Today's dramatic World Cup draw did not go well for the United States. Instead of getting drawn into a group with the other pots' minnows, they ended up with a finalist contender in Germany, the team that knocked out the U.S. in the past two World Cups in Ghana, and the nation boasting arguably the best player in the world in Portugal. And while other nations of a less caliber than the United States received a worse draw than this*, one would be hard-pressed to categorize the U.S.'s draw as anything other than unfavorable.
*Hug an Australian
And while one could presumably make an argument that the U.S. could conceivably wriggle out enough points against Ghana and Portugal to advance, the United States have extra obstacles in front of them: travel schedule and geography. Their assigned position carries with it the highest amount of travel.
Now let's take a look at the three cities the United States will be playing in.
Ghana vs. United States in Natal: Boasting an average high of 82 degrees Fahrenheit in June-July along the northeast coast of Brazil, Natal also carries with it fairly high humidity throughout the year. Natal gets a reprieve though, as its coastal location prevents things from getting too out of hand. The World Cup does take place during Natal's wet season, however, precipitation on a day-to-day basis can be volatile and will not have as significant an impact as temperature and change in temperature.
United States vs. Portugal in Manaus: Here's the whopper. The one city every team was hoping to avoid. The only World Cup locale situated near the Amazon Rainforest. But unlike Natal, Manaus will be experiencing a relatively dry season, however a dry season in this type of tropical monsoon climate can still wield unpleasant thunderstorms, as evidenced by the average 4.472 inches of precipitation in June.* With average highs hovering around 88 degrees, Manaus's tropical monsoon climate will be uncomfortable. Perhaps a beacon of hope for the United States is that while they will have an unpleasantly long flight, the change in temperature will be more drastic for their opponents. Portugal, who will play their opening game in Salvador, will face a more drastic temperature change with the average high in Salvador hovering a little below 80 degrees.
*Yes, this is the Manaus dry season.
United States vs. Germany in Recife: The United States will then fly from Manaus back to the northeast coast to Recife, a city south of Natal by less than an hour if one travels by airplane. Despite the closeness in proximity though, Recife's climate is not entirely identical to Natal's. The average June temperature in Refice is 83.8 degrees*, which does not vary significantly in terms of Natal's temperature but Junes in Recife average over 15 inches of precipitation. For some perspective on all this precipitation, July is on average the wettest month in Philadelphia and its average July precipitation is 4.35 inches.
*The average July temperature drops to 81.1 degrees.
How does this compare to the rest of the World Cup field?
Well, the United States are the beneficiaries of being on the end of quite a few extremes. According to Bobby McMahon at Forbes Magazine who pre-draw compiled all the travel and temperature data for the 32 positions, the United States will travel the most miles out of any one country during the group stage, compiling a total of 3,482 miles between sites. In fact, the distance from Manaus to Recife is tied for the single-longest distance any team will have between matches of the group stage of the 2014 World Cup.* And with the U.S. team hotel in the southern city of Sao Paolo, assuming the U.S. makes round trips from Sao Paolo to all three cities, the U.S. will travel a grand total of 11,500 miles over the course of ten days.
*Croatia experience the same flight in between their matches with Cameroon in Manaus and Mexico in Recife.
Travel can play a very important and oft-understated role in the fates of sports team, and given that the United States final group stage match of the tournament will be against a German side who will travel the fourth fewest miles (1,031) of all teams in the group stage, and the advantage becomes obvious, even if you ignore the fact Germany are a world-class side to begin with.
Due to the inherent size of a country like Brazil, the differences in temperature vary greatly from city to city. Compare the temperatures and conditions of Manaus to the conditions of Porto Alegre and the difference becomes obvious. Unfortunately, FIFA did not prepare well for this, and with the help of the above linked Forbes article, we can once again talk about the inherent unfairness of this draw.
Not only do the U.S. have the most travel time of the 32 teams, but the United States' three venues are tied for highest average temperatures with Italy's. While these warm conditions are less than ideal compared to some of Brazil's more southern cities, it is more ideal than having to deal with changes in temperature. The United States' temperature range is fifth lowest among the World Cup teams, with all of Natal, Manaus, and Recife being within six degrees of each other on average.* To illustrate the difference, contrast this Honduras who will endure a 24-degree temperature swing when traveling to Manaus after two games in cooler southern Brazilian cities.
*Mexico are the most fortunate in this regard, playing in Natal, Recife, and Fortaleza, all of which have an average temperature within two degrees of each other.
McMahon compiled all of this together in his article and came up with four nations who between temperature average, temperature range, miles traveled, and the logistical days between the opening match and finals had the worst set of geographical and logistical conditions in the 2014 World Cup. The team with the single most unfavorable set of conditions? The United States. The team with the best set of conditions? Mexico.
To extend this to the knockout round, the United States end up with what appears to be one of two options of advancement: finish as group runners-up and face probable Group H winner Belgium (and all their young stars) in Salvador, a city south of Recife with temperatures around 79-80 degrees, or should they do the improbable and win the group*, the United States will get the pleasure of traveling to Porto Alegro, a city whose average June-July temperatures is around 67 and they experience the drastic temperature swing, the only geographical annoyance they avoid in the group stage.
*I'll crap an animal if this happens.
**Or a Belgium team after Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Jan Vertonghen have been kidnapped by aliens and taken to the planet Vortex.
The United States will very much have an uphill battle should they want to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup, and they will have to win the battle with little geographic and logistic conditions working in their favor. They'll need all the help they can get, and unfortunately they are being given none to start. Ante up, America.