The draw for our national team in the 2014 World Cup came out last Friday, and people are saying it will be harder to get out of Group G than the Red Wedding.
JUNE 16: United States vs. Ghana in Natal.
JUNE 16: Germany vs. Portugal in Salvador
JUNE 21: Germany vs. Ghana in Fortaleza.
JUNE 22: United States vs. Portugal in Manaus.
JUNE 26: Portugal vs. Ghana in Brasilia.
JUNE 26: United States vs. Germany in Recife.
There’s a lot of fear and awe about the difficulty of the draw, reasonable because Germany is a clear top four team in the world, Portugal has the best player in the world at the moment, and Ghana is a team that has eliminated us from the cup by beating us twice in a row. But there are a lot of ways to look at this, and when a situation allows multiple interpretations, the competitor must choose the one that gives the best chance of prevailing. Here are a few thoughts to counter the “stinkin’ thinkin'” making the rounds:
We have the most travel of any team, almost 9,000 miles.
This is apparently calculated by taking the distance from our headquarters in São Paulo to each game site. While not convenient I don’t see how the flights are a huge factor. We can get to Natal whenever we want and recover. The second game vs. Portugal is six days later;
two flights in six days can’t be a killer. Although the US must then play its third match only four days after that, it is against Germany and I doubt Portugal or Ghana will take points against them. So even if we are road-weary and lose, it should not be a big deal in the points table. It might affect goal difference. (But how about this: what if Germany is sitting on six points and already qualified? Might they rest a player or two, or could it affect their mindset going in? OK probably not. But still.)
Klinsmann and team have already ruled out moving the training base from São Paulo FC, among the top clubs in the nation. They are in one of the largest cities in the world, with a good field set-up and access to an international airport. Other teams have offered to buy out the US’ option on this location, that’s how desirable it is.
We have to go to Manaus.
Just as soccer commentators sometimes modify the humble nation’s name as “San Marino Nil”, this site is starting to be known as “God No, Not Manaus.” But how bad is it really?
The English FA, sowing good will and diplomacy with their every action, have already caused a furor by deploring the conditions in this city. The mayor of this maligned city said in Sports Illustrated, “Like every city in the world, we have our problems, but, despite what the article says, there are not poisonous snakes and tarantulas roaming around the streets and falling from the trees.
“Yes, we are situated in the middle of the Amazon jungle, but we live in harmony with the jungle and we are an urban city with a 344-year history.”
Writers at MLSsoccer.com piled on, observing “Throw in a trip to dreaded Manaus – a site in the Amazon jungle with sweltering temperatures unparalleled in the other Brazilian host sites – and it’s a tough haul for Klinsmann’s group.” Dreaded? DREADED? Because Thing One: you guys know that June is winter in Brazil, right?
Thing Two: has anyone looked up the weather there? Because you can. Manaus weather ranges from 90 to 75 degrees in June. So the “sweltering temperatures” will be similar to that of New York City, and cooler than Phoenix. And “unparalleled in the other Brazilian host sites”? Rio’s temperatures ranged from 85 to 70 last June. So – yeah.
Thing three: we have to play in Manaus. I looked into this and it turns out that so do our opponents, Portugal.
It’s a Group of Death.
This term is applied when there are too many high-quality teams for all to advance to the next round. Writers are trying to quantify this, one method I have read is by averaging the rankings of the teams involved. But I think that’s primitive. In Group G, Germany is the seeded, quality team. Let’s agree they are the best side and will probably advance. To me the big question is who are the #2 and #3 teams, and how high are they ranked? Because the “tragedy” of a Group of Death is with the third-place team, a good side that will not go on. I think you can usually discard the 4th team unless they are very close to the level of the second and third sides, because if the group has that many class selections, they should all feast on the bottom side.
Let’s do two things. Let’s agree to use Nate Silver’s Soccer Power Index instead of the FIFA ranking because they are more precise. Go with me on this one. Here is the ranking of the second and third highest teams in each group, with a mention of team four if it’s within ten places of them. Yeah I just made that up. It’s my blog — sue me.
Which groups have the highest-ranked third teams? Our Group, G, is 4th. By this measure these are the deathier groups and their 2nd and 3rd teams, with rankings:
We do have the highest-ranked 4th team, Ghana, at (23). But if you look at it this way, we are in the middle of the pack. And the second-highest ranked team, Portugal is only one place away from us. And in theory, if you are going to advance to the Round Of 16 in the World Cup, shouldn’t you be one of the best sixteen teams in the world? It should be hard, but you should advance.
Portugal, CR7 aside, is not the toughest opponent we could have standing between us and passage. As the sagacious Toby Rappolt puts it, “What are our most recent results against these three teams? Germany – we won. Portugal – we won. Ghana – we lost. 2-1 six points, we’re through.”
Kasey Keller said, “In the end it’s a results-driven business and if you don’t get out of the first round it’s a failure. But then you look at that group (G) and it’s far more difficult, ( . . .) The question you have to ask is, ‘Have we advanced that far as a soccer country that we can play other teams above us in rank – or right around us – and consistently get those results in a row?’ We’ll find out. It’s tough.”
Because here’s the thing: Right after the draw, former USMNT player and current commentator Alexi Lalas tried to paint the US as “underdogs” to advance. I think he’s off the mark. We were underdogs when he played, a college player out of Rutgers who went straight onto the national team. That does not happen any more. He had a trial with Arsenal and he was not good enough. After the World Cup he played in Italy, that was his first pro contract. That does not happen any more.
The US were underdogs when we qualified in 1990, our first World Cup since 1950, on an improbable, wind-aided Paul Caligiuri away goal from 30 yards in Trinidad. Needing a win in the last game of CONCACAF qualifying, against Trinidad? That does not happen any more.
US Soccer showed some stones when the hired Jurgen Klinsmann to take the team to the vaunted next level. During his tenure we have defeated top-class teams like Italy, Germany, and in their impenetrable fortress of the Azteca, Mexico. We are 16th in the world, and to progress we have to outplay the 15th place team, one that could not win its group in Europe, they had to go through a qualifying playoff with Sweden. We have beat them before and with good luck we can do it again and knock Cristiano Ronaldo off his pedestal. Not as underdogs but as a top-20 team in the world.
In the word of the late, great NFL coach Bum Phillips, “One year ago, we knocked on the door. This year, we beat on the door. Next year, we’re going to kick the son of a bitch in.”