Perhaps the fates were influenced because U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati had the gall to let FIFA President Sepp Blatter know that he thinks plans for the 2022 World Cup are flawed.
Perhaps they were swayed because Gulati has criticized FIFA for its lack of transparency. Maybe the outcome came about because the United States has forced the world’s soccer federations to pay attention to women’s soccer, which many countries would prefer to ignore.
But for whatever reason, the soccer gods frowned on the Americans on Friday during the World Cup draw. The U.S. team landed in a backbreaking group, one that makes its goal of advancing to the Round of 16 extremely difficult. The group includes Germany, the favorite among countries other than host Brazil to win the World Cup; Portugal, the team with arguably the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo; and Ghana, a team that haunts the United States.
Yes, we know the draw is supposed to be random. But it’s hard to really believe that, when U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann will be facing Germany, the team he starred with as a player and then led to the semifinals as a coach in 2006 in Germany. And with the U.S. team just happening to draw Ghana, the team that eliminated the Americans the past two World Cups. Ghana won’t eliminate the U.S. this time – the Black Stars will be the United States’ first opponent, in the city of Natal.
“It couldn’t get any more difficult or any bigger,” Klinsmann said after the draw. “But that’s what the World Cup is about. It’s a real challenge and we’ll take it. We’ll take it on and hopefully we’re going to surprise some people there.”
This is a big-boy event and it reaffirms Gulati’s decision to go all in and hire Klinsmann two years ago. It is hard to feel terribly optimistic about U.S. chances, but they would be impossible if Bob Bradley were still at the helm. Klinsmann understands what it takes to succeed in international soccer and welcomes the immense challenge. He refuses to call his team an underdog – shedding the image the Americans have cultivated for the past six World Cups. He wants his team to believe it can play with and beat any team in the world, including formidable Germany.
“The United States is ahead of where we were just a few years ago,” said Earthquakes defender Clarence Goodson, who has a good chance to be on the roster Klinsmann takes to Brazil. “The players, the coaching, the atmosphere, the athletes – it’s all getting better. We’re a country that, on our day, could beat anybody in the world. We’re not a country who will ever go to a World Cup again and say, ‘Let’s play three games and go home.’ We expect more than that. We think we’re capable of more than that.”
To that end, his team needs to buy in, completely. That includes the team’s linchpin,Landon Donovan. The face of American soccer has one more World Cup to cement – or erode – his legend. After a difficult start to 2012, when Klinsmann was clearly unhappy with Donovan’s decision to take time off and go on a personal walkabout, Donovan reasserted his importance during the qualifying process.
But the drama isn’t over between the coach and star. In October, Klinsmann said he hoped that all his MLS-based players would take the opportunity to play in Europe to prepare for the World Cup. Last week, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena (who sang a very different song when he coached the national team in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups) said Donovan would not be allowed to go back to Everton on loan. How this plays out could have a huge impact on the U.S. team’s mind-set and preparations heading into Brazil.
Complicating the difficulty of the draw is the enormous amount of travel the Americans will face: a total of 9,000 miles in the first round. But the United States is probably less fazed by that than any other team. All the American players are used to a huge amount of travel, whether they are based in Europe and have to fly back for national team games, or are in the MLS and have to fly 3,000 miles for a midweek game in August. But two games are afternoon games in the tropics, so the Americans are going to have to be incredibly fit and avoid the malaise that has occasionally struck them when they’ve had to play in Central America or the Caribbean.
The story lines in the World Cup always run deep and are complicated, tangled tales of national identity and long-held grudges. For the U.S. team, the narratives in this World Cup are unequaled. Klinsmann against his homeland and the players he helped develop. Donovan and Clint Dempsey trying to exact revenge on Ghana. The Americans facing Portugal, a team they shocked in 2002 by a 3-2 score. Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley are still playing for the U.S. team – but Portugal has upgraded just a bit, with Ronaldo, who was on the under-20 team back in 2002.
Whatever lies ahead in Brazil, the drama will be compelling.