Photo by Garrett Cleverley/Soccer by Ives
By FRANCO PANIZO
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – It could have been worse.
That was the overall message from members of the U.S. Men’s National Team following Friday’s 2014 World Cup draw that saw them land in Group G alongside Ghana, Germany and Portugal. Some of the players said the U.S. is in the tournament’s Group of Death, but still kept a positive outlook on the difficult draw that seemed inevitable as soon as Germany was paired with Ghana.
“This is what the World Cup is about,” said Clint Dempsey. “It’s about playing the best teams and we’ve got a good group as far as that’s concerned, and I think we still have the quality if we play our best ball that we can get out of the group. It’s just making sure that we do that and try to get the most out of every game and not wait until that last game and need other people to do favors for you.
“At the same time, looking at that group, we think it’s going to go down to the last minute for everybody.”
Part of the reason why the U.S. players were optimistic is the travel. While they will travel nearly 9,000 miles in Brazil (more than any other team), the Americans have experience with trekking long distances due to the size of the United States.
In fact, they intentionally traveled quite a bit this past summer in an effort to prepare for what they could face next June.
“I know that during the summer we did a good job of trying to replicate that and having some difficult locations, trying to get from Jamaica all the way up to Seattle to Salt Lake and stuff like that,” said Dempsey. “We tried to replicate that travel and quick turnarounds and trying to get the job done and being able to get back to form. I thought we did a real good job of that this summer.”
Up first for the U.S. is a date with a World Cup nemesis. The Americans will take on Ghana on June 16 at Arena das Dunas in Natal, a match that will mark the third straight World Cup in which the two nations will meet.
The Black Stars eliminated the U.S. in the last two tournaments, knocking off Bob Bradley’s side in extra time of a Round of 16 match in 2010 and Bruce Arena’s in the two teams’ final group stage game four years earlier. Both matches ended 2-1 in Ghana’s favor.
Clearly, there will be a chance for redemption for the Americans.
“It’s one of those situations where you feel hard done-by, because the last two times we played them, they’re the team that beat us and kind of crushed our dreams of trying to go on further in the World Cup,” said Dempsey. “I think we’re due a little bit of luck and I think we’re due a win against them.”
Six days after playing in their opener, the U.S. will take on Portugal at Arena Amazonia in Manaus in the countries’ first meeting since the 2002 World Cup. The Americans were considered heavy underdogs when the two sides played in their group opener that year, but the U.S. came out flying and stunned Portugal, 3-2, behind an impressive first-half performance that saw them take a 3-0 lead.
That Portugal side did not have a player of the caliber of Cristiano Ronaldo, however.
“(I’m) excited,” said center back Matt Besler. “You play one of the best players in the world, arguably the best player in the world, on a big stage. It’ll be fun.”
“I faced him for the (LA) Galaxy once before and that was fun, but I think he’s going to be even harder playing for his country in this tournament,” added center back Omar Gonzalez. “I think it’s going to be awesome and it should be a fun time.”
The U.S. close out group play with a June 26 meeting at Arena Pernambuco in Recife against none other than Germany, the country U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was born in, helped win a World Cup during his playing days and managed at the 2006 World Cup.
For Klinsmann, the match will hold even more significance than this past June’s 4-3 friendly victory over the Germans and the American players believe that can only benefit them.
“I’ve never seen a coach more excited to face anybody than when we played Germany this summer and more fired up before, at halftime, during the game,” said right back Brad Evans. “It was pretty incredible and guys fed off that emotion and will continue to do so in that (World Cup) game against Germany.”
There is no denying that advancing out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds is a tall order for the Americans because they are clearly the underdogs. If they manage to do so, however, a big statement will be made not only to U.S. fans back home but to everyone across the world.
“It’s always a big statement when you get out of the group because I think it builds (confidence),” said Dempsey. “The further you go on in a tournament, the more that all of America kind of gets behind you. It would be a huge statement and a huge step forward for soccer in this country.
“But making sure that you do well in any World Cup, I feel like that’s what it’s all about, trying to move the game further in your country and trying to make sure that maybe you’re one of those teams that is getting further in the tournament and trying to win it.”