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Saturday, May 29, 2010
And now, on to South Africa

PHILADELPHIA -- In two weeks, they've traveled nearly 700 miles and slept in four hotels. They've traveled by car, by bus and by plane. Along the way, they've seen seven of their teammates go home. They've met the president. And they've done enough running to tire even the Road Runner.

It started in New Jersey. Ended in Pennsylvania. And along the way featured visits to East Hartford, Conn., Washington, D.C., and multiple trips to the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn. But now the real fun begins. On Sunday morning, the U.S. men's national team will board a bus for Washington, D.C., where the 17-hour flight to Johannesburg awaits. And then, players believe, it will hit them.

"It will be nice to get down there," said captain Carlos Bocanegra. "That's when it will feel like the World Cup. No extra activities or a ton of media. Just soccer. These two weeks have been great. The fanfare, the publicity. It's been great. But we're excited to get over there."

Carlos Bocanegra
Says captain Carlos Bocanegra: "These two weeks have been great. The fanfare, the publicity. It's been great. But we're excited to get over there."

From this point on, the hard work is over -- at least in training. The team will arrive in South Africa on the evening of May 31. After a few days of light training to help recover from jet lag, training will focus more on fine-tuning the soccer skills and less on running and lifting weights. Everything is geared toward being in peak fitness and form for the June 12 opener against England.

"The part that needs to come now is just the pure soccer part," Landon Donovan said. "We haven't had a lot of time, to put it candidly, to just have the ball and play with the ball and figure out where people are. Now when we have time to work on the soccer part that's going to be the final piece."

So what did we learn about this team over the course of this two-week send-off period? Here are five observations:

No. 1: Michael Bradley is allergic to happiness. Or at least smiling.

Maybe he misses Germany, maybe his dad, coach Bob Bradley, is extra hard on him in practice, maybe he's ultra-focused or maybe he's just practicing the Kobe Bryant postseason scowl. Whatever the case, the central midfielder has been far from pleasant since the team arrived in Princeton. He was the only player who didn't smile when the 23-man roster was announced on ESPN's campus this week, and the only player who didn't smile in the team photo from the White House.

But maybe this isn't necessarily a bad thing. As one member of the coaching staff told me this week -- not Bob -- "If we had four or five guys as focused, determined and fearless as he is, we would win the World Cup."

No. 2: Bob Bradley has a sense of humor.

The U.S. coach has built a reputation for saying little to nothing in his pre- and postgame news conferences, so you can imagine the heads that turned Saturday when a Turkish reporter asked Bradley for his starting 11 against England.

"First time here, huh?," a U.S. press official said.

Bradley smiled before saying, "I don't know if I should give our first 11 today or call [England manager] Fabio [Capello] next week and tell him."

No. 3: Running isn't fun, but it works.

Jozy Altidore
Jozy Altidore scored in the second half Saturday against Turkey.

Twenty-year-old forward Jozy Altidore was one of several players moaning about the seemingly endless running the players did during the first week of training at Princeton. But after Saturday's 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Turkey, he was also one of the first to give credit where he thought it was due.

"It was clear in the second half that we had our legs and they didn't," Altidore said. "Yeah, all the running I complained about, all that running that we weren't crazy about doing? It's good for you. It's really good for you. And we hope that continues in South Africa."

No. 4: If anyone ever gives him a football again, Marcus Hahnemann could snap a few fingers.

The team trained at the Philadelphia Eagles' Novacare training facility Thursday, and afterward, the backup goalkeeper was slinging the ball around like Brett Favre.

Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley took one pass off his hands, and let's just say it didn't look pretty. If I'm Bob Bradley, I'm keeping the gridiron footballs away from training from here on out.

No. 5: No matter what you hear, no one really has an idea what to expect come June 12.

Yes, soccer is growing in this country. Yes, this American team -- at least on paper -- appears to be one of the most talented the U.S. has sent to a World Cup. The U.S. team proved at last summer's Confederations Cup that on any given day, it can beat just about anyone. At the same time, the U.S. could lose to almost anyone, too.

What's interesting is how the team handles the pressure of expectations. For the first time in recent memory, the U.S. heads to a World Cup with expectations it will get out of its group. Those expectations come from the fan base and the media, as well as the players. Clint Dempsey has said the entire World Cup cycle will be a failure if the U.S. doesn't advance.

Saturday's second half against a tough Turkey club was an important confidence builder.

"I think tonight was the epitome of who we are as a group," Bocanegra said. "We went down, we had some struggles and we had to fight back. Look, we're a scrappy, dirty bunch. It's not always pretty. But today we figured out a way to pull out a win. And that's what it's been like for us."

Now comes the challenge of doing just that when it matters most -- in two weeks.