USA, fans prep for breakthrough World Cup meeting with Portugal

Jun. 21, 2014 @ 08:26 PM

Moths and mosquitoes circled when the United States took the field for practice Saturday evening at Arena da Amazonia, a 40,000-seat stadium built in a remote area of the rainforest where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon.

And as the Americans stretched in the heat and humidity in their final training session before Sunday’s World Cup game against Portugal, a double rainbow shimmered — said by some to herald an occurrence with great meaning.

With a win over the Portuguese and reigning world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, the U.S. would accomplish a pair of American firsts: reaching the knockout stage of consecutive World Cups and advancing with a game to spare.

“This is now the moment where you can prove yourself. This is the moment where you can step up and play those guys and put them in place,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “So we want to put Cristiano and his team in his place.”

The Americans opened with a 2-1 win over Ghana on Monday behind John Brooks’ 86th-minute goal, while Portugal dropped an embarrassing 4-0 defeat to Germany. When Ghana and Germany tied 2-2 on Saturday, the U.S. was suddenly in position to clinch advancement with a win Sunday.

“That’s a good result for us, to know that if we can win, we take care of business, the rest is history,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said.

A victory over the fourth-ranked Portuguese would mean the U.S. could then win the group with a tie against Germany next week. Klinsmann, a former star striker and coach for Germany, was so excited to watch the end of Saturday’s game that he ran out of his own news conference after about five minutes, took in the final moments, then returned to answer more questions.

“It just confirms what we all knew from the beginning on, that it’s a very, very difficult group,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity tomorrow here in Manaus, and we will definitely go for it.”

The Americans needed a shot in the arm for this match — up to five inoculations per player, to be precise, for protection against typhoid, yellow fever, tetanus, hepatitis A and influenza after they started training last month in California. Players also were offered medication to prevent malaria, the mosquito-borne infectious disease, but all 23 declined.

“It’s a World Cup,” Chris Wondolowski said. “It doesn’t matter what’s going into your body or how hot it will be.”

After making the 1,680-mile flight from their base in Sao Paulo, the Americans found themselves in typical weather for the first day of winter: The forecast was for 80 degrees (27 Celsius) at the start of the game with high humidity that will make it feel more like 90 (32 Celsius). AccuWeather said there was a chance of a thunderstorm early in the game.

The $290 million stadium, in a city with no first-division clubs that is accessible only by airplane and boat, was designed to resemble a native straw basket and filled with orange and yellow seats specially constructed to withstand sunlight just 3 degrees south of the equator. It figures to be filled with thousands of American fans who have made the trek — the streets were filled with people in red, white and blue Saturday.

U.S. captain Clint Dempsey will play after his nose was broken against Ghana, and he is unlikely to wear a protective mask. Forward Jozy Altidore, who strained his left hamstring, will miss the game and be replaced by Aron Johannsson, Wondolowski or a fifth midfielder.

Portugal is even more beat up and might have only 18 players available. Defender Pepe is suspended, and right back Fabio Coentrao, goalkeeper Rui Patricio and forward Hugo Almeida are hurt. Defender Bruno Alves is banged up and uncertain.

Ronaldo, the world’s top player in 2008 and 2013, has been slowed by tendinitis in his left knee. He trained Saturday with a brace, and teammate Raul Meireles expects him to play against the Americans, who upset Portugal 3-2 in their 2002 World Cup opener.

“He’s strong. Physically he’s a fast runner,” said Howard, Ronaldo’s former Manchester United teammate. “He’s the best in the world with the ball at his feet. Good striker left and right foot. Dominant in the air. The list goes on and on.”

WHAT A TRIP IT'S BEEN! U.S. FANS TIP BACK CAIPIRINHAS, MUNCH ON COXINHAS, ROOT FOR RED, WHITE & BLUE

BY BRETT MARTEL, Associated Press

RECIFE, Brazil — Some wanted to play soccer barefoot on the beach with Brazilians, experiencing for themselves those romanticized images they’d seen on TV. Others dreamed of attending meaningful games in the homeland of Pele, soaking up the passion for the game permeating not just the stadiums, but every corner of every neighborhood.

