By Kevin Baxter
Juergen Klinsmann struggled to put a bright spin on what was clearly a black Friday for U.S. soccer. But his face told the story his words couldn’t.
On most days, the perpetually exuberant Klinsmann looks like a boy who just got a puppy. But after the U.S. team he coaches was drawn into the most difficult four-team group for next summer’s World Cup, he looked like a boy whose puppy had just been run over.
“Well, I think we hit one of those real big killer groups,” Klinsmann said from the Brazilian beachfront resort of Costa do Sauipe after the U.S. was paired with Germany, Portugal and Ghana in a group from which only two countries can advance. “It is what it is.”
What it is was disappointing, depressing and disheartening for Klinsmann. But it shouldn’t have been surprising because two months ago he predicted it would happen.
The World Cup draw, he complained then, was unbalanced and capricious. With only eight of the 32 teams seeded into the selection process, a team like the U.S., which dominated its regional qualifying tournament, was treated no differently than any other unranked team.
As a result Mexico, twice shut out by the Americans in qualifying before winning a two-leg playoff with lowly New Zealand just to reach Brazil, can be drawn into a relatively easy group, as it was, while the U.S. gets two of the world’s top five teams in Germany and Portugal.
And Mexico’s group, which includes Croatia, Cameroon and Brazil, isn’t even the softest of the eight. The four teams in Group H (Belgium, Algeria, South Korea and Russia) combined to win only two games in the last two World Cups and Group F, headed by Argentina, features three teams (Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria) that haven’t won a World Cup game this century.
Oh, and remember that 15-hour, 6,900-mile trip Mexico made to New Zealand last month as punishment for its dismal qualifying campaign? The U.S. will cover more than 9,000 miles in 10 days in Brazil, including one trip to the Amazon city of Manaus, where the temperature and the humidity will be in the high 80s. The Americans will spend five times as many hours in the air as they will playing games; no other World Cup team will travel as far in group play.
“We’ll deal with it,” Klinsmann said, “with a smile on our face.”
Many of U.S. players parroted Klinsmann, at least publicly.
“The hard part is getting to the World Cup, and that’s something that we have done already,” forward Eddie Johnson said. “We couldn’t have a better opportunity than to play against such amazing countries as Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
“When they say the ‘Group of Death,’ we have to look at ourselves as well. We’re the U.S. national team and if it’s considered the ‘Group of Death’ [because we are a part of it], it shows how far the country has come.”
“You can’t think about ‘Am I the favorite, am I the underdog? What’s it going to be like playing in the heat or with the travel?’ Those are factors that come into it, but at the end of the day both teams have to deal with them. You both deal with the conditions, with injuries, with yellow cards. It’s all part of the World Cup. Anything can happen and anything can happen on a given day.”
There is some cause for optimism, though. The last time the U.S. played Portugal, in the 2002 World Cup, the Europeans were among the favorites to win the title before losing to the Americans, 3-2, in group play. But Cristiano Ronaldo , 17 then, watched that game on television.
Germany, ranked second in the world and, like Portugal 12 years ago, a World Cup favorite, lost once this year, 4-3 to the U.S. in June. But that was a German “B” team featuring only three regulars.
That could make the U.S. opener with Ghana — on paper, the weakest team in the group — key to the U.S. hopes. In the last World Cup it took at least four points to advance out of group play, leaving the Americans needing at least a draw with Ghana to have anything more than a mathematical chance of rising from the “Group of Death.”
How ominous, then, to note it was Ghana that spoiled the last two World Cups for the U.S., each time winning, 2-1, to send the U.S. home, the most recent coming in overtime in the round of 16 in South Africa. Ironically, that might turn out to be the one truly positive thing about the luck of the draw for the U.S. players, who no doubt will spend the next six months with a giant chip on their shoulders and revenge on their minds.
“The memory will still be very fresh of the loss in the round of 16 in 2010,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “I think that will help us more than it will them. We’re a much stronger team than we were, and they’ll know that going into the game. We’ll look to set that result right.”