Michael Bradley Michael Bradley

The 2014 FIFA World Cup returns to Brazil — "the tabernacle of soccer," according to ESPN host Bob Ley — for the first time since 1950. The quadrennial tournament begins Thursday with the home-team playing Croatia in Sãu Paulo (June 12 at 3:30/2:30c on ESPN). ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC will televise all 64 games through the championship on July 13 (and all will be streamed at WatchESPN and espn3.com). Univision has Spanish-language coverage of the games, while ESPN Deportes has them in Portuguese. ESPN's blanket coverage includes daily installments of World Cup Tonight (times vary, most nights on ESPN2).

The U.S. gets underway on Monday, and the team is hoping to avoid déjà vu. The squad's first preliminary-round game is against Ghana (June 16 at 6/5c, ESPN), the same team that eliminated the U.S. from the last two editions of the tournament. Ian Darke, ESPN's lead play-by-play commentator, doubts that the specter of past defeats to the Black Stars will haunt the Yanks. "Once the game starts, you're not thinking of the history," he says. "This is another time, another game."

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has referred to the Ghana match as "pretty much a knockout game," because the next two opponents in the so-called "Group of Death" — Portugal and Germany — will make for a progressively more challenging road to the knockout stage. The Germans are among the overall favorites to win the World Cup, while Portugal's offense is led by Cristiano Ronaldo, FIFA's 2013 world player of the year.

"The U.S. have always enjoyed playing as underdogs, and I think that's what they're going to do here," says Darke, who will be racking up about 9,500 miles of air travel crisscrossing Brazil during the two-week group stage alone. "All three teams will play in an attacking way against the U.S., and if the Americans can counterattack well, they could be in business."

The team's ability to handle the sweltering Brazilian weather will be a big advantage. "They're going to be one of the fittest teams there," Darke says. "Not all the teams might be able to cope with the conditions." Forwards Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore will need to find their goal-scoring rhythm, while Tim Howard, must live up to his reputation as one of the top goalkeepers in the world.

Midfielder Michael Bradley, whom Darke calls "the most important player on the team," serves as the field general, equally talented in both offensive and defensive directions. "Like all good central midfield players, he's got what I call good wing mirrors," Darke says of the 26-year-old New Jersey native, who joined Major League Soccer's Toronto FC this season. "He can see what's going on around him, and I think he's the governor around there. He's the guy who's doing a bit of talking and marshaling. So when he's on his game, I think the U.S. tend to be on their game."

The United States's group-stage schedule (pre-match coverage begins 3o minutes before listed game time):

Monday, June 16: Ghana (6/5c on ESPN)

Sunday, June 22: Portugal (6/5c on ESPN)

Thursday, June 26: Germany (noon/11 a.m. c on ESPN)

For ESPN's full World Cup schedule, click here.

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!