COSTA DO SAUIPE, Brazil – The United States will play Ghana, Portugal and Germany in a tough first-round group at next year’s World Cup that will take the Americans on a lengthy 9,000-mile trip around Brazil.
Greece, a 200-1 shot making its second consecutive appearance, drew a bracket with Japan, Colonia and Ivory Coast in Group C.
Making their seventh straight appearance at soccer’s showcase, the Americans were drawn into Group G and will open on June 16 in Natal against Ghana, which eliminated the Americans at the 2006 and 2010 tournaments.
The U.S. meets Portugal and 2008 FIFA Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo six days later in the Amazon rain forest city Manaus. The Americans have just three off days to recover before closing group play on June 26 in Recife against Germany.
“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,” American forward Jozy Altidore said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “I think the boys will be excited, will be up for it.”
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann played for Germany’s 1990 World Cup championship team and coached his native country to third place in the 2006 tournament, commuting to Europe from his California home in Orange County.
“Obviously it’s one of the most difficult groups in the whole draw, having Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo and then Ghana, who has a history with the United States. It couldn’t get any more difficult or any bigger,” he said. “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.”
As the draw pot the U.S. was in was emptied, the Americans and South Korea were the last remaining teams. While the Americans were drawn into the toughest group by FIFA world ranking, with an average of 11.25, South Korea wound up in Group H, creating a group with the highest average at 28.25.
“I kind of had in my stomach that we were going to get Germany,” Klinsmann said. Germany, which beat the U.S. 1-0 in the 2002 quarterfinal, is coached by Klinsmann’s former Die Mannschaft assistant, Joachim Loew.
“Obviously, there are a lot of emotions involved. It’s normal. I’m German,” Klinsmann said. “It’s going to be a special moment.” Ranked 14th in the world, the U.S. has alternated quick exits with advancement since returning to soccer’s showcase in 1990.
After the draw four years ago, one British paper used a headline “EASY” for England, Algeria, Slovenia and the Yanks, and The Sun called it the “best English group since the Beatles.” The Americans wound up atop a group for the first time, and England advanced as the second-place nation.
This time, second-ranked Germany and fifth-ranked Portugal are the favorites to advance to the second round. If the U.S. reaches the round of 16, it would face Belgium, Russia, Algeria or South Korea from Group H.
“I guarantee you Jurgen knows more about Germany than Jogi Loew knows about the U.S,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said.
The U.S. will feel pressure to open with a win against Ghana, which is ranked 24th. The Black Stars defeated the Americans 2-1 in the 2006 stage in Germany and by the same score in overtime in the round of 16 at the last World Cup in South Africa.
“After the two losses, it’s about time to beat them, I guess,” Klinsmann said.
At the 2002 tournament, the U.S. opened with a 3-2 upset of Portugal after taking a shocking three-goal lead in the first 36 minutes. “Difficult draw, but a group the U.S. can get through if they play well,” former U.S. coach Bruce Arena told the AP.
The Americans will train in the U.S. from mid-May on and plan a series of exhibition games, which likely will include England as an opponent, before heading to Brazil.
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.
“There will be some problems from the organizational side, traveling side. And we hit the worst of the worst,” Klinsmann said. “Every coach that I talked to, at least today, said everything but Manaus. No — we get Manaus.”
In other groups, it is:
Group A: Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico
Group B: Australia, Chile, Netherlands, Spain
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Group D: Costa Rica, England, Italy, Uruguay
Group E: Ecuador, France, Honduras, Switzerland
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
(Ronald Blum, AP Sports Writer)