By Timothy Rapp
Any way you slice it, the United States have a huge task on their hands at this year's World Cup.
The group draw was brutal. The travel schedule is the most taxing any country will face. And, just to make things a bit more interesting, the USMNT will be a fairly inexperienced group, at least in World Cup terms.
Temper your expectations, folks.
We'll get into the individual matchups in a moment, but let's talk about just how taxing the team's schedule is.
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 from the last two World Cups.
With the longest travel schedule of any World Cup team at almost 9,000 miles, the U.S. meets Portugal and Cristian Ronaldo on June 22 in the Amazon rain forest city Manaus.
The Americans close group play on June 26 in Recife against Germany, which beat the U.S. in the 2002 quarterfinal.
With the United States making their base camp in Sao Paulo, the squad will have quite the hick between each game. Sam Borden of The New York Times wrote in more depth about the travel conditions after the draw was announced:
Making matters worse, the game against Portugal will take place in the humid climate of Manaus, a port city in the Amazon rain forest that seemed to be the host site that every coach wanted to avoid. Only the top two teams in each of the eight groups will advance to the knockout rounds.
'We hit the worst of the worst,' United States Manager Jurgen Klinsmann said of his team’s schedule. He added: 'It’s one of the most difficult groups in the whole draw. It couldn’t get any more difficult or any bigger. But that’s what the World Cup is about, and we’ll take it on. Hopefully we can surprise some people.'
For all of those reasons, the opening match against Ghana is an absolute must-win for the United States. Not only is Ghana the weakest opponent they'll face in Group G, but being the first game, it's unlikely the USMNT will be all that bothered by the travel schedule at that point.
But Ghana is no easy foe. They've beaten the United States in the past two World Cups, and boast a talented roster that includes Kevin-Prince Boateng, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah and Asamoah Gyan, among others.
Ghana's midfield in particular is excellent, with a strong blend of athleticism, creative playmakers and swarming tacklers that will cause chaos for players like Michael Bradley. Quick, incisive passing and maintaining width will be important for the States.