If they could do that, maybe tip back a few caipirinhas, munch on coxinhas, take a dip in the south Atlantic, and cheer on the U.S. national team, what a trip it would be.

Brazil turned out to be the perfect place for the traveling American fan base to come into its own at the World Cup — to gather festively before games on foreign soil and take over arenas during matches.

“Huge party! It was awesome,” Miami resident Katie McCrath said of a gathering hosted by the booster club American Outlaws before Monday’s tournament opener for the U.S., a 2-1 triumph over Ghana in Natal. “They filled the streets.”

They filled a large part of the stadium, too.

“That was one of the really neat things about the first game — hearing the national anthem and it almost feeling like a home game,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said as the U.S. prepared for its next match Sunday against Portugal in Manaus. “Being far away and having all those fans there for us was just an amazing feeling.”

South America’s largest country is one in which influences from Europe, Africa and the Americas are mixed in a tropical climate and on bountiful land with stunning scenery. That demographic, geographic and cultural cocktail gives Brazil an exotic appeal to travelers worldwide.

Guests at Brazilian hotels often awake to breakfast spreads of tropical fruit unavailable at home. They curb mid-day hunger with fried dumplings of ground chicken called coxinhas at snack huts by the beach, and wash them down with caipirinhas, fruity cocktails featuring cachaca, a fiery spirit made from sugar cane juice.

Combine all that with Brazil’s renowned enthusiasm for “o jogo bonito,” or the beautiful game, and the 2014 World Cup becomes a two-for-one bucket-list opportunity for fans across the globe. Americans have seized it in force.

According to FIFA, more than 200,000 tickets for games in Brazil were purchased by U.S. residents. While a chunk of those residents surely have ancestry in soccer-loving countries like Mexico, that figure ranked second among all nations worldwide, behind only the host country.

The crowd in Natal was laced with red, white and blue. Chants of “I believe that we will win,” a common U.S. soccer cheer, thundered throughout the arena. The stars and stripes waved in seemingly every section.

“We had heard that there was a ton Americans, so we were anticipating that,” American goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “And it was fun for once just to have the upper hand.”

Among the fans in Natal was Greg Conley of Boston, who’s been to every World Cup since 1990, when he saw the U.S. play in Florence, Italy. Back then, he recalled, Americans in the stands consisted of a smattering of college-age fans who happened to be in Europe, or family and friends of team members.

Excluding 1994, when the World Cup came to the States, Conley said the game in Natal marked “the first time I saw the U.S. fan base dominate — and that’s the correct word — a stadium, as well as outside the stadium and the vicinity of the stadium in the hours leading up to the game and after the game.”

The American Outlaws use social media to promote pregame gatherings. Katie McCrath went with her husband, Steve, a soccer coach at Barry University. The throng at the pizza place picked for the rally was too thick to get near the door.

“As an American to be there, seeing all those people, all that energy, it was unbelievable,” she said.

Former U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller, now a soccer analyst for ESPN, said a 2006 World Cup match in Kaiserslautern, Germany, between the U.S. and Italy was the first time he could recall a noticeable pro-American crowd at a World Cup game overseas.

He figured the showing in Brazil would be unprecedented — not simply because soccer’s popularity continues to rise in the U.S.

“What limited history (Americans) know of the game, Brazil carries huge weight and it’s a country where you can go hang out on the beach,” Keller said.

That is precisely what Conley has done. The 50-year-old, who plays recreational soccer back home, made his World Cup base in Olinda, near the host city of Recife, because he hoped to get into a pickup game on the beach.

On Thursday, he waited in the sand behind a net for the better part of an hour, shagging loose balls until he was finally picked to join a team. Afterward, he said he’d experienced the soccer equivalent of playing pickup basketball on an outdoor court in New York City — something he’d done in college.

“One of my main objectives was to play soccer on the beach with locals during the World Cup,” Conley said, his feet sore but his face beaming. “It worked out fantastic. I got my jogo bonito experience.”