- Allen Hopkins
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Throughout the 2010 FIFA World Cup, veteran soccer commentator Allen Hopkins will be filing frequent updates and observations to ESPNLA.com.
Allen Hopkins: Explain your soccer roots.
Nnamdi Asomugha: We grew up with soccer in our house. Both of my parents were born in Nigeria and, of course, that is by far the most popular, No. 1 sport over there. So soccer was always a topic in our house and we always watched soccer. Growing up all we played was soccer and we had to go sneak out to play basketball and other American sports [laugh].
AH: So when you first got involved in football, what did they say?
NA: [Big laugh] They knew nothing about it, it was so foreign to them. American football to them was quite boring, and when I started playing, they were a little hesitant because of how violent it was. When I was 12 or 13, that is when they began to realize the opportunity I had. It wasn't like I did not want to play soccer, but I was moving more toward football and basketball, the sports that are bigger in the U.S. When I got to high school and started playing more and when they realized I could also get an education and a scholarship out of it, they were all for it.
AH: What is your earliest World Cup memory?
NA: It was crazy when I grew up. We watched soccer all the time, and we knew all about the World Cup. When my parents, uncles and aunts would get together, they would be so crazy that you would think it was the greatest sporting event of all time by the way they spoke about it.
The first World Cup I remember watching was back in 1990. I have family back in England and about my age, and they would get me more involved with soccer. And then 1994 came around in the U.S. and there was a huge wave of Nigerian support and awareness in my household. It would be like how a traditional American family sits around watching football during Thanksgiving. We would have those same big and loud gatherings and parties just to watch the Nigerian team play in '94. Then in 1996, when Nigeria beat Argentina in the Olympics for the Gold medal game, that was the best. Everyone in my family was so happy and excited for the country.
AH: So while we're talking about Nigeria of the '90s, how about Nigeria in this World Cup?
NA: I know we can get out of our group. We can definitely get through. Obviously Argentina is going to advance, but I think we can get to the next round. But I don't know how far we can go. We are not the strongest African team like Ivory Coast but I think we can get to the next round.
AH: How do you think the U.S. will do?
NA: I am actually good friends with Stuart Holden. I met him at a charity awards ceremony banquet in New York last December. He is a really good guy, a funny guy. Like Nigeria, I don't think the U.S. has a difficult group but the momentum the team has after the Confederations Cup can carry them far this summer.
AH: If you could be any player who would it be?
NA: It would be Messi. He is so creative on the pitch. There is nothing he cannot do and it looks like he is always having fun. But I also like David Villa of Spain. He is a nice player that I like watching quite a bit.
Sunday, June 20
IRENE, Pretoria -- With just four days to prepare and no off days before the group finale against Algeria, the U.S. players, just two days after their dramatic, come-from -behind 2-2 draw with Slovenia, are still sore and feeling the effects of the match.
But starter Clint Dempsey said he was not worried about fatigue against the Algerians.
"We are going to be so motivated that fatigue is not going to affect us," Dempsey said. "We know what we need to do to get our minds and bodies right for this game, and we will be ready to put in the same kind of effort because this opportunity does not come along a lot in your life."
Dempsey answered the questions surrounding his involvement in the infamous disallowed goal against Slovenia.
"If you watch the game and all the set pieces, that is probably the one set piece I am not mixing it up with anyone," Dempsey said chuckling. "What I did on that play was act like I was coming in, went back out to the far post and if Mo [teammate Maurice Edu] did not get there, I would have had the goal.
"If you freeze frame that play, [Slovenia] had three of our players in a headlock, and to single me out means you are probably not watching the game."
Dempsey went on to explain his opinion on the inconsistent referring so far in the tournament.
"Before the tournament, they told us that any type of holding on corners is a penalty kick. Any type of holding of a player is a penalty," he said. "But when we get to the game, that is not what is being called."
News and notes: Starting goalkeeper Tim Howard said the team is fully aware of the hype and uproar after the Slovenia match.
