|ESPN.com: OTL: Fevered Pitch|
June 1 Boeing 737Leaving Miami International Airport 82 degreesPartly sunny
The jet has just taken off, barely climbed into the thick, puffy clouds when Bob Bradley pulls out a laptop and begins watching video of the team his players will face in less than two days, Costa Rica. A few rows back, Charlie Davies and Clint Dempsey play computer chess. Carlos Bocanegra watches "The Tudors." Pablo Mastroeni works the USA Today crossword puzzle, and Oguchi Onyewu leans his head against the airplane's body and sleeps. The U.S. men's national soccer team hasn't been together in 61 days, since its April World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago, but the 2½-hour flight from Miami to Costa Rica marks the beginning of a summerlong world tour that will feature 14 matches on three continents and in four time zones. The players and coaches know what's ahead: World Cup qualifiers in hostile territory, Confederations Cup matches against the greatest teams in the world, and defense of the team's 2005 and 2007 Gold Cup championships. There will be good days and bad, inspiring victories, disappointing defeats, and physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. Each day will bring another opportunity to improve, another chance to prepare for the ultimate goal: the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which begins June 11. "It's always good to see everybody and catch up," says Bocanegra, the captain and a defender. "It's going to be a long summer. By the time it's all over, yeah, we very well might be sick of each other." Although 11 members of the 23-man travel squad have been around for a five-day training camp, others such as goalkeeper Tim Howard and midfielder Benny Feilhaber arrived just in time to meet the chartered flight at Miami International. Then there's defender Jonathan Bornstein, who forgot his passport in Los Angeles and needed early-morning assists from FedEx and a manic Miami cab driver to make the flight. But now, finally, they're all together as they begin the process of quickly rediscovering the on- and off-the-field chemistry it will take to beat Costa Rica, one of the toughest opponents in their region. "It's the biggest challenge we face every time we get together," says midfielder Landon Donovan. "How quickly can you let go mentally, physically and tactically of what you do with your club team and pick up where you left off with the national team? The sooner everyone figures that out, the better off we'll be."
June 3 Team hotel3,809 feet above sea level 78 degreesMostly sunny
Nine hours until kickoff. Nine hours until the U.S. national team enters hell's pitch and the whistle blows. But for now, Jozy Altidore isn't worrying whether Costa Rican fans will pelt the team with batteries or hurl plastic bags filled with blood or urine. Instead, Altidore, a forward, casually strolls the players' hallway at the hotel, passing a soccer ball back and forth with the security guard assigned to the floor. He's restless. Bored. Searching for life's fast-forward button. A U.S. State Department security official has told the team not to leave the hotel, not to wander to the mall across the street or the Hooters down the road. It's not safe. Even in the Switzerland of Central America, the players could be targets. So they play cards, watch movies, surf the Internet, solve crosswords or practice the guitar. Landon Donovan is especially addicted to making music. A day earlier, after teammate Pablo Mastroeni, a midfielder, told Donovan it would be easier to play if he trimmed his nails, Donovan instantly walked out of the room to find the clippers. "Good idea," he says later. "Much easier." Game day is different. Fewer players roam the halls or leave their doors open. After lunch, most everyone takes a nap. But 19-year-old Altidore, his hands stuffed with five packs of chewing gum, is curling his toes around a soccer ball and flicking it back and forth to the guard. He wants to know whether the guy is packing. "What do you think?" Altidore asks. "Think he's got a gun?" The guard speaks little English but understands. He opens his coat. Tucked into the holster against his hip is a black revolver. "Oooooooh," Altidore says. "This guy's not messing around. So what if somebody comes on our floor? Would you shoot them?" The guard doesn't answer. Doesn't have to. The message is clear: Security is tight, especially when the U.S. team plays in an environment such as Costa Rica's famed Saprissa Stadium, where the ceiling tiles shake in the visitors' locker room. The morning of the match, the headline in one San Jose newspaper reads "Welcome to Your Nightmare." It's prophetic -- not because of the fans but because of how the Americans would play. Two early goals carry the Ticos to a 3-1 victory, helping Costa Rica leapfrog the U.S. into the top spot in the region in World Cup qualifying. The top three teams advance. "We let ourselves down," Tim Howard says after the game. "The only thing we can do is pick ourselves up and put in a good performance in Chicago because tonight was simply not good enough."
