Commentary

Postcards from South Africa

Allen Hopkins' observations from the World Cup

Updated: June 10, 2010, 4:23 PM ET
By Allen Hopkins | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com


Thursday, June 10

IRENE, South Africa -- Forty-eight hours and counting. That was the vibe as the U.S. team gathered for its final training session in Pretoria before heading to Rustenburg on Thursday for Saturday's highly anticipated match against England.

[+] EnlargeJozy Altidore
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesJozy Altidore works out during a training session at Pilditch Stadium.

Since injuring his ankle June 2, U.S. forward Jozy Altidore has made a full recovery, as expected, and he talked Thursday for the first time about the keys to his rehabilitation program.

"Lots of treatment, two, three times a day. As it healed, I did some fitness away from the group," Altidore said. "I am hopeful and that is the most important thing, and mentally I am ready to go if I am called upon."

Altidore also is confident his injury has not compromised his fitness levels.

"We have done a lot of fitness throughout the week. And I actually did fitness as soon as I left England. I went over to L.A. and worked with Pierre [Barrieu] and did fitness. So I have been running for a while so I am hopeful I will be all right on the field," he said.

While Altidore's ankle and its effect on the U.S. attack have been a focus, questions continue to surround the defense in front of starting goalkeeper Tim Howard, who feels the team has lots to prove against the group favorite Saturday.

"We have a bunch of guys, Jozy included, myself included, who have a lot to prove on this stage. We are all pretty excited about it. I don't think you will see many people trying to be individuals out there, but at the same time we all got a point to prove," Howard said.

"This game is huge for us and the country. Anyone who knows soccer knows England and their world-class players. There is such a buzz. We obviously know the pressure for England, but it's for everybody," he added. "We've gotten to the stage everyone is taking notice, not just soccer fans, the entire country, which puts pressure on us.

"It's going to be pretty incredible. I don't know what will be better, watching it back at home at the bar with my friends at home watching or playing in it," he said, joking. "It is going to be special, and I really think our country is going to stop and be watching. I really do. They will have one eye on the result. There's a lot of pressure, but I also think it is also very cool. There's a lot of pressure on us to match the result or win. But it will be really cool to see how far we have come. It is going to be exciting and the nerves are already starting to flow, and that is a positive thing."

Nearly two weeks since beginning training in South Africa, Howard is starting to get comfortable with the new ball.

"The guys [in training] have been hitting the ball well," he said. "It slowly gets better, but it is what it is. Like I said, I think you are going to see some crazy goals in the tournament. The onus, as I have said before, is on the goalkeepers to put the ball in areas where it's not going to hurt you. It might not be pretty, but again from a goalkeeping standpoint, you have to do your best with what you are given."

Howard also is not worried about controversial Brazilian referee Carlos Eugenio Simon being assigned to referee the U.S. match versus England.

"Referring is an impossible job, difficult job, and emotions run high on both teams. We have been warned to keep our emotions in check and watch our mouths and try to the best to our abilities to do that. I don't think it will go 100 percent as planned, but we have lots of respect for the referees. There will not be any problem on our end."


Wednesday, June 9

JOHANNESBURG -- Have you been wondering what Johannesburg looks like? How about from the sky? I spent Wednesday morning finding out, flying high over South Africa's biggest city in an experience I will not forget any time soon.

Soccer City
Courtesy of Allen HopkinsSoccer City in Soweto, South Africa.

With the air space closed over all the venues starting Wednesday afternoon, we had only one chance to get aerial shots, and we did it.

The plane, a Cessna 182, seats four, but the passenger seat was removed for our brave photographer, Johnathon, to sit on the floor and practically dangle out of the open plane door in order for us to get the best fly-over shots possible.

We flew over both Johannesburg venues. First, Ellis Park, located southwest of Johannesburg's central business district in New Doornfontein. And then Soccer City in Soweto, the venue for both the opening and final matches of the 2010 World Cup; its terracotta outer shell was designed to resemble a traditional African earthenware pot.

Enjoy the pictures!

A special thanks to Quinton Harper of Investment Aircraft at Lanseria Airport in Johannesburg for making the fly-over happen.


Wednesday, June 9

[+] EnlargeDonovan
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImageLandon Donovan practices at Pilditch Stadium on Wednesday in preparation for the United States' first match against England on Saturday.

IRENE, South Africa -- I first met U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan when he was 17. It was just before the 1999 Under-17 World Cup in New Zealand, where the U.S. finished a surprising fourth. Donovan has been a big part of every major U.S. soccer success since, including the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the 2002 World Cup and the 2009 Confederations Cup, leaving no doubt he is the best American player ever.

