NATAL, Brazil – Jurgen Klinsmann mentioned snow in his pre-game press conference here at the Arena das Dunas, which is located about a mile from the Atlantic Ocean and just a few hundred more from the equator. Natal, the capital of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte, doesn’t see much of the stuff.
The manager’s reference brought to mind images of the U.S. national team’s crucial March 2013 victory over Costa Rica, which came in a Colorado blizzard and helped pave the way for a seventh consecutive World Cup berth. And it reminded everyone that mere rain, which Natal has seen way too much of in recent days, won’t impact his team’s approach or focus leading into Monday’s World Cup opener against Ghana.
Klinsmann has said that this will be a “World Cup of patience," of long trips and imperfect conditions, and few teams understand that better than the ones forced to endure CONCACAF’s qualifying gauntlet. Inhospitable environments, whether man-made or meteorological, are nothing new – “You just go into the countries and make the best of it,” Klinsmann said – and North American teams have been quite comfortable so far in Brazil.
Mexico and Costa Rica won their openers, and the U.S. will be eager to do the same Monday against the Black Stars (Honduras' loss to France still leaves CONCACAF the opportunity to start a very respectable 3-1-0). Klinsmann’s team has come too far to let weather or anything else – including past World Cup losses to Ghana – be a distraction.
“No matter what the circumstances are, no matter how a game goes, this group is ready to go the extra mile to make it happen tomorrow, to get it started with a win. If it’s raining or it’s snowing or if it’s thunder and lightning or whatever, this is about football, where you play in any circumstances,” Klinsmann said. “Field wet, field dry, heat and humidity, whatever, both teams are on the field to give their best. We’re not worried about that stuff at all … We know that we did our very, very good preparation. Whatever the circumstances we are going to embrace them and make it work.”
Klinsmann was joined at Sunday’s news conference by U.S. captain Clint Dempsey and midfield linchpin Michael Bradley. All three seemed ready to face Ghana immediately after stepping down from the dais. There’s been enough buildup, enough waiting. Klinsmann took over three years ago, qualifying kicked off two years ago and the squad now has been together for 33 days preparing for this tournament. The Americans would gladly play on gravel in a monsoon if it meant getting the World Cup started.
“The weather is what it is, and as players that’s not something we can control,” Bradley said. “You get to this point, you’re not worrying about little details, whether the wind is blowing or whether the sun’s out. We’re just excited to get on the field.”
U.S. optimism has been bolstered by victories over Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria in the recent send-off series, a healthy 23-man roster and the sense that a first 11 is taking shape. Klinsmann raved Sunday about Kyle Beckerman, who started against the Super Eagles and very well could reprise his role on Monday. That would give the U.S. extra cover against Ghana’s fearsome counterattack and offer more freedom to Bradley and Jermaine Jones.
If Beckerman starts, then Klinsmann likely will choose between Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi for the final spot in midfield. If the Real Salt Lake stalwart is on the bench, both Bedoya and Zusi may play. Either way, an identity has emerged.
“The confidence that we built playing in those three games, those relationships that are continuing to grow, those are positive things. But now, it’s all about stepping on the field in a World Cup,” Bradley said
“We are all really excited to start this off tomorrow here. We worked hard for it,” Klinsmann said. “We are full of confidence to approach Ghana. Ghana is a team full of individual talent -- you all know the players -- and it’s going to be a challenge. But we are very confident.”
Dempsey played in both the 2006 and 2010 losses to Ghana, which eliminated the U.S. from those respective World Cups. But he insisted Sunday that every World Cup offers a “fresh slate and an opportunity to prove to the rest of the world that you’re a quality side.”
And far from feeling inconvenienced, Dempsey expressed his excitement about playing in Brazil.
“I grew up in a small town in Texas and the game that I played really wasn’t valued by a lot of people. But I watched South American soccer because I gravitated toward the way they played, being able to be creative, watching the passion the fans have,” he said. “Having an opportunity to play in a country I looked up to as a kid and being part of that atmosphere and also helping to grow the game in my own country, I’m blessed to be in this position and excited about the opportunity to show well.”
All that’s left is the anthems and kickoff. The wait is nearly over.