When the U.S. Men’s National Team commences play on June 16 in the 2014 World Cup, it’ll start out in what many are calling “the group of death.” The way the World Cup works is that the 32 qualifying teams are divided into eight groups of four, listed from A to H. After playing each other, the top two teams from each group then advance to a single-elimination round of 16. The United States has drawn Group G, which includes European powerhouses Germany and Portugal, as well as Ghana, out of Africa.
All one has to do is look at the FIFA World Rankings to figure out why this group is nicknamed the group of death. Germany comes in as the No. 2 team in the world, and Portugal isn’t too far behind at No. 4. Even the U.S., which has a fighting chance to advance (though a few lucky bounces may be needed), is the 13th-ranked team in the world. The only one in the group that isn’t ranked in the world’s top 25? Ghana.
Coincidentally, Ghana’s the team the Americans should probably worry most about. And it’s not a result of their impressive talent or phenomenal style of play — it’s because of history. Here’s a statistic for you: The United States has a 0-4 record against Ghana. While the first two losses came in 1983 and don’t have a lot of relevance in this issue, the latter two still don’t sit well with the USMNT.
It started at the 2006 World Cup. The Americans were underdogs in their group, but going into the final match of group play, there was a glimmer of hope. Beat Ghana, and they could possibly advance to the round of 16. As you can guess, they did not and went home empty handed, failing to advance past the group stage. Then, in 2010, the Americans got past the group stage only to run into Ghana in the first elimination game. It was a defensive struggle — the game was tied at one as the second half expired.
Again, it wasn’t the United States that came out victorious in extra time: It was Ghana. What had been such an impressive run — and surprising, since the Americans have been far from stellar these past few decades — ended with a mere kick of the ball. Ghana went on to the lose to a very good Uruguay in the next round, but the pain remains, as 2010 had the feeling of a year that the United States could go the distance.
This takes us to present-day Brazil and the 2014 World Cup. We’re less than a week away from the first games of the tournament and less than a week away from the United States’ opening game versus Ghana. Though it was four years ago, the players are still well aware of how things went down in 2010. When the groupings were released this winter, veteran midfielder Clint Dempsey talked about the fact that the U.S. is matched up with Ghana.
“It’s one of those situations where you feel hard done by,” Dempsey told reporters before the MLS Cup. “They’re the team that beat us, kind of crushed our dreams of going further in the World Cup, so I think we’re due a little bit of luck and we’re due a win against them.”
While Dempsey’s just one of a handful of active players to actually have been on the team and playing a role in both of the previous losses, there’s no doubt the rest of the team knows that Ghana appears to have their number. However, that can also work for the young American team. Youth can turn an unforgettable loss into something of the past, not something to dwell on.
As the World Cup gets closer and closer, Ghana hasn’t been making it easy for the United States to forget about them, either. In their final friendly before the tournament, earlier this week, the Ghanaians routed South Korea 4-0: The same South Korean team that advanced past the group stage in the last World Cup.
History aside, the Americans truly do control their own fate, whether it’s against their apparent arch-nemesis in Ghana or the other two behemoths in their grouping. All of the question marks around this year’s World Cup team — for example, leaving fan favorite and former hero Landon Donovan off the roster — will be answered in mere days. The only question that really matters, though, is how far can this team go? The answer starts with Ghana.
They say in sports and life that third time’s the charm. Hopefully that holds true for the United States, because if the team fails to tally at least a point against Ghana, the Americans’ chances of advancing are slim to none. After all, it is the group of death.