The Group of Death. It sounds like something Stephen King might title a horror novel, although you can bet Jurgen Klinsmann wouldn’t mind a few of his soccer players owning psychic abilities to see what will happen on the pitch before their opponents.
It might be the only thing that will allow the United States to advance out of group play at the World Cup.
Supernatural forces sure would benefit the Americans right now.
So would a more talented back line.
Soccer’s grandest spectacle takes center stage again Thursday, when the World Cup begins with a match between host and favorite Brazil against Croatia. For the next five weeks, across South America’s largest country, from Rio de Janeiro to thousands of miles up the Amazon River and deep into a tropical rain forest, the 32-team tournament will be contested in and around 12 cities.
Through riots and traffic jams and violent demonstrations and policemen armed with tear gas, meaning things are status quo in Brazil.
I’m not sure relying on mere consistency will create much success for the U.S. national team, whose odds most believe of advancing from Group G rival those of the nation’s 1980 Olympic hockey team before playing the Soviet Union in a historic semifinal.
Hey, miracles happen.
It might not require an event not ascribable to human power or the laws of nature for the Americans to make the Round of 16 in Brazil — well, it probably would for them to defeat Germany in group play — but the journey is hardly an unruffled one.
But there is a way for the U.S.
There is a chance.
Game 1 vs. Ghana, Monday, Natal
Fact: If the Americans can’t discover a way to beat Ghana, the side that has eliminated the United States in the past two World Cups, reading any further is a waste of time. You would be better off settling in for a “Seinfeld” marathon, which probably would be more entertaining anyway.
But if the scheduling gods weren’t kind to the U.S. with its placement in this group, they at least did right by the Americans here. African teams have a way of easing into even the most significant of events. There are often issues with players not being paid bonuses. They have more behind-the-scenes drama than a beauty pageant. You never really know what the mindset of players is before a tournament begins.
That the U.S. gets Ghana first could prove invaluable to getting a win and three coveted points.
The problem is, Ghana’s leading strengths — speed, skill, creativity — are the sort of things that could most expose the weak back line of the U.S.
That can’t stop the Americans. They must beat Ghana, must hope that the motivation of being knocked out by the Black Stars in the past two Cups and playing them first in the draw this time is enough.
There is no other way for our secret plan to work.
Game 2 vs. Portugal, June 22, Manaus
Remote with a capital R.
Manaus is actually closer to Lima, Peru, than it is Rio. But this is where, smack in the middle of the Amazon rain forest, the Americans will meet the world’s fourth-ranked team and its star, Cristiano Ronaldo.
But the troubled left knee of Ronaldo makes you wonder if the Americans can stay close and perhaps gain a draw and a point.
Never has a soccer team more enjoyed the words “patellar tendinitis” about an opposing player than the U.S. team has entering the World Cup.
It’s sort of the perfect storm — a potential loss to Germany in the first round that makes Portugal press against the U.S. and leave itself vulnerable, Ronaldo’s questionable health, the match being in the middle of a jungle with the temperatures and humidity befitting such a locale — that could provide the U.S. an opportunity few believe it has.
Game 3 vs. Germany, June 26, Recife
At this point, the Americans must hope German coach Joachim Low pulls a Gregg Popovich and rests his stars. If so, Germany would have already clinched a spot in the Round of 16 and wouldn’t want to risk injury in a meaningless match.
But it won’t be pointless for the Americans.
Klinsmann is a German soccer legend who will sing both national anthems before this game and who led Germany to its third and last World Cup title 24 years ago. But he coaches the U.S. now, and while there are few scenarios you can imagine that would have the Americans winning or getting a draw here, the old don’t-really-care angle from Germany could be one.
If not, and the other matches play out as we believe they can, the U.S. would have four points after group play. It probably wouldn’t be enough to advance them without going to a tiebreaker.
I would think the U.S. would take such a placement today and hope for the best. It can happen. The Americans can advance. There is a blueprint for it.
They’ll just need a mini-miracle, is all.
That, or Jim Craig willing to defend a different type of goal.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.