U.S. Soccer Team Swims With Alligators

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning," the basis for the eight-part ESPN mini-series. He also wrote "The Challenge," the winner of the 2009 Scribes Book Award, and "Death Comes to Happy Valley."
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Is it better to be lucky or good?

The U.S. Men's National Team will find out soon. The team was lucky last time, in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when it was grouped with England, Slovenia and Algeria. It still took the U.S. until the 90th minute of its third game to advance -- on a rebound off the Algerian goalkeeper.

To say that the U.S. has drawn a much tougher group for Brazil 2014 would seriously understate the matter. Germany? Portugal? Ghana? You have got to be kidding.

This is a much better U.S. team than the one we sent off to South Africa. After a shaky start on its road to qualification, the U.S. has emerged as a minor soccer power. It easily won its group, the Hexagonal, with a record of 7-2-1, beating Mexico, Panama and Jamaica in its final three games. This is a team that plays with confidence, creativity and technical skill; it can hold possession. It's a whole new brand of U.S. soccer, which has historically relied on the admirable, if limited, quality of determination.

I don't want to be defeatist, especially considering how much fun it's been to watch this team come together. I will cheer myself hoarse for them and hope for the best. But there's no spinning the fact that today is a very bad day for American soccer fans. Germany is probably the second-best team in the world, after Brazil. Last year, two German clubs -- with heavily German rosters -- met in the finals of the Champions League, defeating Real Madrid and FC Barcelona along the way. Which is all you need to know about how good the German national team is.

Portugal may be a step down, but not a big one. Perhaps you're familiar with its star player, Cristiano Ronaldo? He scores a lot of goals. He also has a solid supporting cast that includes Manchester United winger Nani.

At least there's Ghana, you may be thinking. Yes, Ghana, the little African nation of 25 million that eliminated the U.S. from the last two World Cups. Oy.

If all of this weren't bad enough, the U.S. has the most grueling travel schedule of any World Cup team. To play its three games, the team will have to log almost 9,000 miles throughout Brazil. The players may not be in the country for long, but at least they'll see a lot of it.

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