11. Leon hasn’t won the championship since 1992. …
Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Franck Ribery are the finalists for the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player while Abby Wambach, Marta and Nadine Angerer are the women’s finalists. The awards will be presented Jan. 13. … FIFA will give the 2014 World Cup winner $35 million in prize money, and all 32 nations will get at least $8 million.
FIFA’s fund of $576 million also includes payments to clubs worldwide and an insurance policy to cover injured players’ salaries. At the 2010 World Cup, champion Spain earned $30 million from a $348 million teams’ prize money pot. … FIFA announced that India will host the Under-17 World Cup in 2017 while Jordan will host the Under-17 Women’s World Cup in 2016. Also, South Korea will stage the Under-20 World Cup in 2017 and South Africa the 2016 Under-20 Women’s World Cup. …
The construction accident at the World Cup stadium in Sao Paulo will push back its opening to mid April, two months before the tournament starts. … Match Day 6 of the European Champions League, the final games of group play, will be played today and Wednesday while Match Day 6 of the Europa League will be played Thursday. The Club World Cup begins Wednesday in Morocco. …
Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard may be out six weeks with a hamstring injury. … A number of streaks were snapped in the EPL the past week. Stoke earned its first league victory over Chelsea in 38 years, Everton won at Manchester United for the first time since 1992 and Newcastle won at Manchester United for the first time since 1972 (that’s right. Man U lost twice at home in a span of four days). … Three of the goals in Liverpool’s 4-1 victory over West Ham were own goals. … Speaking of own goals, John O’Shea had one in Sunderland’s 2-1 loss to Tottenham. It was Sunderland’s fifth own goal this season. …
Arsenal has been drawn to play Tottenham in the highlight match of the third round of the FA Cup, which will be played the first weekend of January. … The Bundesliga will decide in March whether to introduce goal-line technology in its top two divisions. … Nuremberg tied Mainz, 1-1, Friday to run its winless streak to start the Bundesliga season to a record 15 games. 1860 Munich (1977) and Duisberg (1994) shared the record with 14. …
Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben will be out six weeks after injuring his right knee in a collision with Augsburg goalkeeper Marwin Hitz in Bayern’s 2-0 win in a German Cup match. … Werder Bremen’s 7-0 loss to Bayern Munich was its worst ever in the Bundesliga. That game not only increased Bayern’s record league unbeaten run to 40 games, but made Pep Guardiola the first coach in the Bundesliga not to lose any of his first 15 games. …
Defending champion Bayern Munich was drawn to play at Hamburg in the German Cup quarterfinals either Feb. 11 or 12. … Athletic Bilbao signed defenderAndoni Iraiola to a one-year contract extension that ties him to the club until 2015. … Former Spain coach Luis Aragones, who last coached Fenerbahce in 2009, says he is retiring. He is 75. …
Sevilla president Jose Maria del Nido resigned after being sentenced to seven years in prison for embezzlement. … Real Madrid was held to a scoreless tie against third-division club Olimpic Xativa in its Copa del Rey opener. The second leg is in two weeks. … Ruben Gracia agreed to extend his contract with Villarreal for another three years, through 2017. … Chile midfielder Arturo Vidalextended his contract with Juventus by one season, through 2017. … PSG’s 36-game unbeaten run came to an end last week with a 2-0 loss to Evian. … Marseille fired coachElie Baup on Saturday and replaced him with sporting director Jose Anigo until the winter break. … Bastia goalkeeper Mickael Landreau played his 603rd French league game at Ajaccio to break the record for most appearances held by former Monaco goalkeeper Jean-Luc Ettori. The game ended in a 1-1 tie. …
Montpellier coach Jean Fernandez resigned after a seventh straight match without a win. He was replaced byRolland Courbis, who coached the club from 2007-09 when it was in the French second division. … Former Portugal playmaker Deco has asked The Court of Arbitration for Sport to overturn his one-year ban for doping. Deco, who retired in August, wants to clear his name. He had tested positive for a banned diuretic which can hide the presence of other drugs shortly after he retired. … Despite failing to qualify for the World Cup, Sweden coach Erik Hamren will not only stay but he signed a contract extension through the 2016 European Championship. …
The Czech football federation said new coach Pavel Vrba will be given a four-year contract. That will carry him through the 2016 European Championships and qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. … The A-League played its 1,000th match on Sunday when the Newcastle Jets beat the Melbourne Victory, 2-1. The league’s inaugural match was played on Aug. 26, 2005 when the Jets hosted Adelaide United. …
Australia midfielder Mark Bresciano has asked The Court of Arbitration for Sport to overturn his four-month ban by FIFA for breaking his contract to sign with another club team, but the decision may come at a price. The Court expects to render a decision in four months, but if Bresciano loses, the four-month ban would keep him out of the World Cup. Bresciano, 33, has been a member of Australia’s past two World Cup squads. …
Sanfrecce Hiroshima won its second-straight J-League title with a 2-0 victory at Kashima Antlers on Saturday. The Yokohama Marinos, which led by two points at the start of the final day, lost 1-0 at Kawasaki Frontale. Yokohama lost its final two games of the season.