BRIAN SCIARETTA - Thursday, December 12, 2013
With the dust, or rather the useless pomp and pageantry of the World Cup Draw having settled, it is time for the teams to get down to business in preparing for next summer's extravaganza.
There is no doubt in the minds of U.S. national team fans that they have got their work cut out as it was drawn in the proverbial "group of death" - Group G - with some very familiar foes.
While it was not the draw that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann wanted, it is what it is, and now the work of building a team that is capable of competing against Ghana, Portugal and Germany begins as the United States attempts to beat the odds of coming out of the group.
None of the United States' group games will be easy. That is a certain fact for all the teams in the tournament. But if Klinsmann and his staff can set up effective game plans against their three opponents, there is a good chance for the team to progress to the knockout stage.
That quest will begin on June 16 when the U.S. takes on Ghana.
Ghana is what can be considered the "bogey" team as the U.S. in its previous two meetings have not been able to find a way to defeat the Black Stars.
It was first at the 2006 World Cup in Germany when the U.S. had a chance to come out of their group only to suffer a 2-1 defeat. After finishing top of its group at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the team once again met Ghana with a chance to advance to the quarterfinals. However, after a putting up a strong fight to end the game in 1-1 tie in regulation, Ghana found a way to score a lone goal in extra time to send the Americans home.
Even former U.S. coach Bob Bradley could not find a way around the Ghanaians during his tenure at the helm of Egypt's national team as the Pharaohs suffered a 7-3 aggregate loss to the team in the final round of World Cup qualifying in Africa.
If the U.S. wants any chance of knocking off Ghana and getting their World Cup campaign off on the right start, it is important that they convert on the chances that they get on goal.
Going back to the second round game in 2010, the U.S. had many chances to go ahead and end the game, but saves by goalkeeper Richard Kingson kept Ghana in it.
It will also be important for the U.S. midfield and defense to shut down three key players to Ghana's attack if they want any chance of winning.
Kevin-Prince Boateng has only returned to the Ghanaian side, but in his previous appearances he has shown how important a member he is to the team. The Schalke midfielder is a player that likes to be involved in the attack and his strength and speed will certainly give the U.S. fits unless the team can keep him off the ball not show any fear in getting physical with him if needed.
Andrew Ayew and the team's captain Asamoah Gyan are two other players that the U.S. will need to look out for in addition to Boateng.
Ghana maybe deemed as the weaker team in the group, but they have proven analysts wrong in the past. The United States will certainly not take them lightly.
Klinsmann has said that after two losses against the 2010 quarter-finalist that the U.S. was due for a win. That would be an excellent start to the campaign.
The match against Portugal on June 22 could be the make or break moment for the United States if they are not able to get a favorable result out of the first game.
Like Ghana, it is very rare for these two to play against each other, but the U.S. has had some good results in their previous meetings.
At the 1992 U.S. Cup walked away with a 1-0 win over the Portuguese in Chicago on their way to winning the inaugural competition.
At the 2002 World Cup the Bruce Arena-led team would provide one of the biggest shocks of the tournament as they knocked off the favored Portuguese side with the likes of Luis Figo, Fernando Couto and Rui Costa 3-2 in South Korea.
Although Portugal just qualified for this editions World Cup after disposing of Sweden in the European playoff match, it is anyone's guess what team will show up in Brazil. While they possess a number of quality players, their performances during the qualifying phase were not stellar.
Despite this, the U.S. should not take them lightly as Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo has shown that he can singlehandedly take over a game when their backs are against the wall. The 28-year-old's knack for scoring goals and taking on players one-on-one is remarkable and it will take a monumental effort by the U.S. defense to contain him.
As the form of Portugal runs through Ronaldo, who will receive a lot of attention from U.S. scouts from now until the two teams play against each other, players such as Helder Postiga and Nani are two others that could be threats should the captain be off his game. Meanwhile, midfielder Raul Meireles will certainly prove a tough match in the midfield against the likes of Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley.
The marquee game out of the three will come at the end when the U.S. takes on Germany on June 26.
The reason why this game will be the one to watch, other than the fact that the U.S. could be playing to qualify from the group based on previous results, is the storylines.
First, this will be the first time for Klinsmann to be taking on the German side in a game that actually means something since handing the reins over to former assistant Joachim Low after the 2006 World Cup.
This is a German team that has been together for nearly a decade and one that knows how each member plays. No longer a defensive-minded team, they are ruthless in attack and when they score one goal, they will push and push until the final whistle to score as many as possible.
Low and his band of players will certainly see a win over the U.S., especially Klinsmann, as a massive one as they try to take home the trophy they have been working to claim since the overhaul in the mid-2000s.
Second, the U.S. could be looking to exact some revenge on Die Mannschaft after a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. On that day it seemed that the Americans could have pushed Germany to brink of elimination had it not been for a controversial non-call by referee Hugh Dallas on a handball by midfielder Torsten Frings on the goalline.
While the 4-3 win over Germany in June was encouraging, Klinsmann and the players know that they were facing an experimental German team as most of the core players had just wrapped the European season, especially those playing for Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
This time around the team will be much different to the one that the U.S. played in Washington D.C. and much more dangerous.
The number one player scouts will have to watch out for is attacking midfielder Mesut Ozil. The Arsenal man has shown time after time how invaluable he is not only to the clubs he has played for, but to the offense of the national team as his vision and passing have set many of the Germans goals. He has also contributed to the goals scored by team and finished as Germany's top scorer in the qualifying phase with nine goals.
Another player from the uber-strong team that needs to be monitored closely is Thomas Muller. The 24-year-old is simply one of the best all-around attackers in the game at the moment who is capable of playing anywhere in the attack. At still a very young age, this World Cup could be the breakout he has been looking for, so the U.S. defense will need to work their tail to prevent the Bayern Munich man from having a man of the match performance against them.
While the three teams in Group G will be difficult foes as the U.S. tries to qualify, it is not totally mission impossible. Stranger things have happened in previous World Cups, so some luck will certainly be needed.
However, if Klinsmann can conjure up well thought out strategies against them and the players can execute them perfectly, they will find themselves in a good position to come out of their group.