"Those type of things are starting to leak into our camp that people are up in arms and that is pretty cool," Howard said. "For most people that are soccer fans or know the game, that was a small detail because it was so up and down. Obviously it was a deciding factor, but at the end of the day, it was just a ref's call. For our American fans it shows one, they care, and two, they are getting hip to the game and understand how it all works."
• While starting forward Jozy Altidore is "sequestered" with the rest of the U.S. team at Irene Country Lodge in Pretoria, his parents have been enjoying their son's first World Cup. Altidore said his parents have been going out at night and having a good time.
Meanwhile to pass the time on his own, Altidore has become a big fan of the show "24." He has already watched Seasons 3 to 5 since the team arrived in South Africa.
• Happy Father's Day to all the dads, especially Allen Sr.!
Saturday, June 19
IRENE, Pretoria -- Topic No. 1, the day after the U.S. team's incredible but controversial 2-2 draw with Slovenia, was the disallowed goal scored by midfielder Maurice Edu in the 86th minute denying a win. U.S. coach Bob Bradley was clear on his thoughts about the disallowed goal.
"I think it is a good goal. I think the only thing that can be called is penalty kicks for us." Bradley said. "You can speculate all you want on which guy and everything, but I think it is waste of time. I think there was nothing there, it was a good goal and that's it."
Midfield shakeup: Down two goals to Slovenia at halftime and with its World Cup very much hanging in the balance, Bradley made drastic changes to the midfield. Bradley said the changes weren't based on individual performances.
"The changes we made at halftime were simply because there was a real need to press the game and not because Jose [Torres] hadn't done well or anything else like that," Bradley said, "but because now we really wanted to push the game and impose ourselves."
He said the midfield did a great job of closing down, trying to win the ball back, while pushing forward for the goals the team desperately needed. Those are all positives Bradley says he will take into Wednesday's game against Algeria.
Forward shuffle: With forward Robbie Findley, starter for the first two group games in South Africa, suspended for the Algeria match because of yellow card accumulation, the midfield is not the only area Bradley is addressing in the short build up to the group C finale Wednesday at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria.
Midfielder Clint Dempsey, who moved up front in the second half of the 2-2 draw with Slovenia with starting forward Jozy Altidore (who played his best match of the 2010 World Cup thus far), could start as a forward and not in his preferred left midfield position. Expect the possibility of forwards Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez to play more significant roles than they have so far in South Africa.
Thursday, June 17
JOHANNESBURG -- The game that was forgotten in the buildup to the U.S. men's national team's 2010 World Cup group play was easily the second against Slovenia. Sandwiched in between the heavily hyped opener against England and the easy to point to group finale against Algeria, is a tricky contest against the smallest nation, in terms of population, at the 2010 World Cup.
Slovenia enters the match as the surprise group leader and knows a win -- guaranteed by midfielder Andrej Komac -- sees them through to the round of 16 for the very first time.
For the U.S. players, the sense of urgency is clear as a loss severely hampers their chances of advancing out of the group stage for only the third time in their past six World Cup appearances.
Whereas Slovenia is not by any stretch the household name England is, starting U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley knows the big challenges Slovenia presents.
"We have a good feel for Slovenia. We know their players, their qualities as individuals and what it means when they play in their team," Bradley said. "When you look at their team, [Milivoje] Novakovic and [Zlatko] Dedic have formed a good partnership up front. They are dangerous and they play well together. Robert Koren is a key player and someone we need to make the game difficult for. And the two outside midfielders are both creative, come inside and are able to make good passes and like to shoot from distance. It is going to be a hard game and we know what to expect."
Despite the tag of favorites against Slovenia ahead of the tournament, Bradley was not biting on the label.
"The talk of favorites, underdogs, and odds and chances only comes from you guys [the media]. You are the only ones to talk about that," Bradley said. "Those terms don't come into our locker room or into our hotel. As an athlete that is stuff you don't talk about. We have respect for England and we have respect for Slovenia. We know it is going to be a hard game.
"On our end, it is exciting too because now we know a win puts us in a great spot to go through. And a tie keeps us in it for the third game. And a loss almost puts us out. It doesn't get much bigger than this."
