EDGAR ZUNIGA - Friday, December 6, 2013
Well, now-that was truly captivating television.
We all know that initial reaction was one of despair; hands in your hair, shaking your head.
Germany, Ghana and Portugal.
What a draw. So what now? Do we just keep screaming or roll up into a ball and sulk in the emo corner?
Are you serious?
This is what US Soccer is all about. Nothing ever comes easy for Team USA. At some point, whether in group play or in the later rounds, we all knew that the US would have to face someone tough and, for the US, every match will come with a side of intrigue, which is just absolutely perfect for American audiences.
You can bet that ESPN is already drooling over the ratings expected for every single group match.
However, before we delve into the group, there is an interesting and eerie subject to touch upon that is sure to come up with one of the major media outlets but you will see it here first and it will make you get online and see that it is fact.
It's the US World Cup cycle, which has historically predicted how the US fared in previous World Cups. It goes back and forth and can be traced back to the first World Cup, Uruguay 1930, when the US breezed through group play only to get unceremoniously ousted by Argentina in a brutal semifinal game, 6-1.
Still, with the US earning a third-place finish, World Cup '30 was a resounding success.
Four years later, the format of the World Cup was changed to something very similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, including a play-in round between the US and Mexico. Yes, 2002 was not the first time the US and Mexico played each other in a world tournament. Although the play-in game was not officially a World Cup match, both teams had to travel to Rome for the game, and the US won 4-2, which is another way of saying "dos a cero," earning the US two points (a W meant two points back then), so that's another "dos a cero" against Mexico.
What was the reward for the US? On three-days rest, getting to face Italy, who were not only hosting the tournament they would eventually win, but (as alluded to) had been threatened by Benito Mussolini (who wanted to show the world the might of fascism) to go all the way-or else.
The US was crushed 7-1 and took a long boat ride back home across the Atlantic. World Cup '34 was a disaster.
In 1938, with Europe on the verge of World War II and the rest of the world holding its breath, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dutch Guiana, El Salvador, Mexico, and the United States all withdrew, so Cuba qualified automatically. Surprisingly, Cuba defeated Romania in the first round, but got obliterated 8-0 by Sweden in the quarterfinals.
Due to WWII, the World Cup was canceled until 1950, when it was played in Brazil, mostly because Europe had been reduced to smoking craters.
So, if you're keeping score, '30 good, '34 bad. That meant something good was going to happen for the US in 1950.
Alas, the record books show that the US finished last in their group, losing hard games to Spain and Chile. However, Joe Gaetjens.
Yes, this was the year the US defeated England 1-0, thanks to a goal by Gaetjens. It is considered by many as the greatest upset in World Cup history. Sadly, only one American journalist, Dent McSkimming, was at the World Cup, and he had to pay his way there as he was unable to persuade the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to cover his travel costs. His was the only article in American newspapers detailing the glorious victory and there was barely a whisper across the nation.
How brutal was the loss for England? Despite it being England's World Cup debut, they were reputed as the "Kings of Football" and heavily favored to win the World Cup. The loss to the US prevented England from advancing to the second round, and England's blue uniforms, which made their debut in this game, were never worn again in the World Cup (and probably doused in gasoline, set on fire, and the ashes thrown in a safe and tossed into the mid-Atlantic ridge).
So, despite the last-place finish, that victory over mighty England was pretty damned good. World Cup '50 was okay.
Then, there was that 40-year drought, until Paul Caligiuri's "Shot Heard 'Round the World" miraculously put the US back in the World Cup.
In 1990, the US got raked across the coals. Thrown in the group with host Italy, the US suffered a horrible 5-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia, which drew many pundits to wonder aloud if the US even belonged in the World Cup. However, the US finished in typical gritty fashion, fighting Italy to a 1-0 loss, followed by a 2-1 defeat to Austria.
Three and out. Thanks for coming, here are your parting gifts. World Cup '90 was a learning experience.
Four years later, the World Cup was brought to American soil, which in itself was a huge victory for US Soccer. This act, alone, planted the seed for a new generation of US players, supporters and Major League Soccer.
Led by the charismatic Bora Milutinovic, the US was placed in a group with a tough Switzerland team, World Cup favorites Colombia, and Romania, which was going through a great era, led by Gheorghe Hagi.
Of course, any US supporter that is worthy of wearing their stars and stripes is familiar with what happened in '94. The US not only maintained the tradition of the host team advancing past the group stage, they put up a strong fight against the beast that was Brazil and might have pulled off a shocking upset until Leonardo Araújo delivered a vicious elbow to Tab Ramos' skull, shutting down whatever offense the US could muster.
Advancing to the second round, playing in a World Cup in front of a home crowd, and losing 1-0 to the eventual champions was much better than expected. World Cup '94 was an accomplishment on many levels.
Things were a lot different in France '98. The US team had been thrown into turmoil on the eve of the World Cup when a huge mess involving John Harkes and Eric Wynalda and his wife led to then-US coach Steve Sampson leaving Harkes out of the World Cup after having earlier deemed him "captain for life."
It was an ugly mess that served as a preamble to an ugly showing in the World Cup, where the US lost all three games to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia, finishing dead last among the 32 teams in the tournament. Sampson was roundly criticized by the media and even his own players and was fired after the US was eliminated.
France '98 was a nightmare.