June 6 Soldier Field580 feet above sea level 53 degreesPartly cloudy
They are back on home turf, supposedly. The U.S. men's soccer team returned from Costa Rica and spent two days surrounded by the architectural icons of the Windy City: the Sears Tower, the John Hancock Center and the red Navy Pier Ferris wheel. Before the match, a few hundred American fans march by the headquarters of the U.S. Soccer Federation near Soldier Field and interrupt a board meeting with their cheering and chanting. Inside the stadium, The American Outlaws, a raucous group of U.S. supporters, waves its flags and sings its songs. But as the players jog onto the field for warm-ups, there is no home-field advantage. Throngs of Honduras supporters drown out the U.S. fans. Jozy Altidore is convinced he is still in Costa Rica after a fan clocks him with two D batteries. One glances off his head, and the other drills him on the knee, which requires treatment before the match. "It was nuts," Altidore says later. "The Honduras fans just took over the city and the stadium. But that's just how it is when you're an American playing soccer. America is everybody's country. You just learn to deal with it, get pumped up and then do what you have to on the field to turn it around." The 3-1 loss at Costa Rica makes this qualifier doubly important. The U.S. needs to pick up three points to maintain second place in the qualifying standings in the CONCACAF region. More importantly, the team needs to show signs of life. Just as he did in the locker room in Costa Rica, Bob Bradley uses his pregame speech to inspire. He tells the team: "Our group has always responded when we needed it. Today, it's every guy. Show our character. Show our strength. Play with heart." The U.S. again surrenders an early goal, but this time it responds, quieting the Honduran faithful with two goals that give the Americans their first come-from-behind qualifying win since 1985. "A gritty victory," Carlos Bocanegra says. "Sometimes that's the way it is in qualifying." Yet the trip has just begun. An overnight flight to South Africa and the Confederations Cup awaits.
June 15 Loftus Versfeld Stadium4,173 feet above sea level 56 degreesPartly cloudy
Ricardo Clark just sits there, by himself, watching the match on TV. He has no choice. In the opening match of the Confederations Cup, the U.S. had matched Italy shot for shot, pass for pass, until the referee handed Clark a questionable red card after a hard tackle on Italy's Gennaro Gattuso in the 33rd minute and everything changed. While Clark wonders what he did wrong, his teammates fight the fourth-ranked team in the world while down a man. "It's the absolute worst feeling in the world," Clark, a midfielder, says later. "You feel like you let your team and your country down. And as much as you try to keep it from happening, your mind just wanders. Maybe I should have been smarter, maybe if I had made a better decision not to slide at that exact moment, it wouldn't have looked so careless. "It was a crap call. Even the Italian players were sympathetic as I walked off. But that doesn't take away the sting. That doesn't mean I can stop thinking about it." It is a challenging week for the Americans. Beyond the 23-hour flight from Chicago to Johannesburg, they have to adjust to the weather, the elevation and the short beds in the hotel. Although it's summer back home, it's winter here. Temperatures dip into the 30s. Players again are told not to go out alone, so the U.S. staff sets up a game room, complete with a hard drive filled with hundreds of movies and video games. Landon Donovan and Carlos Bocanegra are particularly fond of "Rock Band," bouncing between the guitar, the drums and the vocals on songs such as Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive." "It was fun, man. I love music, and it was a nice release, something for us to do," Donovan says later. Others such as midfielder Clint Dempsey try to keep in touch with loved ones back home via Skype. Jozy Altidore uses his cell phone and runs up a bill of more than $6,000. "I learned the hard way," Altidore says later. "Next summer, no cell phone. I'm bringing everyone with me." Despite