The good news is that the United States can’t lose at this World Cup.
The bad news is that I’m talking metaphorically and not literally.
No one expects anything from the Americans because statistically, it couldn’t have been tougher. To be grouped with Germany, the second best team in the world, and Portugal, currently ranked just two places behind them in fourth, was incredibly bad luck. Right now all around the globe, on TV and on the web and in newspapers, experts, fans and ex-players are examining the schedule and predicting which countries will make it through to the knockout stage. And the vast majority reckons the USA will be home before their postcards.
But here’s the good news: the States may not have to beat either European nation to get out of the group. And the Americans are most dangerous when they are the underdogs. They have been here before.
The USA’s performances at the World Cup have come a long way in a generation. In 1990 when they appeared at their first finals for 40 years, British TV featured segments on them as a bizarre curiosity, funny little fellows playing “football” with a round ball to be patronized and stared at like exhibits in a sporting zoo. When the tournament came to the States four years later, there was outrage in the UK that the right to host the greatest soccer spectacle on Earth had been won by a place that didn’t even have a professional league.
Fast forward to the 2002 finals, and the Americans were written off as they were in a seemingly inescapable group containing giants Portugal and Poland, along with co-hosts South Korea. The USA not only made it to the knockout stage, they went on to beat Mexico and reach the quarterfinals, their best finish in more than seven decades. So in Germany four years later, there was genuine hope and expectation that the States could perform once more on the global soccer stage. They crashed out without winning a game.
At the last tournament the Americans were pitted against England, Slovenia and Algeria, and one British tabloid’s front page the day after the draw read EASY: England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks. After playing out two ties, and on the verge of elimination, the USA snatched victory against Algeria in the most dramatic way possible, scoring the winning goal deep into stoppage time to not only make it to the last 16, but to top the group. The next day an American fan Photoshopped the same front page to read YES: Yanks, England, Slovenia.
Looking at Group G in Brazil, fans here in the States may feel that their team is behind the 8-ball, fourth and long, in the bottom of the ninth, and all those other American sporting analogies that translate as having little chance of success. But their team is capable of continuing on and there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.
First, the schedule favors them as they open against Ghana. They must win this match — anything other than securing the three points for a victory and their task becomes Herculean — and hope that the Germans beat Portugal.
In the second round of matches, they only need to tie with Portugal, and if as expected Germany defeats Ghana, that would put the Germans on top of the group with six points, with the USA on four and Portugal on one.
In the final game, a draw between the States and Germany would mean that the Germans win the group — and that the Americans make it to the knockout stage. Also in the USA’s favor is that with the Germans already safely through to the next round before that third contest, they would likely rest players and field a weakened team.
Portugal has the best player on Earth in Cristiano Ronaldo, but their “golden generation” of talent has consistently failed to perform at the highest level, and their ranking of fourth in the world is flawed and inflated. On the big stage, they frequently falter — indeed in the last 48 years they have only reached a World Cup semifinal once.
In fact, they struggled to even make this year’s tournament, having to negotiate a playoff after finishing second in their European qualifying section. I watched them home and away against my country Northern Ireland (currently ranked 90th in the world) and we tied 1-1 in Porto, and were leading 2-1 in Belfast until the Irish had a man sent off. The States should not fear them.
The bottom line is that the Americans have nothing to lose, and failing to get past the first round won’t be a disaster. A win against Ghana and two narrow defeats to Portugal and Germany is the minimum expected return, and anything less than that would rightly be considered a disappointment. A win and a tie from three matches would be satisfactory, and anything more than that a bonus.
The important thing is that at the biggest, most scrutinized sporting event in history, the Americans show their fans — from Nebraska to New Orleans, from Kentucky to Kenner, from Metairie to Minnesota — that they can compete with the traditional heavyweights and go toe-to-toe with the soccer superpowers.