The 'Group of Death' for United States in World Cup? It's put up or shut up time for the red, white and blue

The 'Group of Death' for United States in World Cup? It's put up or shut up time for the red, white and blue

Clint Dempsey and Cristiano Ronaldo will battle in the Amazon rainforest next June.

Come in off the ledge, soccer fans. All is not yet lost.

If the World Cup is the most anticipated event on the soccer calendar, then the World Cup draw is a close second. The draw happened Friday morning, and, um ... things could have gone better for the Red, White and Blue.

First, a quick primer: The World Cup consists of 32 teams, split into eight groups of four teams. It will run from June to July in Brazil. Each group has one "seeded" team, and the rest of the teams are drawn at random, with the only rule being to separate teams from the same geographic region as much as possible.

The United States (curently ranked 14th in the mysterious FIFA World Rankings) was drawn against:

  • Germany (the 2nd ranked team in the world)
  • Ghana (the team that has bounced the USA in the last two World Cups)
  • Cristiano Ronaldo, the best player in the world (and the rest of his Portuguese comrades)

So, go ahead. Freak out. You can watch this to help calm down:

[nbcsports_video src=//www.youtube.com/embed/jbn3rOPmR9w width=620 height=349]

All done? OK. Here's why we should embrace the challenge, not be afraid of it.

The United States has spent the last decade trying to get respect from the rest of the world in the sport we call "soccer." The success of players abroad -- such as Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and more -- has definitely helped. As have friendly wins in Italy, Bosnia, etc.

But much of the world (I'm looking at you, Europe) still laughs when they think of American soccer. And if we had lucked into a group with Switzerland or Ecuador, we could have advanced to the quarterfinals and still heard "Eh, they had an easy road."

That won't be a problem this time around.

If the Americans can somehow get out of the group (something I expect them to do), they would face a VERY winnable game in the round of 16 against likely Belgium or Russia, followed by a quarterfinal against likely France or Argentina.

Get to the round of 16 -- or more -- and you'll never again have to worry about soccer snobs looking down on us. Because we'll have earned it. And guess what? Right now, in Germany, Ghana and Portugal, no one is happy to see the letters "USA" in Group G.

According to math-geek extraordinaire Nate Silver and ESPN, we have a 39.3 percent chance of reaching the knockout stage. Germany is the clear favorite in the group. But I would argue that the USA is a better team than Ghana, and the word "Ghana" simply scares us because we can only remember this and this from the last two World Cups. As for Portugal, they are very talented, but the aura of Cristiano Ronaldo hides the holes in the roster. I would call this game a straight-up coin flip.

The bigger issue than the teams in the group might be the locations of the games. The United States will fly 8,866 miles for its three group games, including one against Portugal (Sunday, June 12, 3 p.m. Eastern) that is essentially in the Amazon rainforest.

On the equator. In June.

From the first game against Ghana on Monday, June 6 (6 p.m.) to the last game against Germany on Thursday, June 26 (noon), the team will fly the equivalent of TWO complete roundtrips from Philadelphia to Seattle.

We have plenty of time to break things down more before June. But for now, calm down, have some confidence, and reserve a barstool at Brauhaus Schmitz for USA-Germany (oh, and call in sick now).

And, in the words of Ian Darke, "GO, GO USA!"

[nbcsports_video src=//www.youtube.com/embed/2bg8vQKN4m8 width=620 height=349]

Best of NHL: Lee scores 2 power-play goals, Islanders beat Kings

Best of NHL: Lee scores 2 power-play goals, Islanders beat Kings

NEW YORK -- The New York Islanders are on quite a nice roll.

Anders Lee scored two power-play goals to lead the Islanders to a 4-2 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night, giving New York its third straight win and fourth in the last five games.

"We've been keeping it simple of late," said Lee, who has four goals in two games against the Kings this season. "We've been getting shots on net and being more effective. I'll do my thing down low."

John Tavares had a goal and an assist, Jason Chimera also scored and Jean-Francois Berube stopped 34 shots to earn his first win in his third start of the season (see full recap).

Hartnell snaps tie as Blue Jackets beat Carolina 3-2
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Blue Jackets would just as soon forget the second period of Saturday's game, when the Carolina Hurricanes rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie it.

Columbus didn't play much better in the third but withstood 15 shots and killed three penalties. Midway through, Scott Hartnell scored his second goal of the game , and the Blue Jackets beat Carolina 3-2.

Columbus got the win despite being outshot 37-20.

Hartnell scored in the first period and then netted the tiebreaker, helping the Blue Jackets overcome a horrendous second period - in which they managed only two shots on goal - to beat Carolina for the second time this week (see full recap).

