Going into today's World Cup draw, we already knew just how stacked the 32-team field that make up next year's tournament in Brazil was. Seemingly every perennial superpower—hosts Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, and the Netherlands, Italy—as well as the ridiculous "underclass" of teams like Belgium, Colombia, Portugal, Uruguay, and the Ivory Coast would be there. We knew that today, in an unbelievably talented field, multiple "groups of death" would be drawn. We knew that the odds of the United States avoiding one of those groups were slim.
And today, when the smoke settled, the United States were drawn into Group G, along with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. The group is the most difficult of the tournament—hilariously, frighteningly strong. The top two nations from each group advance to the knockout rounds, and right now, today, seven months from the world's greatest sporting event—it appears as if the United States are fucked.
First, there's the strength of the teams the USMNT will be going against. The seeded team and favorites in our group, Germany, are are one of the top five sides in the world, and likely in the top three. Their B-team could compete in this tournament, and the squad they'll be fielding next summer boasts the sport's best. There's Philipp Lahm and Mesut Özil and Bastian Schweinstager and Sami Khedira and Thomas Müller and Jerome Boateng and Marco Reus and Per Mertesacker and others, lots of others, bonafide international superstars who are fighting just to see the pitch. If Germany aren't the most talented team in the tournament, they're certainly the deepest. Always an effective team, they're now playing one of the most strikingly beautiful, intricate styles in the sport. USMNT coach Jürgen Klinsmann started the shift in philosophy in 2004, when he held the reins of the German national team, and now we'll have to contend with the endpoint of Klinsmann's creation.
The United States, however, open play with Ghana. One of the most exciting teams in the tournament, they're the American's own personal executioners, having knocked the USMNT out of the last two World Cups. They're expected by many to be the weakest team in the group, even though they still boast players like Asamoah Gyan, Christian Atsu, Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng, and Andre Ayew. The Ghanaians were a missed penalty away from advancing to the World Cup semifinal in 2010, so they're capable. Scarier is that while Ghana only qualified for their first World up in 2006, their youth teams have been absolutely running shit in developmental competitions. A lot of those kids are grown up now, giving Ghana a great mix of youth and experience.
With Germany and Ghana drawn alongside the United States, it was already going to be difficult to advance. If there was still any residual optimism, maybe from the Americans' historic year and vast improvement as a side, then the final team to enter the fray, Portugal, stamped it all out.
We could talk about Portugal's talent all of the pitch, like Pepe and João Moutinho, Nani and Coentrão, Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles. Those players are good, a better group on paper than the American side. But tournaments are about superstars. And right now, today, seven months from the world's greatest sporting event, Portugal have the best player in soccer.
Cristiano Ronaldo has long played in Lionel Messi's shadow, but it seems that recently, aided by a Messi injury, Ronaldo has finally overtaken his rival. Ronaldo's going absolutely apeshit this year. Through 14 matches, he's already scored 17 goals this season in La Liga for Real Madrid—more than eight teams in the Spanish first division. Portugal, who qualified for the World Cup through a playoff, are only in the tournament because he scored each of his team's four goals against Sweden over two legs a few weeks back. Because soccer's low-scoring, we witness few players who are actually unstoppable in a literal-ish sense of the word. The best strikers in the world generally average a goal about every other game. But Cristiano Ronaldo is unstoppable. He's effectively a one-man team on a team that doesn't need it.
And so one can reasonably surmise that the United States Men's National Team is fucked. To add insult, the United States will travel a longer distance—about 9,000 miles—than any other team in the tournament. The challenge looks insurmountable. There doesn't appear any way out of the group. But since they'll be there anyway, they might as well try.
If there's any sliver of hope, it could be found in the fact that with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, the USMNT will field the two best Americans to ever kick a ball in what's likely to be their last ride. And as great as those two are, midfielder Michael Bradley is likely the best player on the team. There also might be solace in the knowledge that no European team has ever won a World Cup in the Americas. Brazil in June is oppressively hot, with air you can almost chew. With two European teams in Group G, that's gotta count for something, right?
Then there's the actual fixture schedule. The Americans play Ghana first in a must-win match. The two sides are ostensibly even, and the Americans will ostensibly be healthy. This is a winnable match.
Next, they play Portugal. Maybe the Portuguese, who have shown the slightest bit of inconsistency through qualifying, get blasted by the Germans, and maybe they're down on themselves. Maybe they pull out a miracle draw, but Ronaldo pulls a hamstring or something. Maybe Ronaldo just has a bad day, and can't break down the budding partnership of center backs Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler. Maybe the Americans pick up a point. Maybe even three.
The final match is against the Germans. If all goes as expected, the Germans will have six points already, and likely guaranteed passage to the knockout rounds. So they take their foot off the gas. They rest Philipp Lahm and Mesut Özil and Bastian Schweinstager and Sami Khedira and Thomas Müller and Jerome Boateng and Marco Reus and Per Mertesacker, and something crazy happens, something miraculous. What I'm saying is, there's still a chance.
But most likely, the Americans are fucked. They're getting three matches in, and they're crashing out. After a great cycle under Klinsmann, did the USMNT fail when it mattered most? Was it all for naught?
Nah. As we've said before on this here site, Klinsmann is the truth. Just as the Germans began their irreversible evolution under the manager nearly a decade ago, so too have the Americans. The USMNT has a distinct, recognizable style of play and soul now, and they're actually kind of beautiful to behold. Not only have the United States cemented their place atop CONCACAF, but they've made a decent argument that they're here, that they've arrived on the scene of international soccer. We're attracting and signing over recruits like Icelandic Alabaman Aron Jóhannsson, a host of Mexican-Americans, and a burgeoning German contingent.
The United States Men's National Team drew the group of death. They're not likely to survive it. American fans might already have to start looking toward the 2018 Russia World Cup. But if they do, they can do so with optimism, and perhaps more tellingly, with expectations.
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