Just to qualify for next year’s World Cup, the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) played 16 games over the course of as many months, beginning back in June 2012. They played six “third round” games (The US and other high ranking teams did not have to play in the first two), winning four, drawing one, and losing one. They came dangerously close to being knocked out at this stage, by the likes of Jamaica and Guatemala. The final round of qualification in North and Central America required ten more games; five opponents, two games each, home and away. They ranged from heat and humidity in Honduras to a snowy March game in Denver. For the first time in their history, they went to Mexico City and came away with a draw in a qualifier. And after all that hard work, the USMNT will be judged on the basis of three games next June.
International soccer is a cruel thing, in that four years’ efforts rest uncomfortably on two weeks in the World Cup. Three games is a very small sample size. The English Premier League takes 38 games to determine a champion—there are no playoffs. But after years of qualification, three games is all teams get to prove themselves worthy of the second round. Meaner still, the World Cup groups are shaped by a random draw. The fate of national soccer teams is decided in large part by ping-pong balls being pulled out of bowls and names being taken out them.
And the USMNT, perhaps more than anyone else, is especially beholden to those fortune cookie plastic balls. The powerhouses of the game, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, all know that they will be able to escape most any group with relative ease. And FIFA’s rules ensure that the top eight cannot play each other in the group stage. Smaller European teams (e.g. Russia, England, Croatia) enter with the knowledge that World Cup failures, while not ideal, can be smoothed over with successes at the European Championship.
But the USMNT is not a powerhouse, and the Gold Cup, North America’s biannual tournament, does not reach the mainstream attention of its European equivalent. The World Cup is the singular opportunity for the USMNT to impact its home country en masse, and next year’s tournament promises to be especially big. It is the last World Cup on ESPN, before Fox Sports takes the broadcast rights in 2018, and because it’s being held in Brazil, games will be played at reasonable times for American TV: mostly 12, 3, and 6 PM. With Friday’s draw, FIFA may just have robbed the USMNT of their biggest chance to shine.
The Group of Death has its scythe sharpened for the USMNT. Germany, Ghana, and Portugal. Respectively, one of the best teams in the world, the team that dashed American dreams in each of the last two World Cups, and the home of the second best player on earth. Only two can go on to the knockout rounds. For comparison, Mexico and Honduras, North American teams that fared far worse in qualifying, were handed relatively easy groups. As a final indignity, the US will have to travel over eight thousand miles between matches, more than any other team. They will head to Brazil knowing that it’s likely they will exit after the first round.
Let me be clear: it is not impossible. The US shocked Portugal in 2002, and can argue that a referee prevented them from doing the same to Germany in the quarterfinal of that tournament. Upsets do happen, and this edition of the USMNT may be the strongest one yet. We have a better team than we did in 2002, and even in 2010. Luck, while not kind, handed the US a possible lifeline in the fact that Germany may already have clinched advancement by the time the two meet. It may not be entirely fair, it will not be easy, but it is not impossible. If nothing else, the USMNT has been given an opportunity to prove itself as worthy on a world stage.
Featured image by Contz, via Flickr