Beagle scores in overtime, Capitals beat Stars 4-3
DALLAS -- Jay Beagle scored 19 seconds into overtime and the Washington Capitals rallied to beat the Dallas Stars 4-3 on Saturday night.

Evgeny Kuznetsov skated behind the net and put the puck in front to Beagle. His wrist shot beat goalie Kari Lehtonen, who got tangled with a defender and lost his footing.

The Stars led 3-1 and didn't allow Washington a power play until the third period, but then Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie scored with the man advantage in the first 5:26 of the period.

Adam Cracknell and Jamie Benn scored for Dallas on plays that originally were ruled no goal. Patrick Eaves had a goal and an assist for the Stars (see full recap).

Bogosian scores in overtime, Sabres edge Canadiens 3-2
MONTREAL -- The Sabres couldn't score from in close on All-Star goalie Carey Price late in regulation Saturday night.

So Zach Bogosian teed it up from a ways out in overtime to lift Buffalo.

Bogosian scored his first goal of the season in overtime and the Sabres beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in the second game of a back-to-back for both teams.

Buffalo nearly broke through against Price near the end of the third period. Price made a pad save on Matt Moulson on a breakaway at 19:40, and then with six seconds remaining, he robbed Rasmus Ristolainen with a windmill glove save (see full recap).

 

Best of NBA: Kawhi Leonard scores 41, Spurs down Cavaliers in OT

Best of NBA: Kawhi Leonard scores 41, Spurs down Cavaliers in OT

CLEVELAND -- Kawhi Leonard scored a career-high 41 points, LaMarcus Aldridge had 16 points and 12 rebounds, and the San Antonio Spurs beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 118-115 in overtime on Saturday night despite missing starters Tony Parker and Pau Gasol.

Leonard scored six in OT, including a game-sealing dunk with 4.9 seconds left, as the Spurs regrouped after a late collapse in regulation.

David Lee, making a rare start in place of the injured Gasol, added 14 points as San Antonio improved to 18-4 on the road.

LeBron James and Kyrie Irving scored 29 apiece for the Cavs, who had the last shot in regulation and had plenty of opportunities in the extra five minutes. Cleveland still had a chance to tie it in the final second of overtime, but Kevin Love missed a 3-pointer (see full recap).

Lillard, McCollum carry Portland to OT win over Boston
BOSTON -- Damian Lillard had a three-point play with 47 seconds left in overtime and finished with 28 points to lift the Portland Trail Blazers to a 127-123 victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday night, snapping their four-game losing streak.

CJ McCollum scored 35 points to lead Portland, which lost in the closing seconds in Philadelphia on Friday night. Lillard added seven assists.

Isaiah Thomas led Boston with 41 points, his 14th time this season with 30 or more points. Marcus Smart and Al Horford each scored 17 for the Celtics, who have lost two straight after winning 13 of 16.

Thomas nailed a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:24 to play in OT, pushing Boston ahead by one, but Al-Farouq Aminu was fouled on the next possession and hit both free throws to move Portland back in front.

Lillard then drove the lane, was fouled and hit the free throw. Mason Plumlee had a short jumper in the lane and a free throw in the closing 24 seconds (see full recap).

Booker scores 26 as Suns edge Knicks 107-105
NEW YORK -- Devin Booker scored 26 points and made a go-ahead 3-pointer with 31 seconds left, and the Phoenix Suns beat the New York Knicks 107-105 on Saturday night.

Carmelo Anthony's attempt at a winning 3-pointer rimmed out as Phoenix snapped a two-game losing streak and handed New York its second loss in a row.

Eric Bledsoe added 23 points for the Suns, while P.J. Tucker and Marquese Chriss each had 15.

Anthony led the Knicks with 31 points, Derrick Rose had 26 and Kristaps Porzingis scored 14 (see full recap).

Dekker scores career-best 30 leading Rockets past Grizzlies
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Sam Dekker scored a career-high 30 points, James Harden added 29 points and 10 assists and the Houston Rockets leaned on their usual 3-point offense to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 119-95 on Saturday night.

Eric Gordon added 21 points as the Rockets built the lead to as many as 20 in the fourth quarter before easily coasting home.

Dekker, making his first career start in place of the ill Ryan Anderson, made 12 of 19 shots, including 6 of 11 from outside the arc. Houston shot 51 percent overall and 38 percent from distance.

Marc Gasol scored 32 points and Mike Conley added 15 for the Grizzlies, who lost for the third time in the last four.

Memphis struggled shooting the entire night, finishing at 37 percent and unsuccessfully tried to follow the Rockets' long-range attack but converted only 9 of 34 from outside the arc (see full recap).