U.S. soccer team sets up shop in South Africa

World Cup opener against England set for June 12

Published June 1, 2010 7:31PM (EDT)

The slogan on the side of the bus reads "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Victory!" with the Stars and Stripes painted alongside. The U.S. World Cup team is making itself at home in South Africa, ready at last to play the games that matter most.

The Americans are staying in the 74-room Irene Country Lodge, a luxury hotel north of Johannesburg and south of Pretoria protected by stone walls and barbed wire. There's a lake on the property, with an adjacent farm filled with cows and enough roosters to make alarm clocks superfluous.

"It's been a long time," captain Carlos Bocanegra said Tuesday in the interview tent, pitched on the dairy farm. "Now it's finally here. We're in South Africa. So we're excited for the games to start. It feels real now that we're down here in South Africa and we're set up at our hotel and you see all the World Cup fanfare."

The 23-man roster and about an equal number of coaches and support staff left Washington-Dulles International Airport on Sunday evening and arrived 17 hours later to a warm welcome. After a night of rest, practice resumed Tuesday ahead of the U.S. team's World Cup opener against England on June 12.

"The travel seemed quite easy. Maybe we're used to it by now," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said.

Practice is not too far away in Pretoria's Pilditch Stadium, a lush green field surrounded by an eight-lane running track with about 5,000 seats on one side. Berms topped with palm trees wrap the other segments of the field, and the leaves are starting to fade to brown as autumn approaches winter in the Southern Hemisphere. This will be the first World Cup south of the equator since 1978 in Argentina.

Following a few warm days last week in the Northeast U.S., the Americans found themselves in a quite different climate: daytime highs in the 60s and nighttime lows near 40. They'll get to experience game conditions Saturday, when they play Australia at Roodepoort, outside Johannesburg, in their last World Cup warmup.

World Cup ads are everywhere. Salesmen walk in the middle of streets between cars, hawking jerseys for the World Cup teams. Vuvuzelas -- the yard-long horns that are blown in South African soccer stadiums -- are omnipresent in store windows.

After spending two straight World Cups in urban hotels in Seoul, South Korea, and Hamburg, Germany, the U.S. team is in the countryside for the first World Cup in Africa. There are plenty of police with holstered guns and bulletproof vests, but the show of force thus far is less than at some previous World Cups.

When the U.S. team headed to practice here, motorcycles and police cars went in front of the bus, with more security vehicles trailing. State Department officials also accompany the team.

"We have tremendous confidence in the security around our team," Bradley said.

The U.S. was here at this time last year, too, when it also trained at Pilditch. The Americans upset European champion Spain at the Confederations Cup, ending the Spaniards' record-tying 35-game unbeaten streak, and then took a two-goal lead in their first FIFA outdoor men's final before losing to Brazil 3-2.

They headed to South Africa following a 4-2 loss last week to the Czech Republic and a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Turkey. Based on those two games, there is much work to do before the first World Cup match between the U.S. and England since the famous American upset in 1950.

"We're trying to jell as a team and peak come June 12," Bocanegra said. "The thing that sticks out to me just at the moment is to be a bit better defensively and solid, have a better team shape from the back towards the front."

This is the third trip to South Africa for many U.S. players. In November 2007, the Americans beat South Africa in an exhibition at Johannesburg's Ellis Park. Players know it will take time to adjust to altitudes of 4,000 to 6,000 feet in the area.

"I think we're familiar with the territory and how things work down here," he said. "We still need to get our feet on the ground here and get going."

Following the three-and-out flop in Germany four years ago, players expect they will advance from a first-round group that also includes Slovenia and Algeria.

"We get to challenge ourselves against the best in the world," Bocanegra said. "That's what it's all about down here."

By Ronald Blum

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