By Ronald Blum
The United State drew a daunting task for next year’s World Cup: difficult opponents, tropical venues and a wearying 9,000-mile zigzag journey across Brazil.
The Americans wound up with the potentially punishing group they feared and will play Ghana, Portugal and Germany next June as they try to achieve a U.S. first: reaching the knockout phase twice in a row.
Ghana eliminated the Americans in 2006 and 2010, but the Black Stars won’t do it again. The U.S. opens its seventh consecutive World Cup appearance against Ghana on June 16 at Natal.
The U.S. meets Portugal and 2008 FIFA Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo six days later in the Amazon rain forest city Manaus. The Americans have just three off days to recover before closing Group G on June 26 in Recife against three-time champion Germany.
“I think we have the quality, if we play our best ball, to get out of the group,” U.S. captain Clint Dempsey said after Friday’s draw set the eight four-nation groups. “You can’t think about, ‘Am I the favorite? Am I the underdog? What’s it going to be like playing in the heat? What’s it going to be like with the travel?’ Those are factors that come into it, but at the end of the day both teams have to deal with it.”
After having the shortest group-play travel in South Africa, the U.S. will have the longest in Brazil. The Americans will be based in Sao Paulo and face trips of 1,436 miles to Natal, 1,832 miles to Manaus and 1,321 miles to Recife. They will play three times in the tropics, with the second and third matches in the afternoon.
“I think guys who have played in MLS are used to taking 3,000-mile trips across the country to play,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan said.
The U.S. group has the best average FIFA world ranking. Odds on the Americans winning their first World Cup more than doubled after the draw, from 60-1 to 150-1.
“It’s definitely one of the tougher groups, if not the toughest, but at the same time, this is what the World Cup’s all about. You go there to play against the best,” American forward Jozy Altidore said during a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “I think the boys will be excited, will be up for it.”
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who replaced Bob Bradley 2½ years ago, played for Germany’s 1990 World Cup championship team and coached his native country to third place at home in the 2006 tournament, commuting to Europe from his California house in Orange County.
“It couldn’t get any more difficult or any bigger,” he said at the draw in Costa do Sauipe, Brazil. “It’s a real challenge. And we’ll take it. We’ll take it on, and hopefully we’re going to surprise some people there.”
The U.S. and South Korea were the last remaining teams in draw pot three. While the Americans landed in a group with an average FIFA ranking of 11.25, South Korea wound up in Group H, creating a group with the poorest average at 28.25.
“I think the team’s mentality is that we can go and play with anybody,” American defender Matt Besler said. “Now we’re going to have to prove it.”
Germany beat the U.S. 2-0 in its 1998 World Cup opener in Paris — with Klinsmann setting up the first goal and scoring the second — then edged the Americans 1-0 on a controversial goal in the 2002 quarterfinal in South Korea.
Die Mannschaft is coached by Klinsmann’s former assistant, Joachim Loew. The Americans beat a second-tier German roster 4-3 in a June exhibition at Washington.
“With Jurgen Klinsmann, they have another mentality,” Loew said. “I learned a lot from Jurgen, so this is special.”
The U.S. is ranked 14th in the world