JOHANNESBURG – More than 8,000 miles from home, South Africa is just about the next best thing to a home-field advantage for the US National Team.
When the Americans qualified for last summer’s Confederations Cup, head coach Bob Bradley proudly trumpeted how crucial it was that his squad would gain the valuable experience of becoming familiar with South Africa a year before the World Cup.
According to Landon Donovan, mission accomplished. And then some.
“There’s a large comfort being here,” the US star told reporters Wednesday. “[We have] a real good grasp of the culture, of the people, of the excitement, the stadiums, the travel. All these things are very helpful in preparing for a tournament like this.”
The US are training at the same facility they used last summer, and used their current base – the Irene Country Lodge outside Pretoria – as a home base for some of the Confederations Cup as well. The familiarity with the grounds has helped, said Donovan, one of 15 holdovers from that squad on the World Cup roster.
Of course, what made that even sweeter was the US’ surprise run to the final, with a seismic upset of Spain along the way and a near takedown of Brazil. Donovan said that, more than anything, proved to the Americans that they’re capable of bigger things in South Africa.
“Last year was helpful in that it gives us the belief that we can do something special here,” he said. “Aside from that, that’s the past and somehow our job is to focus on the now. But we know we have the ability to be special and now the focus is on bringing that out of us every time we play.”
Also playing in the US’ favor is that their fortunate draw for the World Cup gifted them a light travel schedule, similar to the Confed Cup. The furthest they’ll have to travel during the group stage is two hours to Rustenburg’s Royal Bafokeng Stadium for their opener on Saturday against England.
That’s the same venue where the Americans found perhaps their best inspiration and turned around their Confederations Cup fortunes. After losing their group-stage openers to Italy and Brazil, they qualified for the semifinals with a decisive 3-0 defeat of Egypt.
“We played against very good teams,” said Bradley of last summer’s tournament, “and we learned from those experiences.”
And familiarity is one obstacle the Americans won’t be facing in South Africa.
Getting familiar with their surroundings is one obstacle the US won’t have to deal with.
MLSsoccer.com managing editor Jonah Freedman is reporting on the World Cup from South Africa all this month.