GETTING THE BALL ROLLING
Pretoria, South Africa Friday 12:00 AM Local Time
The USA ran through a light practice Thursday afternoon on a soggy pitch at Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria. It has been raining for several days in South Africa, and the weather is England-esque.
The forecast is for clear weather for Monday night's game at Loftus Versfeld, but it is likely to be quite cool, with lows dipping into the mid forties - quite a change from summer back home. As my college coach used to say, "the boys can run all day in this," and the weather is likely to produce some up-tempo matches - like Italy's friendly match over New Zealand last night, which ended 4-3.
Bradley said he didn't take much from that result, as the Italians used a score of second stringers, including the New Jersey native we know all too well.
The Line-up for Monday Night Football
I don't think Coach Bradley would have been willing to give away his starting lineup at an open practice in front of media and about 500 spectators, but from the full sided scrimmage that went on for about forty five minutes, and clearly involved the regulars against the second team, it looks like the coach might further experiment with the 4-3-3 he pulled out against Costa Rica.
Rico Clark and Michael Bradley formed the base of a triangle in the midfield with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey manning the right and left wings, respectively, flanking Jozy Altidore in the middle up top. The defense looked just as it did against Honduras, except that Carlos Bocanegra sat out the practice. Jay DeMerit took his usual place.
Speaking with Boca afterward, he assured that he will be ready for Italy, and as a precautionary measure is taking it easy on the hamstring that he injured against Honduras.
Robles and Gooch, Class Acts
I also had the chance to speak briefly with Luis Robles after practice. It's the first time I've met him, and he struck me as a real class act. The American team is a great group of guys pretty much all around, but Robles for one thoroughly appreciates the chance he's getting with the Nats.
Robles has always made himself very accessible to YA, which is how I knew to ask, jokingly, about his aborted honeymoon, which he postponed for this trip. The Second Bundesliga man explained that his new wife was very understanding about this unique opportunity. Looks like Luis might have some making up to do – for the rest of his life.
One guy who doesn't want to talk about much of anything these days in Oguchi Onyewu. Gooch is another classy guy, but you can tell he's been asked to death about transfer rumors over the last few years. Gooch clearly doesn't want to talk, he just wants to get on the field somewhere and bust heads.
Talking a Little Soccer with the Media
It was an interesting group assembled on the sidelines at Pilditch on Thursday. Among the group of reporters at the stadium Thursday was Fernando Fiore, host of Univision's Sunday morning sports program La Republica Deportiva. Fiore is a live wire, and brightened the damp day with his enthusiasm. In one of his famous if somewhat incoherent bilingual interviews, he brought Clint Dempsey together with Francisco Torres to discuss Torres' new haircut, which apparently had been brandished upon him by the Fulham man, who describes himself as the team barber.
Also lurking curiously around the field was Duncan White, football correspondent for the Sunday Times in London. We had a long and informed chat about American soccer, during which he intimated a number of revealing insights about the British take on the game in the US.
He expressed, among other things, the level to which American players are appreciated by Premier League teams for their work rate, commitment and language skills. Despite the current small number of Yanks plying their trade in England, he looks for those numbers to sharply increase soon, starting this summer with Gooch, who he came to seek out along with the guys already in the Premiership.
Looking Out for the Kids
The session was attended by more than five hundred kids who were invited to watch practice. The kids were locals bussed in from around the area through coordination with the US embassy. Many of them have been orphaned when their parents died of AIDS, and most are HIV positive as well.
The kids sand and chanted U-S-A throughout the practice. Most of them indicated that their favorite player is Freddy Adu, who put on a finishing display at the end of practice, much to the delight of the crowd.
Seeing those kids' enthusiasm staring up at the Americans would have made anyone's day. They looked up to them as heroes in a way that made me wonder if we could find five hundred kids across the US who would be grateful to meet our national soccer team. It was time well spent, kudos to the USSF and the US Embassy, which coordinated meeting.