SAO PAULO – The United States men’s national team witnessed the start of the World Cup on television screens on Thursday, watching Brazil beat Croatia in their player lounge at the team hotel. Veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard didn’t. He was watching on the couch in his room – and fell asleep several times.
Howard has been sleeping well here. “I dozed off,” he admitted with a sheepish grin. “I woke up a few times and watched most of it.” Helpfully, fireworks were set off after each of Brazil’s three goals and after the final whistle of their victory in the opener. Those helped wake Howard up.
Jermaine Jones, the 32-year-old midfielder, understood the 35-year-old Howard’s plight. “The problem is we train hard and Timmy is a little bit older so he has to sleep,” he said, flashing his wide smile.
Defender Matt Besler was more focused on the game. “A part of us was watching as soccer players and professionals, trying to scout a little but, but a lot of us was watching as fans,” he said. “It really felt like this whole thing kicked off. I was up in my room for the second half and had my window cracked open a little bit and when Brazil scored those two goals in the second half and then again on the final whistle, I heard the entire city of Sao Paulo roar. It gave me chills. It was so cool. I heard an eruption of the city. The energy of the country – it’s finally here.”
But for all the excitement of the game, it contained a teachable moment as well. Brazil had already equalized after a Marcelo own goal put them behind, shocking the hosts. Striker Fred then backed into his defender Dejan Lovren in Croatia’s box. Lovren put his hands on Fred, who took a theatrical tumble. Referee Yuichi Nishimura pointed to the spot for a penalty whose illegitimacy has sadly been the talk of the tournament thus far. It proved to be the winner in the 3-1 score line.
“Which penalty?” Howard said sarcastically, when asked about the controversial call. “I didn’t see one. But I don’t have a whistle. I don’t agree with it but that’s not going to help Croatia. It sucks for Croatia, that’s what I think.”
It wasn’t so much Fred’s act as the referee’s interpretation of it that bothered Howard. “I’ve got no problem with the Brazilian player going down, I would encourage my own players if they feel contact to go down,” he said. “It’s the referee’s job and obligation and responsibility to get it right.”
It gave Team USA a clue about how this World Cup will be called. “We’ll have to take that into account and hope we don’t touch anybody in the box,” Howard said.
“As a defender, that was a tough one to see,” said Besler. “But I think it’s a good one to see. Because it’s a lesson that some of us learned just by watching. That it’s going to be called tight in the penalty box.”
On the day the Americans arrived in country, they were briefed by FIFA’s referees on how they would be calling games, what they would specifically be looking for. “Some rules will be hard and we have to watch out with tackling in the box, with holding on corner kicks and all that stuff,” said Jones. “We know it: don’t touch the guys in the box.”
The USA traveled to Natal, way up the Atlantic coast, on Friday afternoon ahead of their opener against Ghana on Monday. The Americans feel like their preparations are complete for that all important game. “We’re there,” said Howard. “We’re ready. We’re definitely at the point where if the game was today we’d be happy and put in a good performance.
In practice, the players have gotten a clearer sense of what their team will look like tactically and in terms of personnel, after months of tinkering by USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “We’re starting to get some reps with the possible starting 11,” said Besler. “I think that’s a good thing going forward.”
The World Cup has begun. And the USA’s tournament isn’t far behind. “A couple more sleeps,” said Howard. “And we’re there.”