The U.S. men's national soccer team has made great strides in recent years, reaching the quarterfinal round of the 2002 World Cup tournament and rising to a best-ever fourth in the world rankings (5th currently). But the U.S. team may have a difficult task to reach the second round of this year's World Cup.
The United States has been drawn into Group E of the tournament that kicks off June ninth in Germany. For the Americans, reaching the second round will require earning points against two strong European teams, the Czech Republic and Italy.
International football expert commentator Derek Rae from Scotland says those two teams are the ones most people expect to emerge from Group E.
"Italy are big favorites. They did not overwhelm anyone in qualifying. But it seems to me they got a lot better in the period since qualifying ended up to now," Rae explains. "And they have a real genuine star in Luca Toni, the striker of Fiorentina, a big powerful striker who broke the 30-goal barrier in Serie A this season. So they have players in every position who can excel."
Italy is currently ranked 13th in the world. The Czech Republic is ranked second, only behind reigning champion Brazil. The Czechs have a veteran squad of international players, with only two who play professionally in their home country. Rae believes their experience will be a factor.
"The Czech Republic are many people's favorites to move on," he says. "But there are one or two questions about the Czech Republic. And mostly those question marks have to do with the age of the squad. They are still a very technical side. And a team that can play almost any country off the park on any particular night or day."
The United States is fielding perhaps its best World Cup team ever and enters the tournament ranked fifth in the world, just one spot below its best-ever placing that was achieved in April. But Rae says those facts will become a footnote if the United States stumbles in its opening match on June 12.
"The United States, of course, surprised everyone, including a lot of people in the U.S. itself, with their performances in the Far East in 2002 (at the World Cup in South Korea and Japan)," he says. "And it really is a question as to whether they can push on from those performances. I think it is very important for them to take something from that first match against the Czech Republic (June 12). Failure to do so and it is going to be a tall order for the Americans to do anything at all."
Almost overlooked in Group E is Ghana, which is one of four African teams making its World Cup debut. While Ghana has four African Cup of Nations titles, it had a spotty performance in this year's tournament. Ghana has displayed a strong defense, and Derek Rae says some standout players may create unexpected results in Germany.
"Ghana of course is very unpredictable. You do not really know what you are going to get from the Ghanaians," he says. "And that was true of their performances at the African Cup of Nations. But with players like (Chelsea midfielder) Michael Essien and (captain) Stephen Appiah (who plays for Turkey's Fenerbache), they cannot be underestimated."
The very different attributes of the four teams could make Group E one of the most entertaining of the World Cup's first round.