the U.S. being down a man against Italy, Donovan puts the team up 1-0 with a penalty kick. But New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi comes on as a sub in the second half and scores two goals for Italy in a 3-1 win. Three days later, against Brazil, the U.S. comes out nervous, intimidated and lethargic, surrendering two goals in the first 20 minutes of a 3-0 loss. This time, midfielder Sacha Kljestan earns a red card and finds himself sitting alone in the locker room wondering what happened. Back home, in the final minutes of the match, U.S. soccer fans inundate message boards and chat rooms with anger, frustration and disappointment. No player or coach is immune from the criticism. One U.S. newspaper suggests that Bradley is in over his head and names 12 potential replacements. Bradley and his players are aware of what's going on back home, but they try to block it out. The coach constantly preaches about building a hard shell around the team in which the only opinions that matter -- good and bad -- are the team's own. "After a match like that, we're not going to talk publicly about the things that we were good at," Bradley says later. "Nobody wants to hear that. But when you're down two goals and a man to Brazil, some of the best players on the best teams in the world would pack it in for the day. We didn't do that. Our guys fought together and did everything they could to stick with that game. We didn't do everything right, but we didn't quit. And it's in those moments and those situations when you learn about your team."
June 19 Team hotel3,786 feet above sea level 54 degreesPartly cloudy
Clint Dempsey is frustrated. Four matches into the summer, two matches into the Confederations Cup, he hasn't played to his abilities. Nor has the team. He has been battling a hamstring injury since the end of his club season and hasn't been 100 percent. Back home, criticism mounts: His team is a disappointment; his coach is terrible; he shouldn't be on the field. Two days before the team is scheduled to face Egypt in its third and final group-play match, Bob Bradley asks Dempsey to talk with him. The coach wants to figure out what's wrong, why Dempsey hasn't shown any of the magic from the past. They have an open, frank, everything-on-the-table conversation. Both men vent, both men listen and both men grow. Dempsey says he isn't getting enough touches and the team isn't aggressive enough in the attacking third. Bradley listens, responds and, trying to piece together his lineup for Egypt, asks Dempsey whether he thinks he can go. Later, Dempsey says, "I just told him straightforward, 'If you all want me to play, I'm down to go out there and fight for you until I can't run anymore. You put me in the game, and I will do every single thing I physically can to help this team win. I just want to win.'" As Bradley leaves the room, he tells his assistants he's eager to see what tomorrow will bring. "The next day, you could tell that a certain weight had been lifted," Bradley says later. "You could sense that he was ready to go. He just needed to get that off his chest. And then he raised his game, right along with his teammates." Dempsey credits not only the conversation with Bradley but also the surroundings in Rustenburg. Unlike the cramped quarters in Pretoria, the FIFA-assigned hotel in Rustenburg was in the middle of a game reserve, with zebras, giraffes and wildebeests. Monkeys played around the hotel, even stealing food and cough drops from players at the pool. "It was the Africa we all had imagined. Just being out there with nature," Dempsey says. "It changed the mood of the team. Everyone started thinking, 'Let's end this thing on a positive note, and maybe there's a chance we can even go through.'" But advancing was unthinkable. Not only did the Americans need a 3-0 win against Egypt but they also needed Brazil to beat reigning World Cup champion Italy 3-0. But, with a rejuvenated Dempsey scoring the critical third goal for the U.S. in the 71st minute, and the Brazilians doing their part, the unthinkable happened. "It wasn't time for us to go home yet," Jozy Altidore says later. "We had a few more things to accomplish."
