THE UNITED STATES 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. While Ghana eliminated the Americans in 2006 and 2010, the Black Stars won't do it again. The U.S. opens its seventh straight World Cup appearance against Ghana on June 16 at Natal.
The U.S. meets Portugal and 2008 FIFA Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo 6 days later in the Amazon rain forest city Manaus. The Americans have just 3 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 yesterday'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 all three games 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.