Jeff Bradley: Group of Death? Handful of USMNT World Cup veterans say not so fast
While there was no denying that the US will face a stiff test in its World Cup group, former national team goalkeeper Tony Meola, defender Gregg Berhalter and midfielder Eddie Lewis weren’t ready to call their draw of Ghana, Germany and Portugal the “Group of Death.”
“I like that we’re familiar with all these teams on a World Cup stage,” said Meola, referencing that the US have faced all three opponents in the past. “No group was going to be easy, but I think the US team is capable of advancing out of this group if it plays well.”
Said Lewis: “I like that the US doesn’t have to face a South American team in this environment. I like that Portugal is not well-received in Brazil. I look at those as positives.”
Meola and Lewis were not in total agreement when it came to how favorable the order of games will work out for the US. The US will open against Ghana on June 16 before taking on Portugal (June 22) and finally Germany (June 26).
“Ghana has eliminated the US from the last two World Cups, but it’s hard to beat a team three consecutive times,” said Meola. “Opening with them is a good opportunity.”
Lewis said he would have rather the US opened with Germany.
“I think we’ve seen in the past, some teams take a little while to figure things out," he said. "I think we saw that when the US drew with England in 2010 and when we beat Portugal in 2002. Those teams were unsettled.”
Both agree the opening game with Ghana is crucial, but perhaps more of a “Can’t Lose” than a “Must Win.” Come away with nothing in the opener and you’re in for quite a climb. Come away with a point and you at least know you’re almost guaranteed to play three meaningful games.
Of course, the US thought a draw with England in 2010 would set them up for three games, but they still had to rescue themselves from elimination when they went down 2-0 to Slovenia.
Meola, who recently saw Portugal play while he was traveling with the US Under-20 team, said, “I don’t think they’re as good as the team we beat in 2002. They can be beaten.”
Lewis concurred, saying, “The US can counterattack with the best. I think if Portugal comes into Game 2 thinking it needs three points, it could play into our hands.”
Berhalter, the new head coach of the Columbus Crew who played in two World Cups (2002, 2006), said a lot of it will come down to the type of game plan USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann comes up with.
“All three of the opponents are beatable, and it's up to the coaching staff to figure out a way to beat each opponent,” Berhalter said. “It's probably different tactics for all three. It makes it interesting. He's familiar, obviously, with Germany, that will help him formulate a plan. For the other two teams it's going to require thought, but I'm sure they'll get it done.”
Game 3 against Germany could present two completely different scenarios. Play a team that needs a win and it’s as tough a challenge as the US have ever faced. But play a German team that’s already through to the knockout round and you could well be facing a team that’s going to be resting players and preparing for what’s ahead. Germany, after all, doesn’t go to the World Cup looking for nine points in group play. They go to win the whole thing.
“Germany is excellent, but if anyone is going to know how to prepare for them it’s [former Germany coach] Jurgen Klinsmann,” said Meola. “He will know all the ins and outs of that team.”
But, Lewis warns, “By the third game of the World Cup, Germany is typically firing on all cylinders. They’ve finished with any experimentation and have an idea how they want to play. I know some people think playing Ghana first is a positive, but I think Ghana is also the type of team that can implode if things go poorly in the first two games. Germany won’t implode.”
All three former players said the on-paper analysis can only take you so far.
“We’ll see how teams deal with things like travel and climate,” said Lewis. “Those things can be factors, and usually are factors, in every World Cup.”
And there’s always the bounce of the ball.
“Not much of what is said today will mean much this summer,” said Meola. “But I am not looking at this group with any gloom and doom. I think the US can advance.”
Added Berhalter: “I'll never root against my own country because I believe in our team and I believe in our players and coaching staff, so I say we're getting out of the group.”