'Group of Death'

Fans of the national team will remember how the United States rallied in the final minutes to win its group at the 2010 World Cup. (The competition is divided into eight groups, with two of the four teams from each group advancing to the single-elimination knockout stage.)

This year, the United States has been drawn into what most believe to be the toughest group, or the "Group of Death" in soccer parlance. After Monday's rematch with Ghana — which knocked out the United States in the Round of 16 four years ago — the U.S. will play world powers Portugal (on June 22) and Germany (on June 26).

From a fan's perspective, that could work in the United States' favor.

"I think people are aware that we're in a very tough bracket, and are concerned about that," said Kevin Healey, president and general manager of the Baltimore Blast. "As Americans, we don't always have that underdog role, and people are embracing that."

Said Ganzermiller: "I think it's an American thing that people get drawn in when it's America against the world, like in the Olympics or the World Cup."

It also doesn't hurt that there are Maryland ties to the U.S. team, with veteran midfielder Kyle Beckerman, of Crofton, making his World Cup debut at the advanced age of 32. Two former University of Maryland stars, defender Omar Gonzalez and midfielder Graham Zusi, are also expected to play important roles.

"They've all got great stories, and there's a very strong connection to this area," said longtime Terps coach Sasho Cirovski. "Everyone is excited to cheer on the U.S. with national pride, and with the Maryland connection, there's sort of a heightened pride."

Jacori Hayes — who came out of the same Bowie-based Freestate Soccer Alliance travel program as Beckerman and is now in the under-20 pool of U.S. national team players — said he senses local fans are approaching this year's World Cup with a sense of excitement and trepidation.

"With us being in the 'Group of Death,' it's pretty challenging, since we've struggled with Ghana in the past and we all know how good Germany and Portugal are," said Hayes, who recently finished his freshman year at Wake Forest and is spending his summer on the under-23 team of Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers.

"There's a little bit of nervousness there about how we can pull out good results. I think we can with this team. It's going to take a lot of work, but I think everyone is excited for the World Cup."

A different home team

Hayes, a former captain of the Baltimore Bays club team, looks at this year's World Cup as both a fan and a player "who hopefully can get to that point in my career."

But, like many, he is admittedly conflicted by the makeup of this year's national team.

Veterans such as Landon Donovan, the all-time leading U.S. goal scorer, and former Maryland star Maurice Edu have been left off the roster by German-born coach Jurgen Klinsmann. They've been replaced by younger players, many of whom grew up in Europe — specifically five who are from Germany.

To be eligible to compete for a nation, players must only have been a resident of that country for five years or have either a parent or grandparent live there. It leads to some players going out for spots on the team without having as strong a connection to the country as others.

"As a player, it's definitely challenging, because you're not only competing against the players you know and played against in the development academies, but there are a lot of kids out in Europe or in South America that you haven't heard of and they're over there for a reason — they're good players," said Hayes, who is from Bowie. "As a player, it's competitive to make the team anyway but it's even harder now."

The upside is that adding that talent to the national program can help the United States compete with countries that have a richer history in the sport.

"I think it's a positive. It just makes us more competitive as a nation," Hayes said. "Other countries do the same thing, they look for the best players [eligible]. It just creates a more competitive environment to produce the best players. I guess there's two sides to it. Some question whether the foreign-born players really identify themselves with the nation and play for the crest on the front, but as we get the best talent, it will do well for us and it will help grow soccer in the U.S."

Healey agrees.