COSTA DO SAUIPE, Brazil (CBSNewYork/AP) — The United States will play Ghana, Portugal and Germany in what appears to be the most difficult first-round group at next year's World Cup, one that will take the Americans on a 9,000-mile trip around Brazil.
Making its seventh straight appearance at soccer's showcase, the U.S. was drawn Friday into Group G and opens 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 three-time champion Germany.
"I think we have the quality, if we play our best ball, to get out of the group," U.S. captain Clint Dempsey said. "You can't think about, 'Am I the favorite? Am I the underdog? What's it going to be like playing in the heat? What's it going to be like with the travel?' Those are factors that come into it, but at the end of the day both teams have to deal with it."
Statistically, the U.S. group has the top average FIFA world ranking.
"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 at the draw in Costa do Sauipe, Brazil. "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 group with an average FIFA ranking of 11.25, South Korea wound up in Group H, creating a group with the poorest average at 28.25.
"I think the team's mentality is that we can go and play with anybody," American defender Matt Besler said. "Now we're going to have to prove it."
"I kind of had in my stomach that we were going to get Germany," Klinsmann said.
Germany beat the U.S. 2-0 in in 1998 World Cup opener in Paris — with Klinsmann setting up the first goal and scoring the second — the edged the Americans 1-0 on a controversial goal in the 2002 quarterfinal in South Korea.
Die Mannschaft is coached by Klinsmann's former assistant, Joachim Loew. The Americans beat a second-tier German team 4-3 in a June exhibition at Washington.
"With Jurgen Klinsmann, they have another mentality," Loew said. "I learned a lot from Jurgen, so this is special."
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, 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.
"They're the team that beat us, kind of crushed our dreams of being in the World Cup, so I think we're due a little bit of luck and we're due a win against them," Dempsey 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.
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. They also will play all three matches in the tropics, with the second and third matches in the afternoon.
"Everybody is saying that this is the 'Group of Death' and it's such a hard challenge," former American captain John Harkes said. "I still think that the U.S. can rise to the occasion."
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.
Defending champion Spain will play its opening World Cup game against the Netherlands, a repeat of the 2010 final, while host Brazil faces a relatively easy path to the knockout stage after Friday's draw.
Brazil starts its campaign for a sixth World Cup title with an opener against Croatia. Mexico and Cameroon are also in the group.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, the only World Cup newcomer among the 32 teams, plays its opener against Argentina. Iran and Nigeria were also drawn in that Group F.
Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan are in Group C, with Uruguay, Costa Rica, England and Italy in a strong Group D.
One of the easiest groups on paper looked to be E, with Switzerland, Ecuador, France and Honduras.
Russia, host of the next World Cup, is in Group H with Belgium, Algeria and Korea.
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