Sports Commentary: "Marching out of the 'Group of Death'"
The worst possible scenario became a reality for the U.S. men’s national team. In December, they were drawn into the “Group of Death” for the 2014 World Cup along with Ghana, Portugal and Germany. To add to the difficulty of advancing out of this supremely talented group, the team faces the toughest travel schedule of any country in the tournament. They’ll trek roughly 9,000 miles across Brazil in the group stages alone.
Still, the United States has steadily improved in the last 10 years and with that improvement has come increased expectations going into this year’s tournament. No longer the underdogs, Team USA will be expected to compete with the world’s most elite squads. An exit in the group stage would be detrimental to the team’s progress. Although advancing to the Round of 16—and potentially beyond—will require a near flawless run, it’s not impossible.
First up for the U.S. men’s team is a familiar foe. Ghana has knocked Team USA out of each of the last two World Cups. In 2010, the United States dominated much of their Round of 16 matchup before Asamoah Gyan, Ghana’s rising star, scored in overtime to send the Americans packing once again. Though the Ghanaians were denied a spot in the semifinals due to a controversial handball in their game against Uruguay, the country boasts a promising young squad again this year which will look to build on that performance.
Portugal will be the next test for the United States, and while the Cristiano Ronaldo-led team is talented, many people seem to have forgotten that the squad’s World Cup qualification came down to the wire. The team secured a spot only after a tight play-in game against Sweden. Still, as previous tournaments have proven, past results mean nothing at the World Cup. Any squad with arguably the world’s best player can never be counted out. While the team lacks depth, it has the offensive firepower to compete with top-level competition.
The third and final opponent the team will see in Brazil is American head coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s home country, Germany. One of the pre-tournament favorites, Germany has depth at every position not to mention experience. The team was unbeaten in qualifying and scored an impressive 36 goals along the way. Joachim Löw’s squad will provide the stiffest competition for the Americans.
Still, Klinsmann has his team poised to make a deep run. The man who masterminded Germany’s shocking third-place finish in 2006 has a deep and talented player pool. The squad he fields will likely be a mix of veteran leaders—Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard—as well as young talents Terrence Boyd and Aron Johannsson. They should match up well with Ghana and even Portugal, providing they can find a way to limit Ronaldo.
So will the United States advance into the knockout round? Yes, I believe they will. Why? Well, despite being drawn into the most difficult group, the team does have a few things going for them. First, they play their games in the best possible order. Earning a victory to start the tournament is crucial, and Ghana is their most winnable game.
They also have the luxury of facing Germany last. If results go as predicted, Germany could very well have already clinched a spot in the Round of 16 by that point, meaning they may be resting key players. Realistically, four points could be enough for the United States to advance. Plus, what everyone seems to be forgetting is that the “Group of Death” is so-named in part because the Americans are in it. In recent years, the United States has gained respect across the international soccer world. Other teams are just as concerned about playing the United States as American fans are about playing Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
So with the 2014 World Cup less than a month away, there is reason for optimism. The “Group of Death” will be a challenge, no doubt, but to be the best, you have to be able to compete with the top nations, and the United States looks ready to do just that.
Meghan O’Donnell is the new managing sports editor of The Review for the fall of 2014. Send any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.