That collective groan at around noon on Friday was the sound of United States soccer fans upon hearing that their team was drawn into what appears to be a brutally tough group for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The Americans have to play three-time champion Germany, Portugal with superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, and nemesis Ghana, the team which has knocked the U.S. out of the past two World Cups.
As if that is not reason enough for concern, coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s team also will have the worst travel schedule of any team in the tournament. They will have to crisscross nearly 9,000 miles across Brazil next summer, including a trip deep in to the Amazon jungle to play Portugal in Manaus.
The much-anticipated World Cup Draw was held in the Brazilian resort town of Costa do Sauipe on Friday, and a television audience of 200 million was expected to tune in as the teams’ fates were decided by dignitaries pulling colored balls out of glass jars.
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Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina got relatively easy draws, and will be heavily favored to reach the knockout rounds. The U.S. faces a stiffer challenge with three difficult opponents and a logistical nightmare with the travel schedule.
“We hit the worst of the worst,’’ Klinsmann said on ESPN2 after the draw. “There will be some problems from an organizational standpoint. The past few days, everyone was saying, `Anywhere but Manaus.’ Well, we got Manaus. No excuses, but obviously, a tough one.’’
The U.S. opens its Group G schedule June 16 in Natal against Ghana, the team that eliminated Team USA by identical scores of 2-1 in the past two World Cups. Then, it’s off to Manaus on June 22 for the Portugal match in the jungle. The U.S. closes the group stage June 26 in Recife against Germany, one of the strongest teams in the tournament, and the former team of Klinsmann, who starred for Germany in the 1990 World Cup and coached the Germans to third place in 2006.
''I kind of had in my stomach that we were going to get Germany,'' Klinsmann said. ''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.
''But that's what a World Cup is about. 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.''
Germany is coached by Klinsmann's former assistant, Joachim Loew, and much of the staff remains from 2006.
''Obviously, there are a lot of emotions involved. It's normal. I'm German,'' Klinsmann said. ''It's going to be a special moment.''
Klinsmann dismissed the idea that the Americans relish the role of underdog, a notion proposed by commentator and former U.S. player Alexi Lalas during the broadcast of the draw ceremony.
“We don’t look at ourselves as outsiders,’’ Klinsmann said. “The 32 teams in the field deserve to be here. We will work on building the belief that we can beat Germany, Portugal and Ghana. After two losses to Ghana, it’s time to beat them.’’
Former U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who led the Americans to the quarterfinals in the 2002 Cup, believes the U.S. draw is “not as bad’’ as others say. He says it’s better to play Germany third rather than first, because the Germans may have qualified for the Round of 16 by then. He also likes the U.S. chances against Portugal in the rainforest region.
“I’m not as pessimistic as other people about this draw,’’ said Arena, reached by phone. “It won’t be easy, but it’s not overwhelming. I think the U.S. can get through. Portugal struggled in qualifying, needed a playoff, and this game will be in the hottest most humid venue, which favors the Americans. The U.S. players are very fit and more used to those climates. MLS players are accustomed to traveling long distances for matches.
“If they can get a point against Ghana and beat Portugal, I think they’ll advance.’’
The two other groups that could be called Groups of Death are Group B, which features 2010 finalists Spain and Netherlands, Chile and Australia; and Group D, which includes Uruguay, Italy, England and Costa Rica. Spain opens against the Netherlands June 13 in Salvador in a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final.
The softest groups appear to be Group H (Belgium, Algeria, South Korea, Russia) and Group E (Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras, France).
Argentines and Colombians surely were celebrating after being placed in groups that look passable. South American qualifying leader Argentina drew Nigeria, Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a travel schedule that is easier than most. Group C features red-hot Colombia, which finished second in South American qualifying, Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece.
Host Brazil leads Group A and opens the tournament June 12 in Sao Paulo against Croatia. Mexico, which struggled to qualify, and Cameroon are also in that group.
If the U.S. team advances out of the group stage, it would face a team from Group H on either June 30 in Porto Alegre or July 1 in Salvador. The USA is playing in its seventh straight FIFA World Cup. In South Africa, the U.S. won its group with a Landon Donovan extra-time goal to beat Algeria 1-0.
The U.S. has played in 29 World Cup games in its history, and has a 7-17-5 all-time record.
“Everyone gets worked up about the draw, but the bottom line is, you gotta beat someone to advance,’’ Arena said. “There are no easy games.’’