Donovan, now 28 and playing the best soccer of his career, is set for his third World Cup, and he expects the experiences in Japan/South Korea and Germany will serve him well this time around in South Africa.

"I do expect the game to slow down for me since I have played in eight World Cup matches. However, Saturday against England is going to be a different story," Donovan said. "It is going to be a very fast game. But I do think I will feel the game slowing down in the other matches."

Donovan believes coach Bob Bradley's training methods have prepared the team well ahead of its 2010 World Cup opener.

"One thing Bob [Bradley] does so well in training is getting us to play quickly. Playing in small spaces most of the time is going to be good for us, not only against England, but also against the other teams in our group," he said.

Donovan also thinks he can be effective in whatever formation the U.S. team lines up in against England.

"I prefer to play on the left [midfield] and cut inside toward the middle in a 4-4-2. But it is different when I, compared to the other forwards on our team, play in behind the lone striker in a 4-5-1, mainly because the other forwards are out-and-out forwards, and I am not as much," Donovan said.

"Whether we line up in a 4-5-1 or 4-4-2, it does not say anything about our confidence or intentions. Look, it's not rocket science; it's 11 [versus] 11. I have played in more than enough matches to know how to deal with whatever comes during the match. "

Even though the U.S. is clearly Donovan's focus, thoughts of Major League Soccer are not far away.

"How about the Galaxy?! The boys are doing so well," a smiling Donovan said of his still-unbeaten MLS club.

Donovan also is happy for Sacha Kljestan and his move from Chivas USA to Belgian club Anderlecht. "This is going to be so good for him. I am very happy for him, right place at the right time. He will do well over there," Donovan said.


Tuesday, June 8

Irene and Pretoria, South Africa -- Monday was the first off day for the U.S. men's national team since arriving in South Africa, and players took advantage of the time off to get in some golf, visit the nearby lion park in Tembisa and, in the case of goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, fly a remote-control model airplane around the team's hotel.

Although most of the USMNT enjoyed the downtime, U.S. forward Jozy Altidore went to work. Altidore, recovering from a sprained right ankle suffered during training on June 2, had a rehabilitation session with the USMNT sports medicine staff, and head coach Bob Bradley likes what he sees thus far from the injured striker.

[+] EnlargeAltidore
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesJozy Altidore hopes to be ready for the U.S. side's clash with England on Saturday.

"Jozy is doing well and making progress," Bradley said. "He is right on his path for recovery. He did some extra work [Monday] and we feel he will be back in training [Tuesday], sharp and ready to go."

Bradley also provided an update on defender Oguchi Onyewu's status.

"Gooch continues to make progress every day," Bradley said. "One of the things you are always trying to balance is to make sure the workload is right so he can move forward. The thought process is every day, every week he continues to move along."

Can Onyewu go 90 minutes versus England?

"We still need a few days to see where Gooch is for the first game," Bradley said. "As is the case for any player that has been out, decisions are made not only with the first game in mind but also the second and third as well."

Altidore, defender Carlos Bocanegra and Onyewu all looked sharp during the team's approximately 90-minute training session Tuesday.

As the team edges closer to its 2010 World Cup opener versus England on Saturday, attention here continues to be on the USMNT players based in England, including Landon Donovan, who had a very successful loan to Everton.

[+] EnlargeLandon Donovan
AP Photo/Rob GriffithBradley says Donovan is the U.S. team's unquestioned leader.

Although Bocanegra wears the captain's armband, Donovan is clearly the leader on the field. His leadership has never been clearer, and you can find Donovan and Bradley talking alone before every training session.

"Landon Donovan is at a great moment in his career. He is confident and he has matured as a person and a player, and it shows," Bradley said. "The opportunity for him to be a leader on his national team at this point in his career is something that means a great deal to him. We feel great about it. I always talk with the leaders, the experienced players to get a feel for the mentality of the team and where we are at in terms of preparation.

"My conversations with Landon have just been good, strong ones as of late. The experience that we have had to get to know each other the last few years has made us both comfortable with how things work in our team, and there is a good level of trust, good level of respect and a good level of respect for each other. "


Saturday, June 5

Ruimsig Stadium, Roodepoort, South Africa -- It was another gorgeous day in South Africa, and the vuvuzelas are already in top World Cup form for the USMNT's final pre-World Cup match versus Australia. The din made by the unmistakable horns in Ruimsig Stadium in Roodepoort, South Africa, was a great reminder of what is to come times 20, with 94,000 plus expected for the 2010 World Cup opener between Mexico and South Africa in Soccer City in Soweto on Friday.

