Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

World Cup draw may not be so bad for USMNT after all

world cup drawIt was a rough day for the U.S. Men’s National Team when the groups were drawn on Friday for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil.

The U.S. landed in Group G with Germany (ranked No. 2 in the world) Portugal (No. 5) and Ghana (No. 24).

It’s not going to be easy, but after thinking about it over the weekend, it may not be as bad for the U.S. as we first feared.

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann took the approach that if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.

“It is one of the most difficult groups of the whole draw,” Klinsmann said. “It couldn’t get any more difficult or any bigger but that is what the World Cup is all about. We are looking forward to the challenge and we don’t see ourselves as any kind of outsiders. If you want to get into the top 10 or 12 teams in the world you have to beat these guys.”

In addition to being in one of the tougher draws, the U.S. will face a ridiculous amount of travel for the group stage of games.

As Sports Illustrated‘s Grant Wahl points out, the team will travel almost 8,900 total miles as it makes round-trip flights from its training camp in São Paulo to Natal for the match against Ghana, to Recife to take on Germany, and to Manaus to face Portugal.

Ah, yes, Manaus.

The one thing that almost every team wanted to avoid (other than being in the group with host Brazil) was having to play a game in Manaus, which is in the western part of Brazil in the Amazon rain forest. In addition to having to play in high heat and humidity, the area is also known for its alligators, snakes and big spiders. Oh, and teams traveling their for games will have to take malaria pills.

Lovely!

There will be plenty of interesting story lines for each of the U.S. team’s games in group play.

Ghana knocked the Americans out of the 2006 World Cup in the group stage, and then did it again in 2010 in the round of 16.

In 2002, the U.S. beat Portugal in their opening match of group play.

And, in Germany, Klinsmann will be facing a team he helped lead to the World Cup championship in 1990 and one he coached to a third-place finish in 2006.  The USMNT lost to Germny in World Cup play in 1998 and 2002.

No matter where they would have been placed, the U.S. would probably had a tough go of it in group play. With the automatic qualifying spot going to host country Brazil – who most certainly would have qualified regardless – there are no weak teams in this year’s field. Even the five African teams – Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana and Algeria – are not pushovers thanks to an increase in stability among the coaching ranks.

And the U.S. isn’t alone; the group stage is going to be difficult for Portugal and Ghana as well, and five points could be enough to get the U.S. through to the knockout stage, and the schedule may actually favor their cause.

If the U.S. can take three points off Ghana in the opener (a game they now have six months to prepare for), and Germany does the same against Portugal, the U.S. could draw against Portugal and Germany and, if things break right, take second place with five points.

“I think we have the quality, if we play our best ball, to get out of the group,” U.S. captain Clint Dempsey told ESPN. “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.”

Two steps forward, one step back for Liverpool

It was a nice bounce back week for Liverpool, as the Reds picked up a midweek victory against Norwich and followed it up with a 4-1 win over West Ham on Saturday.

liverpool beat west hamLiverpool still sits in second place, five points back of Arsenal, after Everton held the Gunners to a draw on Sunday.

Luis Suarez had two more goals against West Ham – after putting four in the back of the net against Norwich – and has now scored 11 goals in Liverpool’s last four home matches.

Of course you can’t have the good without also having the bad. A week after losing Daniel Sturridge for up to two months with an ankle injury, the Reds took another hit when captain Steven Gerrard limped off the field with a hamstring injury in the second half.

”It was his hamstring so we just need to see how it is,'” manager Brendan Rodgers said after the game. ”He was outstanding in his performance, the quality of his passing, but when he went to get that pass he felt a little tweak.”

We have to wonder how many more hits the Reds can take before it starts to take its toll on the team’s prospects of staying in contention for a Champions League spot next season.

Liverpool travels to White Hart Lane next Sunday to take on Tottenham Hotspur followed by a home game against Cardiff City. Then things get interesting as they have back-t0-back road trips to Manchester City and Chelsea over a four-day stretch to close out the calendar year.

“We’ll just keep going and take each game one at a time,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got difficult games ahead but it was always going to be difficult from the first game. We’ll just go to the next challenge. These were games that were tough for us last year. You give the respect to the players because they are actually making them look a lot more straightforward.”

The Sparty Revenge Tour

In the end, it all worked out for the best.

sparty partyWhile it may not be the team that everyone expected, the SEC will once again be a participant in the national title game come January thanks to an assist from Michigan State.

The Spartans beat Ohio State, 34-24, in the Big 10 Championship game on Saturday night, the fifth team to put up 30 or  more points on the Buckeyes this year. They also held an allegedly unstoppable Ohio State offense to just 25 total yards in the fourth quarter as the Spartans simply beat down the Buckeyes.

“Teams wear down when they play us,” Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said after the game. “Shoot, we practice faster and harder than a lot of stuff out here today, not in terms of hitting, but speed between plays.

The win locks up Michigan State’s first outright Big 10 title and its first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season. And, as friend of the program Jim Kanicki pointed out, completes a unique season of revenge.

Last season, the Spartans lost five conference games – by a total of 13 points – to Michigan, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State. This year? They beat each and every one of them.

Michigan State’s win also gives college football fans the national title game they wanted with Florida State (45-7 winners over Duke) taking on Auburn (59-42 winners against Missouri) on Jan. 6. The Seminoles have been rolling through teams all season, but there may not be a team playing better football right now than Auburn, and is anyone really willing to bet against the Tigers bringing home the SEC’s eighth consecutive national title?

“We’re the SEC champ,” Gus Malzahn said after the game. “I believe we won (the BCS national championship) the last seven years. We play the toughest schedule of any of the teams there, and we’re playing our best football. A lot of teams aren’t getting better each week. This team is.”

As for Ohio State, while the Spartans roughed them up, the BCS was far nicer as the Buckeyes are off to the Orange Bowl to face a Clemson team that might be a bit over-ranked at 12. We were hoping the Orange Bowl would select Oregon, as it would be fun to see what Marcus Mariota could do to Ohio State’s porous secondary. Or even better, the Sugar Bowl could have forced the Buckeyes into the one game they wanted no part of by matching them up with Alabama but, alas, it was not to be.

The contest with Clemson could still be a good one, especially if Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd is on his game that night.

The loss to Michigan State was just another reminder that Ohio State is not part of college football royalty, no matter how much Buckeye Fan wants to believe otherwise. With just one national title since 1971 – the same number as such illustrious programs as Pitt, Georgia Tech and BYU – the Buckeyes are a good program, one that isn’t ready to play on a national level.

And we have Sparty to thank for reminding everyone of that.

(Photos courtesy of Getty Images and The Plain Dealer)

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