They looked a tad bleary as they shuffled into Sao Paulo FC’s leafy training facility, but the United States men’s national team got a light workout into their legs on Monday afternoon. It was their first on Brazilian soil, where they open their 2014 FIFA World Cup against Ghana in Natal on June 16.
Following two weeks of training camp at Stanford University, three scrimmages behind closed doors and three more exhibition games against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria – all of which the Americans won – the final leg of their preparations for the world’s biggest sporting event kicked off here. The team was complete thanks to a clean bill of health, save for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who is in Miami scouting Ghana’s final tune-up against South Korea in Miami.
On Sunday night, the day after the 2-1 win over the Nigerians in Jacksonville, Fla., Team USA flew down to Miami and connected on to Sao Paulo on a commercial flight – traveling in business class – close to midnight to arrive early on Monday morning. They flew nine hours in all. “Tired,” goalkeeper Tim Howard told a cluster of 50 or so journalists, when he was asked how he felt. “It was quite easy, but long. My eyes were still closed coming off the plane.”
This will be a long and grueling month, even by World Cup standards. Brazil is a vast country with an infrastructure system that will be pushed to its limit, and perhaps well beyond it. If the traffic snarl in Sao Paulo is any indication, it will take the national team a great deal of time just to get around. Klinsmann predicted that it “will be a World Cup of patience.”
Add to that the fact that the Americans will travel more in-country during the group stage than any other team – some 9,000 miles to their games in far-off Natal, Manaus and Recife and back to their base here – and this becomes a considerable factor in their campaign. Consider also that they play the Ghanaians, who bounced them from the last two World Cups and world powers Portugal and Germany, respectively, further augmenting the degree of difficulty.
But there may lay an advantage somewhere in there as well. The Americans, perhaps more than any other team, are accustomed to traveling far for games. Major League Soccer takes them clear across North America for about nine months a year. Those based in Europe hop the pond back and forth to meet up with the national team. “Eight-hour flights are like my norm,” said Howard, who plays for Everton of the English Premier League but collected his 100th cap for the USA on Saturday, having commuted back and forth for last 12 years.
There are other factors that could play in the Americans’ favor. Just as they know how to handle the distances, they are familiar with playing in the heat that the games’ locales will confront them with – it’s why they spent their last week stateside in Florida, in fact. Most all of the players grew up in states where the temperatures and humidity are suffocating much of the year. “These guys played in Houston in the summer and in Florida or wherever,” said Howard. “I don’t think the heat will be a problem. It’ll be an advantage to us because the European teams are going to feel that heat.”
The lack of a jet lag, meanwhile, is another positive. Almost all of Brazil is either on Eastern Standard Time or one hour ahead of it. “The first couple of days of preparation are always hard when you can’t sleep so the fact that we won’t have any problem tonight sleeping, which will certainly be beneficial,” said Howard.
And then there’s the facility itself, which the Americans were quick to snap up when FIFA made it available in its bidding process for training venues, beating out Italy – Colombia had to settle for Sao Paulo FC’s youth academy in another part of town. It’s said to be the best club training ground in Brazil.
The USA had trained here during the last January camp, the annual fortnight of workouts for domestically-based players, by which time they knew this would be their World Cup base. Three immaculate fields are lined by tall trees and gardens. Various exotic birds twitter overhead. A brand new gym and press building opened in November. “It’s beautiful. It doesn’t get much better,” said Howard. “The guys in January said it was fantastic and it lived up to it.” To the team, the quality of their setup here is worth the commute cross-country for their games.