Seems like the main goal for USA at the 2014 FIFA World Cup is to make it out of Group G, one of the “Groups of Death.” The conventional wisdom is that USA needs four points to progress. Is that even possible?
The short answer is yes, but I thought I would break it down, because there’s more to the group than simply the presence of Ghana, Portugal and Germany. There’s a lot of travel involved, too, and some strange venues.
Match Day 1 for Group G is Monday, June 16. In the early match, Germany plays Portugal in the coastal city of Salvador. Later that day, USA plays Ghana over a thousand kilometers to the north in Natal. I think it’s likely that Germany takes all three points against Portugal. But it would not be a shock to see this end in a draw if Germany starts slowly. USA clearly needs to beat Ghana. While not being an easy match by any stretch, it’s possibly the easiest 3 points we can get in the group. [Update: USA looked pretty sharp in a 2:1 victory over Nigeria in Jacksonville over the weekend — Nigeria being African Cup of Nations champions and a similar, perhaps slightly better version of Ghana.] A draw wouldn’t be catastrophic, but it would make the hill a lot harder to climb.
Match Day 2 on June 21-22 is the killer. Germany travel 1,300 km north to Fortaleza to face Ghana, who travel a mere 500 km from Natal. Meanwhile, Portugal and USA meet in the Amazon jungle at Manaus, a long 3,000 km flight from Brazil’s east coast, where it’s likely to be 90ºF and 90% humidity. The Germany-Ghana match is on Saturday, June 21 at 4pm local time, while USA and Portugal get an extra day for travel and play on Sunday, June 22 at 6pm.
Assuming Germany defeats Ghana, USA probably needs at least a point off Portugal. My take is that the travel and weather conditions for the second match may favor the Americans. First, USA is always a super fit team. The MLS players on the American squad are used to long travel days, and the national team plays all over Central America. They have played in the summer in hideous places like Houston, San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, Panama City — not to mention NYC or DC — where high temperatures and high humidity are the norm (by contrast, the Portuguese stars play in Europe in winter).
Further, there are concerns about Christiano Ronaldo’s fitness (tendonosis in his left leg). Ronaldo is an incredible talent and a fierce competitor, but he’s just finished a long and emotional season competing for both the La Liga title and the Champions League, and may not be close to 100% fit. [Update: Without Ronaldo on the field, Portugal looked ordinary at best against a weakened Mexico on Friday evening.]
Will Portugal risk playing Ronaldo against Germany rather than saving him for the more winnable matches against USA and Ghana? Will they play him against Germany but rest him against USA, figuring they might get a win and two draws?
Even with a questionable Ronaldo, USA is still a longshot even to draw against Portugal, at least according to European betting odds. But this match may be more competitive than it looks. The Portuguese had a decent qualifying run in UEFA against pretty dismal competition (Israel, Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland, Luxembourg, plus Russia). They came in second in the qualifying group, then won an impressive home-away series with Sweden, which featured the showdown between superstars Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo. While I think they are overrated by European punters, they are still very, very talented and better man for man than USA.
On Match Day 3 (June 26), USA have a long flight all the way back to the east coast to face Germany in Recife, while the Germans travel only 750 km from Fortaleza. Portugal plays Ghana in the capital Brasilia, 2,000 km both for Ghana from Fortaleza and for the Portuguese from the Amazon. If Germany has already qualified for the Round of 16 with wins in the first two matches, it’s possible they rest their stars against USA. Will Jogi Löw take it a bit easy on Klinsmann? Hard to say, but interesting to consider. It’s not out of the question that USA could steal a point from Germany if this is not a must-have match for the Germans.
So, I can make the argument that USA can get four or five points with a win against Ghana and draw against Portugal and/or Germany, but we would have to play almost flawlessly. If USA draw Ghana, they have to beat Portugal in the Amazon jungle — not as crazy as it sounds to some Europeans, but a tall order for the inexperienced Americans. Losses in either match will be almost impossible to overcome.