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U.S. To Face Ghana, Portugal And Germany In World Cup


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The first round match-ups for next summer's soccer World Cup in Brazil are set, and things look tough for the U.S. men. The American's first three opponents will be Ghana, Portugal and Germany. So, does this qualify as the dreaded group of death? NPR's Mike Pesca joins us to talk about that. And before we do that, Mike, let's talk about the draw itself, the process, because it's pretty fun to watch. It involves a whole lot of glass bowls and one of the announcers, who happens to be a Brazilian model with a lot of cleavage.


MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, you know, it's Brazil, and we have to be keeping with the national character, so they had that. They had a dancing armadillo. They had some synchronized dance teams, a lot of pageantry. But when it comes down to deciding who's going to play who, the process was - why they had these glass bowls is that certain teams where in different what they call pots. And the World Cup wants to make it so that the eight best teams are dispersed throughout the first round, so you don't get the first and second best team playing each other. So that makes sense.

People who are familiar with seeding tournaments might say, yes, you don't put the two best players right there playing each other in the first round. But after that, it's a little bit of a free-for-all. And this had the United States worrying, well, were we going to be placed against a team like Spain or Germany or Argentina? But then maybe we would have other opponents that the World Cup doesn't - or that FIFA, the body that governs world soccer - doesn't consider in the top 10 but everyone knows are great teams. Might we have to play the Netherlands? Might we have to play England? And things actually did not work out that well for the United States.

BLOCK: Yeah. So let's talk about this group - Ghana, Portugal, Germany.

PESCA: So according to the FIFA rankings, Germany is the second best team in the world and Portugal is the fifth best team in the world. The United States is the 14th best team in the world. But the, I guess, weak brother of the group, Ghana, that's the team that eliminated the United States last time. The United States has a tough, tough draw.

BLOCK: So not only a tough draw, Mike, but also the games that the U.S. will be playing are spread out all across Brazil - huge country - including a match in a place where they, A, didn't want to go and, B, might not feel welcome.

PESCA: Well, Jurgen Klinsmann, the coach of the team, just looked at where they could possibly play. And they said this, you know, remote Brazilian city in the Amazon rainforest, Manaus, that would be a tough place to play. When he expressed that view, the mayor of Manaus said, we don't want them here. And guess what, they're playing in Manaus.

Actually, they're playing - if you add up all the distances that they have to travel, they have to travel more than any other team in the World Cup. The U.S. Soccer feed says it's 8,866 miles. Sure, why not. I mean, the U.S. is the only - this is the only area that the U.S. is underdog in the world of sports or pretty much in the world. So let's just pile on all the obstacles for the U.S.


BLOCK: OK. Well, it's not all about us, so why don't we talk about the rest of the field. Which countries got lucky in today's draw, and which were not lucky?

PESCA: Well, you know, not to be so self-obsessed, Ghana got unlucky because the U.S. is a pretty good team and they have to play Germany and Portugal and the U.S. So that might be unfortunate for the Ghanaians. Lucky, I would say France got pretty lucky. France was terrible in the last World Cup. But this World Cup they only have to play - I say only. Switzerland is good. Ecuador is good. Honduras is Honduras.

But that is a - compare that group to the U.S. group, it's no comparison. And then if you take a poor team like Costa Rica, listen to their group. You got Uruguay - of course, playing in South America - you've got England, and you've got Italy. They've all won the World Cup before. Poor Costa Rica.

BLOCK: NPR's Mike Pesca. Mike, thanks so much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

BLOCK: We heard Mike mention U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his aversion to playing in Manaus in the Amazon. But one final note on that today from Klinsmann.

JURGEN KLINSMANN: We hit the worst of the worst. I mean, going to Manaus, every nation, every coach that I talked to over these two days said, everything but Manaus. No, we get Manaus. So, I mean, you know, both teams on the field have the same issues to deal with. So there are no excuses. You know, we're going to be prepared. We're going to deal with it. But obviously, it's a tough one.

BLOCK: That's U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who added, we'll take it on and hopefully we're going to surprise some people there, putting an end to the Manaus debate at least for now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.