June 24 Team hotel4,477 feet above sea level 33 degreesMostly cloudy
Landon Donovan opens the e-mail from his father but doesn't even need to read it. Staring back at him is a photo of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team celebrating the "Miracle on Ice" victory against Russia. In the Confederations Cup semifinal, the 14th-ranked U.S. team is an underdog against No. 1 Spain. The Spaniards have won a record 15 consecutive matches. They haven't lost since 2006. Spain hasn't allowed a goal since April, and 22 of the 23 players on its roster play for clubs that qualified for either the Champions League or the final phase of the Europa League. Yet for the second straight match, the Americans play with nothing to lose. "You could just sense this quiet confidence," defender Jonathan Spector says later. "Everyone believed." Jozy Altidore scores in the 27th minute to put the U.S. ahead 1-0. Clint Dempsey adds a goal in the 74th minute. And goalkeeper Tim Howard makes one tough save after another, and the U.S. wins 2-0 despite being outshot by Spain 29-8. Before the game, press manager Michael Kammarman had promised that if the team won, he would jump into the hotel pool in his business suit, just as he did after the 2002 World Cup victory over Mexico. Another member of the team's PR staff, Mark Liskevych, had vowed to let the players give him a Mohawk mullet. After the team dinner, equipment manager Tim Cook tosses Kammarman into the pool and Liskevych sits helplessly as players take turns with the clippers. But after all the celebration, there is another match to play -- the Americans' first appearance in a FIFA final since 1916. "Being an athlete, my mind went pretty quickly from celebration to preparation and, 'Let's go for this,'" Donovan says later. "It's not very often you get an opportunity like this. I wanted to make sure we took full advantage."
June 28 Ellis Park Stadium5,751 feet above sea level 46 degreesFair
Minutes before the Confederations Cup final, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati stands in an elevator with Mustapha Fahmy, general secretary for the Confederation of African Football, and offers him a pin for his lapel. "Tonight," Gulati says, "you're with the U.S. in South Africa." The Americans had become the tale of the tournament. In 10 days, the story had gone from "fire Bob Bradley" to "World Cup contenders," and the lone word on the pin was a big reason why: UBUNTU. Ubuntu is an African philosophy that essentially means putting the greater good of the group before individual achievement. It is the essence of becoming one, of becoming a team. The Boston Celtics yelled the phrase every time they broke a huddle during their 2008 NBA championship run. Bob Bradley had talked to his team about the individual sacrifices Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce had made. "It's a feeling of family and togetherness and pride," Bradley says later. "You are trying to get at things that, in many ways, players don't even know about yet. That's what we're in the midst of. Seeing the bigger picture, establishing a trust of what it takes to get there, it's a never-ending process. It's team building." The U.S. jumps on Brazil early, with Clint Dempsey scoring in the ninth minute and Landon Donovan adding a goal in the 26th. The Americans lead 2-0 at the half, but everyone knows what's coming: the Brazilian barrage. "We thought if we could get through the first 10, 15, 20 minutes and keep it at least 2-0 if not 3-0 for us, we could win," Donovan says later. Brazil scores a minute into the second half and again in the 73rd and 83rd. It wins 3-2. Afterward, the U.S. players aren't sure how to react. Their emotions range from disappointment to optimism. "You learn in different ways. We learned in pretty damn dramatic fashion," Carlos Bocanegra says. "But now we know -- that level of play, that work rate, how we attack the game, how we play as a group -- that's the standard now. Every time we step on the field from here on out, that's the starting point. We can't accept anything less." The day after the game, players trickle out of Africa. Some go home to the States, others back to club teams. Several meet in Los Angeles a few weeks later when the team's victory over Spain wins an ESPY for upset of the year. But for Bradley and his staff, there is no rest. No Hollywood red carpet. Summer is far from over.
