World Cup 2014 is a rebirth for the United States men’s national team.
No better way to usher in a new era than with a trip through the Group of Death — presuming the United States’ fearsome region qualifies.
There’s little question that Group G is the tournament’s gold standard.
The division features two of the top three teams in FIFA’s May rankings (Germany and Portugal), the best team in CONCACAF (United States) and a rising power out of Africa (Ghana).
In all, it’s the best combination of talent in the tournament, narrowly edging out Group D (Uruguay, Italy, England and Costa Rica).
The group is so loaded, the Americans might be underdogs in every match they play. Big deal, they would likely reply.
“The expectation doesn’t change,” U.S. captain Clint Dempsey told Yahoo! Sports in May. “Playing in a World Cup, you are trying to compete against the best teams in the world. That is what it’s all about. That is what is so special about it — that every team has had to work hard to qualify and they deserve to be there.”
With three of world’s the top 14 teams, Group G is a monster.
Not so fast
Whether it’s a true Group of Death, however, is up for debate. Only two squads — Germany and Portugal — are seen as realistic candidates to reach the semifinals, and even that might be overselling things.
Portugal, led by reigning world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, needed to survive a playoff to reach Brazil, and some argue that its world ranking (No. 3) is inflated by FIFA’s rating system. Results against European and South American nations are worth more than against those from other confederations.
That’s why the United States had virtually no chance to earn one of the World Cup’s eight seeds despite rolling through the qualifying Hexagonal with seven wins and a draw in 10 matches.
And it’s also why the United States ended up in arguably its toughest group in the modern era.
Germany is the No. 2 team team in the world, and bettors view it as a true threat to claim the Cup for the third time. (Only host Brazil and Argentina got better odds on Bovada.com in late May.)
The German team last won it all in 1990 — when it was known as preunification West Germany. A star member of that team was Jurgen Klinsmann, who is now coach of the U.S. team.
This is Klinsmann’s first World Cup as the American boss. To survive the group stage, he almost certainly will need to get a tournament-opening victory over Ghana, which has played spoiler for the Americans in the past two cycles.
Ghana has beaten the United States in each of the past two World Cups, including a triumph in the Round of 16 in South Africa four years ago.
Whether Group G will go down as a true Group of Death or simply a collection of good teams depends on the fight put up by its two lesser clubs.
Despite Ghana’s recent history against the United States, it’s still ranked just 38th in the world.
And the Americans haven’t gotten past the quarterfinal round since 1930 — the inaugural World Cup, which featured just 13 teams.
But the fact that the United States and Ghana are seen as Group of Death timber is a testament to just how far each program has come in recent years.
You have to earn that status. It has been part of international soccer folklore for some four decades.
Mexican journalists coined the phrase “ grupo de la muerte” at the 1970 World Cup. They used it to describe that tournament’s Group 3, which included England and Brazil (winners of the previous two World Cups), Czechoslovakia (which finished second in 1962) and Romania.
The phrase resurfaced in 1982, when Argentina, Italy and Brazil were all drawn into second-phase Group C in Spain. Argentina had won the World Cup four years prior; Italy went on to capture the Cup that summer.
But “Group of Death” didn’t truly gain prominence until 1986, when Uruguayan coach Omar Borras used it to describe Group E, which brought together his club, West Germany, Denmark and Scotland.
It has been part of world soccer vernacular ever since.
Surviving the Group G gauntlet and reaching the elimination round not only would be historic for the United States, but it also would come with a true reward. The top two finishers would draw advancing teams from Group H — which is the yin to Group G’s yang.
Not a single nation in Group H is among the 11 best teams in the world. So, bizarrely, the further the Americans advance, the easier their road may become.
“Obviously it’s one of the most difficult groups in the whole draw. ... But that’s what a World Cup is about,” Klinsmann said when the draw was announced.
“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.”