The United States men's national soccer team drew a daunting task for next year's World Cup: difficult opponents, tropical venues, and a wearying, 9,000-mile zig-zag journey across Brazil.
The Americans wound up with the potentially punishing group they feared and will play longtime nemesis Ghana along with top-flight European squads Portugal and Germany in 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, Asamoah Gyan and the Black Stars won't have a chance to do it again. The U.S. opens its seventh straight World Cup appearance against Ghana on June 16 at Natal.
The United States meets Portugal and 2008 FIFA player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo six days later in the Amazon rain-forest city of Manaus. The Americans have just three off days to recover before closing Group G on June 26 in Recife against three-time champion Germany and its stars, Mesut Özil, Mario Gomez, and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
After having the shortest group-play travel in South Africa, the United States 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 also will play all three matches in the tropics, with the second and third matches in the afternoon.
And the U.S. group has the top average FIFA world ranking.
"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 Friday'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."
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who replaced Bob Bradley 21/2 years ago, played for Germany's 1990 World Cup championship team and coached his native country to third place at home in the 2006 tournament, commuting to Europe from his home in Southern California.
"It couldn't get any more difficult or any bigger," he said at the draw in Costa do Sauipe, Brazil. "It's a real challenge. And we'll take it. We'll take it on, and hopefully we're going to surprise some people there."
Striker Jozy Altidore, the U.S. Player of the Year, agreed. "It's definitely one of the tougher groups, if not the toughest, but at the same time, this is what the World Cup's all about. You go there to play against the best."
The U.S. and South Korea were the last remaining teams in the third pot. While the Americans landed in a group with an average FIFA ranking of 11.25, The Koreans wound up with Belgium, Algeria and Russia in Group H, creating a statistically easier group with an average of 28.25.
Still, four years ago in South Africa, the U.S. were grouped with England, Algeria, and Slovenia, and defied expectations. The Americans won the group and England had to advance as the second-place nation.
This time, second-ranked Germany and fifth-ranked Portugal are the favorites to advance. If the Americans, ranked 14th in the world, reach the round of 16, they would face Belgium, Russia, Algeria or South Korea from Group H.
As for the rest of the field, Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico were put in Group A; Australia, Chile, Netherlands and Spain in Group B; Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan in Group C; Costa Rica, England, Italy and Uruguay in Group D; Ecuador, France, Honduras and Switzerland in Group E; and Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria in Group F.
Brazil is a 3-1 favorite to win the 2014 World Cup it will be hosting. Argentina is next at 9-2, with Germany at 5-1, followed by defending champion Spain at 7-1.
The odds for the United States are 150-1.