U.S. Soccer rolled into Times Square Friday afternoon, its red, white and blue bus festooned with the names of every member of the team’s official supporters group.
Some of those fans undoubtedly were among the throngs checking out the U.S. Soccer Fan Appreciation Day, and part of the Pep Rally that same evening. Inside the teams Times Square hotel the throng was created by the media.
U.S. MNT Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and captain Clint Dempsey sat at the top of a room packed like only a rapidly approaching World Cup can pack a room.
Not one of the assembled media mentioned Landon Donovan. Like the song says, yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip papers. Today’s news was the Sunday afternoon game against Turkey at Red Bull Arena, just across the Hudson River in Harrison, New Jersey.
And of course Brazil. Time is running short, the grueling training camp at Stanford is over, and the coach and his players are fairly champing at the bit to get to it.
Klinsmann was confident in that laid back Californian, hard nosed German way of his. Dempsey was intense. The coach was asked about expectations. When Klinsmann played, and later coached Germany, expectations had been sky high. Now the question was asked, as an underdog, are things different?
“Not really,” the coach responded. He acknowledged the obvious, that his team has a tough draw, but “we are expected, and we expect from ourselves to do well.” “And we expect,” Klinsmann emphasized, “to go to the knockout stage.”
All the while Dempsey sat at his coach’s side, staring straight ahead, nodding intently. Things have gotten serious.
In the the round table interviews that followed, the rest of the 22 man roster was brought out. Seated at round tables, standing in front of U.S. Soccer screens, or up on the dais previously occupied by coach and captain.
The media swarmed some more than others. Michael Bradley sat up on the dais with the reporters four deep, while Nick Rimando, the third string goalkeeper was faced with less of a swarm than a polite gathering.
The players handled the crush each in their own way. Jozy Altidore, polite and calm despite facing pressure to provide goals for the national team after a tough year at his club Sunderland.
GotSoccer asked Altidore how much Klinsmann’s unwavering support had meant to him throughout that tough season. “I think it says a lot that he believes I’m a good player.” “Not only that,” the powerful striker said, “I think that’s also incumbent to myself, that I keep showing that.(that he is a good player) You can’t just say that about a player unless they show you signs of that.”
A Jersey native, Altidore lit up when he was asked about playing in front of his hometown fans. “Oh I love it man. I love being back, this is my home, this is a place I love to be, so it’s great to be back here.”
Other players responded in their own ways. Graham Zusi, serious, speaking barely above a whisper. DaMarcus Beasley, cool as the other side of the pillow. Heading to his fourth World Cup, his calm demeanor saying it all, saying – I got this.
Alejandro Bedoya is looked at as a rising star within the team. Klinsmann and Dempsey both praised the Nantes midfielder. Klinsmann feels that, “Alejandro Bedoya made a huge step forward over the last two years, especially last year when he went to the French league, a very strong French league and played very good games against the big teams, Olympic Marseille or especially Paris Saint-German.”
Dempsey smiled when asked about Bedoya, saying, “we’re good friends off the field.” “I think,” the captain added, “he’s a player that is dangerous, difficult to deal with, because he’s nonstop the whole game.”
Bedoya’s background is unique, a third generation professional soccer player, his quiet confidence has seen him through some tough times. Both his father and grandfather played professionally in Colombia and, Bedoya told GotSoccer, “they let me know from the start what to expect.” Amidst the media scrum Bedoya added, “My father let me know early on, just worry about myself, not to get caught in all the things around me.”
One sign of the mounting craziness developing around this team came when a female reporter asked Bedoya if she could give him a good luck hug. Ever the pro, Bedoya took it in stride, the hug happened and he moved on.
Two of the German-Americans shared a table, controversial fullback Timothy Chandler and 21 year old center back John Brooks. With his club Nuremberg having been relegated, Chandler confirmed reports that he will be staying in the Bundesliga, and he hopes to sign with his Eintracht Frankfurt soon.
When I asked the defender about his perceived reluctance to play for the U.S. MNT, Chandler looked genuinely upset. “I don’t hear that,” Chandler said in his German accented English. “The team knows I want to play, the trainer knows I want to play. I decided I want to play for the U.S.A., I say all the time I want to play.” “I’m very happy to be here,” Chandler summed up, “I’m proud to be here.”
Brooks broke off a conversation in German to give GotSoccer a minute. The tall young center back called his decision to play for the United States, “brilliant. “It was an easy decision,” said Brooks, recalling that, “the U.S. wanted me 100%, and it was easy and now I am proud to be here.”
The towering defender endured a tough first season in the Bundesliga following Hertha Berlin’s ascension to the German top flight. Brooks laughed at the mention of it. “I’m happy about, but I don’t want a year like this again.” “It was hard,” he admitted. Brooks had injury issues, and then “when I played, I didn’t play very good, but it was ok at the end.” After a strong finish to the Bundesliga season and a successful U.S. training camp, Brooks said, “I think now I’m 100%.”
And then there is Chris Wondolowski. I had a moment alone with the two time MLS Golden Boot winner. I asked him about his career trajectory. Five or so years in the shadows. Barely playing, almost no goals. Then the breakthrough. Similar, I proposed to his national team career. That same slow start, then suddenly he’s scoring goals and headed to the World Cup.
Wondo answered with intensity, passion. Standing at attention, speaking with vigor, the striker calls making this World Cup team, “a huge honor.” Thinking back on his early years in the league, Wondolowski said, “it is very rewarding because it took a lot of hard work, dedication, perseverance to get where I am today, so it does mean a lot.”
“The love of the game,” Wondo answered when I asked him what kept him going in the lean years. “You get paid to play a game.” Although he rarely played for the Houston side that won consecutive MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007, Wondo told GotSoccer,”when I was in Houston I had a great locker room, I enjoyed going to practice every day, enjoyed working and trying to get better.”
Wondolowski joked that the turnaround came, “when I started hitting the back of the net.” More seriously he said, “I think it was a confidence thing.” “I went from hoping to not to make a mistake, to knowing that I belonged there and really believing that I can hit the back of the net.”
Wondolowski agreed that those struggles will stand to him if he gets a chance in Brazil. “Yeah absolutely,” he said. “It really does, and it’s kind of a mind frame that I keep within me and it helps me along way.”
On Sunday the U.S. MNT will take on Turkey. The Turks just defeated World Cup bound Honduras 2-0 and will be a test for the Americans. Jobs are still out there to be won, and each day brings the team one step closer to Brazil.
You sense that these 23 can’t wait to get there.