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It could have been worse. Uncle Sam's nephews could have been tossed in with Spain and the Netherlands, who were the champion and runner-up last time. Otherwise, Friday's World Cup draw for next summer's quadrennial tournament in Brazil was the toughest for the US soccer team since the last time the tournament was held there in 1950, when the Yanks were grouped with Spain, England, and Chile.

This time, the opponents are as close to a Group of Death as they can imagine:

Germany, the three-time titlist that beat the US in its 1998 opener and again in the 2002 quarterfinals. Portugal, which lost to Spain, 1-0, in the second round in 2010. And Ghana, which has knocked the Americans out of the last two tournaments and was a shootout goal away from reaching the 2010 semis.

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"I had a feeling in my stomach we'd get Germany," said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who directed the Mannschaft in 2006 and played for it three times in the '90s. "It's one of the most difficult groups in the whole draw."

Worse, the Americans have a brutal travel schedule that will require them to fly 9,000 miles for matches in Natal (Ghana), Manaus (Portugal), and Recife (Germany). Manaus, which is in the middle of the steamy Amazon rain forest, is the venue that nobody but the toucans wanted.

"The past few days, everyone was saying, 'Anywhere but Manaus,' " mused Klinsmann. "Well, we got Manaus. No excuses, but obviously a tough one."

After favoring the Americans last time with a manageable group (England, Slovenia, Algeria) that enabled them to move on, the football fates extracted a price. This time, the US will face the planet's second- (Germany) and fifth-ranked (Portugal) sides.

"Obviously, it's one of the most difficult groups in the World Cup," said Klinsmann, whose team is ranked 14th, just behind England. "Having Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo and then Ghana, who has a history with the United States, it couldn't get any more difficult or any bigger.

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"But that's what a World Cup is about. It's a real challenge and we'll take it."

The US, which has advanced at two of the last three Cups and reached the 2002 quarterfinals, has drawn tough opponents before. In 1990, the Yanks had to play Italy in Rome. In 1998, it was Germany; in 2002, both Portugal and host South Korea; in 2006, the Italians. Last time in South Africa, it was England.

This time, though, the Americans hit the trifecta.

"That's one of those crazy stories that football writes," Klinsmann said.

The lottery balls came out beautifully for the hosts, who will face Croatia, Cameroon, and Mexico.

"I am satisfied with the draw," concluded Brazilian manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who coached the squad when it won its fifth crown in 2002. "But we shall be paying close attention to the opening phase."

Argentina, destroyed by the Germans in the 2010 quarters, fared nicely as well, drawing Nigeria, Iran, and first-timer Bosnia-Herzegovina, none of which is ranked in the top 20.

"It has been a positive draw," said Argentine manager Alejandro Sabella. "Another situation would have been tougher."

Colombia, which will be making its first appearance since 1998, was granted Ivory Coast, Greece, and Japan. But fortune most favored unseeded France, which ended up with Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras after needing an own goal from Ukraine to survive its playoff.

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"It could have been more complicated, let's be honest," conceded manager Didier Deschamps, who captained Les Bleus when they won the 1998 Cup at home.

The Italians, who won in 2006 but submitted their worst-ever showing last time, will have to work their way out of a purgatory peopled by Uruguay, England, and Costa Rica.

"We're not worried," proclaimed manager Cesare Prandelli, whose Azzurri knocked the English out of last year's European championships in a quarterfinal shootout. "I would have been worried had it been an easy group."

The biggest losers, though, were the reigning champs, who fell in with the unseeded but formidable Dutch and Chile.

"I said this morning that we would get Holland in the first game and look what happened," said Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque. "What fortune! It is up to us to be very good from the first day. The Dutch will demand the best from us."

While the Americans might have been placed in five easier groups, they won't be completely outclassed in this one. In 2002, they beat Portugal, then one of the favorites, in the opener and outplayed the Germans in the quarterfinal, losing, 1-0, after a missed hand ball in the box should have given the US a penalty kick. This year the Americans beat the Mannschaft, 4-3, in a June friendly in Washington.

"We will work on building the belief that we can beat Germany, Portugal, and Ghana," said Klinsmann, who scored against the Yanks in their 1998 meeting in Paris. "After two losses to Ghana, it's time to beat them."

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John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.