Nearly to a man, the USMNT said it's not losing sleep over Jozy Altidore's mildly sprained right ankle. However, Altidore clearly is. An at-times-sullen Altidore watched from the bench Saturday and lingered for a while after the final whistle on the makeshift U.S. bench. Many of the U.S. staff stopped and talked to Altidore, at times putting a consoling arm around the injured forward or offering up words of encouragement.

[+] Enlargesoccer fans
Allen HopkinsThe crowds are rounding into form at Roodepoort.

I spoke with Altidore as he walked to the locker room, and he flashed a warm smile and said he will be OK. At this point, Altidore is still listed as day-to-day. Tuesday more than likely will be the first time Altidore tests his injured ankle since injuring it this past Wednesday in Pretoria.

U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, who is recovering from sports hernia surgery in May, played 55 minutes Saturday against Australia and told me moments after coming off in the second half that he feels good and came out of the game just fine.

David Beckham was in attendance for the U.S.-Australia match. Beckham, a member of Fabio Capello's England coaching staff, was scouting the U.S. team ahead of the first group game versus England on June 12. As you can imagine, his presence caused quite the scene for the fans in attendance.


Friday, June 4

Pilditch Stadium, Pretoria, South Africa -- For the second consecutive day, U.S. forward Jozy Altidore did not train with the USMNT, as he continues to receive treatment for his mild right-ankle sprain suffered during training on Wednesday in Pretoria.

Clearly favoring that injured right ankle, Altidore gingerly walked into the team huddle near midfield to start training. He then returned to the bench to watch, wearing flats with no apparent wrap on the injured right ankle.

Altidore continues to be listed as day-to-day and will receive further evaluation to determine his availability for Saturday's game versus Australia. I would put Altidore's chances of playing in the final tuneup at less than 50-50.

Altidore's impact on the U.S. team cannot be overstated when you consider he has more appearances (24) and goals (eight) than the three other U.S. forwards -- Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez -- combined (10 appearances and one goal scored by Gomez against the Czech Republic last month).

"We all hope Jozy will get better. We think he will," U.S. starting goalkeeper Tim Howard said Friday. "We're not losing sleep over it."

Allen Hopkins
Allen HopkinsLocal fans are dressed for "Soccer Friday" in the colors of the South African national team.

Altidore's injury could open the door for Findley, who impressed in the second half against Turkey recently. "I'm just trying to be focused on being ready if given the opportunity to step on the field, whether as a starter or off the bench," Findley said. "I just need to be ready to step up if I have to. I'm confident."

Field notes

-- Friday in South Africa was the final "Soccer Friday" around the country. Each and every Friday leading up to the 2010 World Cup, people were encouraged to wear the colors of the South African national team, Bafana Bafana. From kids to adults, the country has embraced the tradition and is ready for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

-- Clint Dempsey has been able to get in some fishing down here. It's his favorite hobby during free time during camp. "One of the workers here got me a pole; I don't know how," he said. "But I went and didn't catch anything. So the fish are up on me 1-0."

-- If there was any doubt who is the fastest USMNT player, both Tim Howard and Steve Cherundolo put it to rest, as they confirmed Findley has earned the title as fastest player on the team.


Wednesday, June 2

Pilditch Stadium, Pretoria, South Africa -- The U.S. men's national team spent Wednesday, the team's second full day in South Africa, continuing to adjust to the new time zone and settle in to its World Cup base at Irene Country Lodge.

Sunset
Allen Hopkins for ESPNLosAngeles.comThe U.S. team can "feel the difference in the air" and is working to adjust to the altitude.

With the 2010 FIFA World Cup being the first south of the equator since Argentina 1978, heat and/or humidity will not be a factor as it has been in the previous World Cups. However, the altitude will be. And the first order of business for the U.S. team is to acclimate to the high altitude, something U.S. midfielder DaMarcus Beasley feels the team is already doing well.

"You feel the difference in the air, but guys have acclimated well already," the three-time World Cup veteran said. "Some of the boys know what to expect, and I think the staff has prepared us well. As the days go by, I am sure the altitude will not bother us at all."

Defender Jonathan Spector is equally confident in the team's preparations for the high elevations. "After our initial altitude testing back in Princeton, each player has been on their own individual program based on their own needs to get them ready. And that just adds to our confidence."

On the injury front, all 23 players fully participated in Wednesday's approximately 90-minute training session for the first time since arriving in South Africa. And as the players continue to get their legs underneath them after their long trip, training will increase in intensity as they prepare for their final tuneup match against Australia on Saturday.


Pilditch
Allen Hopkins for ESPNLosAngeles.comThe U.S. men's national team trained for almost an hour at Pilditch Stadium, about 20 minutes from its base camp at Irene Country Lodge.

