Quiet atmosphere suits U.S. players
The Mother's Day crowd shuffles out of a popular chain restaurant, trying to dodge the rain and make it back home in time for The Sopranos. They look up quickly, and make room on the sidewalk of the strip mall for six men -- all laughing like college kids -- as they file out of a minivan, not seeming to realize for one second that those are the players they might be watching during the World Cup in less than a month's time.
It's that sort of low-key, calm-before-the-storm the U.S. players seem to relish by being down here in this Raleigh suburb for nearly two weeks before embarking on a three-game exhibition tour and the long plane ride to Germany.
Train in the morning. Golf in the afternoon. Good dinner with your teammates at night. That's been the formula for Bruce Arena's side during their training camp through the first week.
"The first 10 days it'll be as hard as hell," said Landon Donovan, noting Arena's emphasis on fitness during the opening of camp. "It's also about getting back (as a team), getting used to the guys again, both on and off then field."
The players have had ample time to get out and bond on the golf course, as various foursomes seem to be leaving the hotel at different times throughout the afternoon. It's given goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Marcus Hahnemann - two players who have rarely been in camp together - a chance to rekindle their friendship, and for some of the MLS players to mix in with the European-based players away from the playing field.
Since there isn't too much to do in this suburb, Brian McBride said it has given the players a good opportunity to catch up with each other around the hotel.
"It's a lot of hard work, but the good thing is that we get most of the afternoons off," said McBride. "A lot of time we spend it in the hotel rooms just trying to recover. Other times we get to hang out with a great group of guys, whether it's playing golf, in the mall, or wherever."
As far as the on-the-field action, the play has been as intense as one would expect.
During Tuesday's session at SAS Park, each one of the 22 players in camp (Eddie Lewis is in England with Leeds preparing for the Coca-Cola Championship promotion final against Watford on May 21) took part in a full scrimmage using four full-sized goals, manned by Hahnemann, Keller, Tim Howard and former U-20 youth national team goalkeeper Justin Hughes, who is training with the team this week.
On one memorable exchange midway through the session, DaMarcus Beasley knifed through a few defenders before springing Clint Dempsey on his right side for an impressive goal in transition. Also looking more like his old self was Chivas USA midfielder John O'Brien, who moved the ball quickly through the midfield and showed good form. After taking a day off on Sunday while the team scrimmaged, O'Brien was running hard just like everyone else during several minutes of grueling shuttle runs at the end of training.
Since there isn't a set lineup as of yet for the opening World Cup group match against the Czech Republic on June 12, there are position battles going on all the time, as the players try to make an impression on the coaching staff.
"There's still going to be a process of building the team," said McBride, who was recently named as Fulham FC's Player of the Year for the 2005-06 season. "Everybody's trying to make Bruce's mind difficult with ideas of who is going to play where."
Fortunately for Arena and his staff, the European players are coming off their season and the MLS players have now played over a month in theirs. So much of the fitness work has been to heighten where they're at, rather than establish it, which was the case for several of the MLS players back during January's month-long training camp in Carson, Calif.
"Everyone is starting at a good level," said U.S. captain Claudio Reyna. "It's good because we're able to get right into it. We're probably a step ahead because everyone is already fit and looking sharp."
Since the World Cup is close and access will be limited in Germany, there are several media outlets in town, stocking up on quotes, photos and video footage. ESPN is in the process of filming its next World Cup promo to follow the impressive "One game changes everything" ads featuring Bono and U2 that started appearing on television last week. The one being cut at the moment will feature the voice of U2 drummer Larry Mullen talking about the U.S. side.
Yet, despite all the extra interview requests, the veteran players know that they are fortunate to be able to train in relative obscurity in a suburban town compared to what their brethren from England and Italy will have to endure. For someone like Reyna, who has played at several big clubs around Europe, he enjoys not having to answer to fans every time he walks down the street in the U.S. as opposed to what transpires in Manchester.
And since the amount of media members at training sessions at the beginning of the camp was relatively small, it allowed the players to get in tune with each other again on the field without the glare of the spotlight.
"As far as the team goes," said Reyna, "the first few days everyone was feeling each other out and trying to just come in. Everyone was getting over the initial selection of the team, which was a great relief for everyone. And now we're here working together. It's nice. You can see every day that the team is improving and players are starting to understand each other a little better. And that'll come - we have four weeks until our first game.
"At the moment, if you look at it and take a step back, I think we have to be happy with how we look (as a team) and how everyone looks individually."
Marc Connolly is the managing editor of ussoccerplayers.com and regularly writes to MLSnet.com. Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.