June 30 Downtown14 feet above sea level 68 degreesClear
Some 25 hours after leaving Johannesburg, Bob Bradley is home. Well, sort of. He's in the States. He and assistant coach Michael Sorber finish dinner in downtown Seattle and are taking a walk when, a few minutes after 10 p.m., it hits them: This is the first time they've eaten anywhere outside a hotel since the team met in Miami more than a month ago. "The days all sort of blend together," Sorber says. "And every day presents another challenge. Every day, there is another goal." A new set of players, including 10 guys who have never worn the American jersey, await the coaches at the next morning's training session for the Gold Cup. Despite the lack of experience, Bradley insists that this group has one goal: to defend the championships from 2005 and 2007. In the next 27 days, the group crisscrosses the country, winning matches in Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Foxborough, Mass.; Philadelphia; and Chicago before a June 26 showdown with Mexico in the final. Bradley and his group of unknowns seemingly can do no wrong. Ten players score their first goal for the U.S. In one training session before the semifinal in Chicago, Bradley points to a spot on the Soldier Field turf where he wants midfielder Stuart Holden to aim his crosses. The next day against Honduras, Holden crosses a ball to that exact spot, hitting defender Clarence Goodson on the forehead for a goal. The U.S. wins 2-0. But in the Gold Cup final, everything changes. Mexico embarrasses the Americans, scoring five second-half goals in a 5-0 romp. One of the worst home losses in U.S. soccer history snaps the Americans' 58-match home unbeaten streak against CONCACAF opponents and gives Mexico its first win on U.S. soil since September 2001. For the second time in a month, Bradley and his staff stand on the field and watch another team hoist a championship trophy. Although this is a different set of players and a different tournament, the sting is the same. Especially because it's Mexico, the team's biggest rival. During the trophy presentation, several first-teamers watching from afar declare their intent to get revenge when the teams meet for a crucial qualifier. "Tough loss... AUG 12th circle on the calendars now..." midfielder Sacha Kljestan says in a Twitter message from California. "This really hurts to watch. I feel the pain," forward Charlie Davies says in a Twitter message from France. "Good thing we play Mexico Aug. 12th."
Aug. 12 Estadio Azteca7,200 feet above sea level Average Temp: 72 degrees
Landon Donovan knows what's coming: the hisses, the boos, the unkind words about him, his family, his country. He knows that every time he touches the ball, 105,000 fans will respond. He wouldn't have it any other way. Donovan is a villain in these parts, the man Mexican soccer fans love to hate. "There is this very tangible negativity that I feel toward me the second I step on the field," he says. "As an athlete, I love it. Good or bad, you want people to care. And for some reason, they certainly seem to care." There is perhaps no greater home-field advantage in all of sports than Azteca Stadium, with the heat, the smog, 100,000-plus fans and elevation of 7,200 feet. Winning as a visitor is nearly impossible. Not only has the U.S. never won at Azteca but the Mexicans also have lost only one World Cup qualifier in the stadium since it opened in 1966, a 2-1 loss to Costa Rica in 2001. The U.S. has tried everything. Before the 2005 qualifier, the team trained in Colorado Springs, Colo., hoping to prepare for the elevation in Mexico City. When then-manager Bruce Arena put together his starting lineup, he chose a majority of players who weren't able to attend the training. This year, the team plans to train in Miami and fly to Mexico the day before the match. Within the American camp, the challenges will be just as they were against Costa Rica. Everyone will fly in from all over the world, and the U.S. again will have about 48 hours to become a team. The match will be more than a qualifier and more than a potential shot at revenge. It's the first chance the U.S. A-team will have to prove what it learned in South Africa. It's the evolution of a team, the growth of a group that vows after every win, every loss, that it will learn and improve. The process began three years ago when the U.S. walked off the field after its World Cup loss to Ghana. The goal is for every lesson to pay dividends next summer in South Africa. "Now that we've gone our separate ways, how much of that was really there? How much do we have to remake?" Bob Bradley says. "You don't start from square one. "We're going to find out -- have we grown enough so that when the next tough challenge comes, when that situation rolls in, are we ready? Have we built a foundation that's strong enough so that no tremors can interfere with it? We're going to find out." Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.