Tuesday, June 1

Pilditch Stadium, Pretoria -- You could not ask for a better day in South Africa. The weather again was simply incredible, as the sun seemed to sit high in the sky all day long, making it feel closer to summer than winter.

After holding its first news conference since arriving May 31 in Johannesburg, the U.S. men's national team trained for almost an hour at Pilditch Stadium, about 20 minutes from its base camp at Irene Country Lodge.

"Picturesque" does not begin to describe the team's base. It's a dairy farm that has been family-owned for more than 120 years. The acreage spills into the Pretoria countryside, making it one of the most scenic places in the area.

The focus of the short training was to get the 18-hour trip out of the players' legs and to be sharp on the ball. They accomplished both in just about an hour of work, which included a warm-up, 5v2, wing pattern play/crossing plus finishing, and a short scrimmage.

U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, continuing to rehab after sports hernia surgery last month, was limited in training and did not take part in the half-field scrimmage to conclude practice. Bocanegra told me Monday he feels good about his progress during his rehab.

[+] EnlargeUS National Team
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesU.S. coach Bob Bradley yells instructions during team training in Pretoria, South Africa.

"It was nice to get the 75 minutes [match against Turkey] under my belt. I felt I held up well," Bocanegra said. "The trainers and coaches have done a great job with my program and easing me into it and not just throwing me out there full blast. I am not far now. I just need to work on myself a bit more and sharpen the last 5 percent or so. But right now I feel good."

Fellow defender Jay Demerit also skipped the scrimmage as he continues to mend from a handful of injuries.

The U.S. resumes training tomorrow at Pilditch as the game versus Australia in Roodepoort on June 5 edges closer. Speaking of Australia, Socceroos forward Harry Kewell will not play against the U.S. Saturday as he continues his race to be fit for the World Cup.

Kewell is expected to be available for Australia's World Cup opener against Germany. Defender Brett Emerton, who was the co-leading goal scorer for Australia during qualifying, is battling a hamstring injury and is in doubt for the last tuneup before the tournament begins.


US Bus
Allen Hopkins/ESPNLosAngeles.comThe U.S. national team's bus.

Monday, May 31

The U.S. men's national team arrived about 4:30 p.m. local time Monday in Johannesburg. The team flew on a commercial flight from Washington, D.C., and deplaned at a special FIFA arrival gate before the rest of the commercial passengers went to their gate.

As the players walked off the plane, many filmed the arrival with video cameras, including Landon Donovan. The team was then greeted by the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips, who had a few words for the U.S. traveling party before it departed for the team hotel.

Tuesday the team trains in Pretoria for the first time in the late afternoon. The men's team feels very good about coming back to South Africa when you consider the huge success the team enjoyed last summer here at the Confederations Cup.

Training will pick up during the week as the game versus Australia comes into focus on June 5, the last dress rehearsal before it all counts against England.


Sunday, May 30

"Welcome to Johannesburg."

[+] EnlargeTeam USA
Stephane De Saku/AFP/Getty ImagesThe U.S. national team deplanes at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Monday before the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

Those were the words of our captain as we prepared for landing at Johannesburg International Airport after nearly 16 hours in the air from Atlanta. With my day beginning on Saturday with a 6 a.m. departure from the house to LAX, and then to the ATL with my final destination being Jo'Burg, needless to say it was a long day for my bags and me. But we made it!

Flying in over Jo'Burg at night, it looks like many U.S. cities at night. Silhouettes of mountains provide the backdrop for tall buildings to rise from the earth with white lights dotting the low skyline, and cars coming and going on busy freeways.

Inside the airport and all around outside, there are thousands and thousands of 2010 FIFA World Cup flags and signage. I mean everywhere. It's as if you've stepped into a marketing department's dream. On the walls, carpets, painted on murals, billboards and buildings, the people of South Africa are showing you right away they are excited about hosting the world's biggest sporting event.

My first laugh of the trip came less than two minutes out of the terminal. When my driver told me to sit up front, I casually walked around to the right side of the car and went to hop in the passenger seat before realizing it was the driver's side. The other drivers milling around watching got a giggle out of the American getting his signals crossed, forgetting the rules of the road are opposite in South Africa. Good thing I wasn't driving.

On the freeway, cars of all sorts have South African flags on them, very much like the ubiquitous Los Angeles Lakers flags that dot the 405 or 101 highways around playoff time.

So far everyone has been amazing. The South African people are ready to put on a show for the world.

As the national ad campaign in South Africa says, "Once in a lifetime." Enough said.

Allen Hopkins covers the 2010 FIFA World Cup for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter.

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