In 2002, expectations for the US were modest at best. In a group with co-hosts South Korea, hardheaded Poland, and Portugal, among the favorites to win the tournament, many predicted the US would finish last. A respectful loss to Portugal in the opening game was deemed by many as a positive result.
However, Korea/Japan 2002 proved to be unpredictable, to say the least. After tiny Senegal stunned defending World Cup champions France 1-0 in the opening match, anything was possible.
A World Cup run that began with an improbable victory over Portugal, and included the most famous "dos a cero" of all (eliminating Mexico in the round of 16) ended in a legendary battle against 2002 finalists Germany. It took a mighty performance by Oliver Khan and the infamous German handball that was never called to knock out the US.
World Cup 2002 showed progress and that the US was on the verge of a new era.
In 2006, with the popularity of soccer growing, MLS hitting the 10-year mark, increased media attention and a (misleading) no. 4 FIFA ranking for team USA, the outlook was terrific.
A disappointing 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic was a huge blow. Somehow, the US scraped together a 1-1 draw against eventual champions Italy, and was then eliminated by Ghana, 2-1, in what was the first in a series of US losses to Ghana on various levels of world tournaments.
Although Clint Dempsey gave the US some hope after tying 1-1 against Ghana and doing a two-step in celebration, the eventual elimination left the US and fans with bitter memories of that World Cup.
Germany '06 was humbling and embarrassing.
Despite this, there was a sense of optimism going into South Africa 2010. The US felt they could match up well against England, Slovenia and Algeria and that confidence and a great deal of grit carried the US through to the next round.
Yes, Landon Donovan!
Just when the US was building up steam and had the complete attention and adoration of an entire nation, Ghana crashed the party, kicking the US out of South Africa and leaving everyone frustrated.
Nevertheless, the US won their group for the first time since 1930, remained undefeated against England in the World Cup, and had to go to extra time before finally succumbing to Ghana, a nemesis in the fullest sense of the word.
Remember that just a few months ago people were toying with the idea of the US playing Ghana in a friendly leading up to World Cup 2014?
Forget a friendly. USA vs. Ghana right off the bat, son.
As if Group G could not get any more fascinating, the US will have to deal with Portugal and their Man O' War Cristiano Ronaldo, who despite looking like a model delivers a venomous sting with his playmaking and amazing goal-scoring abilities.
Both games leading up to the main course, when US coach Jurgen Klinsmann leads the US against his former national team, Germany, one of the favorites to win it all.
To US supporters watching the World Cup draw, it was like a punch in the gut.
Suddenly, the road to the World Cup felt like an invitation to the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones with special guests, Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, Gozer the Gozerian from Ghostbusters and Brian Blake, aka "The Governor" from The Walking Dead.
But, hold on, it is not all doom and gloom.
While the US World Cup cycle points to less than satisfactory results in 2014, Klinsmann's US squads have accomplished several firsts since he took over, including: the USA's first ever victory against Italy, in Genoa (the first loss for Italy at Stadio Luigi Ferraris since 1924); earning the first win against Mexico on Mexican soil, in Estadio Azteca, of all places; defeating Jamaica on the road for the first time in World Cup qualifying; beating second-ranked Germany in US Soccer's Centennial Celebration match; earning the first come-from-behind victory on European soil, when the US came back from 2-0 at the half to beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 4-3.
Klinsmann also led the US to a 12-game winning streak, the longest in program history.
It's about time to leave history where it belongs, in the books. Klinsmann just might compel the US to overcome the hex of their World Cup cycle against these fearsome opponents.
Germany, like Emperor Palpatine is very powerful and almost impossible to defeat. However, in Klinsmann we have a son of Germany, who once led the Fatherland to World Cup glory, wearing the colors with pride but now has an opportunity to lead a defiant band of rebels against the full might of Germany.
Ronaldo is Gozer, aka "The Destructor." By himself, Ronaldo has the confidence to conquer the world. Like Gozer, who originally presented itself in the form of a woman, Ronaldo looks fabulous, with a chiseled body you can only find in a museum. However, eventually Gozer takes the form of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man to unleash its fury on humanity. Portugal, just like Stay Puft, might look fierce and strong, but in the end, even with Ronaldo at its core, it is soft all around. Give the US forwards some proton packs and tell them to cross the streams!
That brings us to Ghana, who have antagonized the US on so many occasions they are practically on the same level of affection with US fans as The Governor. Ghana have been the harbingers of grief time and again, crushing US hearts on several occasions, including three consecutive eliminations in World Cups '06 and '10 and, most recently, the 2013 U-20 World Cup, where they blasted through the US, 4-1, in the final game of group play.
Now, here they are, once again; practically mounted on a tank, staring down the barrel at the US.
How else can this end? How else, indeed?
So, there you have it. There is no reason to get all mopey and curse the soccer gods. No, this is an opportunity.
They say the US got thrown into the Group of Death? What they need to understand is that the US is not locked in there with them; they're locked in there with us.
Despite the great obstacles presented to Team USA, the team does play better when faced with seemingly overwhelming odds. The trademark of this team has always been its grit and there has never been anyone grittier or tougher than Teddy Roosevelt, arguably the fiercest American to walk this green Earth, who once said, "Big jobs usually go to the men who prove their ability to outgrow the small ones."
Time to roll up the sleeves and get to work.