The U.S. has yet to record a shutout in seven matches in 2010. And going back to 2009, it is 11 matches without a clean sheet, with its last coming in a 1-0 win Sept. 9 at Trinidad and Tobago. It is the longest such streak in the Bob Bradley era. However that is not a huge cause for concern for his son.
"I think we have a strong mentality and a strong group of guys. You want to go into every game looking to win 3-0, and have everything go your way. That is the mentality. When you are standing there in the tunnel you want to get the first goal, you want to get the second. And when you have the second, you want to get the third," Michael Bradley said.
Bradley continued, "It is not like you're standing there in the tunnel thinking to yourself you want to give the first one away, that is just not how it goes. We have a mentality in our team that no matter what happens when we step on the field that we will work for each other and fight for each other. I think that has gotten us through tough games and tough situations and it will be something that will continue to help us."
Fellow midfielder Maurice Edu has a similar focus and understanding of the Slovenians.
"I think in these games it is more important to focus on us. If you are overly consumed or overly worried about your opponent it takes away from your game," Edu said. "Obviously you want to be aware of what they bring to the game and what they are capable of doing. But at the same time you need to be focused on you and your team. If we execute our game plan and basically just express ourselves, we will be fine."
Edu added, "From what I have seen so far in the game against Algeria and the video we watched on them, they are a well-organized team defensively. In their World Cup qualifying campaign they gave up four goals in 10 games, so they pride themselves in defending. I think we will create chances and it will come down to us being smart and taking our chances."
Wednesday, June 16
JOHANNESBURG -- The U.S. men's national team arose Wednesday morning to the news of Slovenia midfielder Andrej Komac's bold prediction -- bold, especially during a World Cup -- of a Slovenia win over the U.S. on Friday in Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
"We are going to win this match," Komac said after practice Tuesday.
It is good ol' fashioned bulletin-board material the team, including goalkeeper Tim Howard, is not taking lying down.
"I think talk is cheap. He's got to stand toe to toe. And they've got to stand toe to toe with us for 90 minutes. And if he's still standing, then I'll take my hat off to him," Howard said. "But a lot of boxers talk, too, and they're looking up at the lights. And the next thing they know, they're trying to figure out how they got there."
Three-time World Cup veteran DaMarcus Beasley added, "It just gives us extra motivation to go out there and win Friday to prove Komac and the team wrong. It doesn't bother us, either way, what he did say and what he didn't say. It just gives ammunition to go out there and win the game; it's as simple as that. What he said is his own opinion and if that is what he wants to say that is fine. We are trying to win and get to the next round."
U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu also chimed in on Komac's prediction.
"I don't pay much attention to it. It is a way to get in your opponent's head and maybe try to get them off their game a little bit," Edu said. "It happens in sports all the time, trash talking and stuff like that. You can use that as motivation, if you need motivation for that game. But for us we are a self-motivated team and we know who we are. We came into this tournament with a goal in mind and things being said here and there, is not going to disrupt us from what we are trying to do."
Legions of followers: Speaking of Edu, the Glasgow Rangers midfielder has about 300,000 more Twitter followers than any other U.S. player and has no explanation why he is so popular on Twitter.
"I really don't know to tell you the truth because I was one of the later ones to join Twitter," Edu said. "Jozy [Altidore] kept telling me about it saying I should get on Twitter. But I was like nah, whatever. But eventually I just got on it and started to get a feel for it and the followers just came.
"The guys always ask me about how I got so many followers, but I think they are just jealous," Edu added, laughing.
The darnedest things: Howard's family is watching him perform in his first World Cup from home but is living every moment with him. I asked him how his family reacted to his injury against England on Saturday in Rustenburg.
"My wife is used to it and understands the position," Howard said. "But my daughter was so funny. She asked me, 'Did you get hurt?' But she did not really care because she saw [U.S. teammate] Stuart Holden. She loves Stuart. He is like her buddy because he lives not too far in Manchester [England]. She asked about Stuart and then asked how was I doing.
"That is the order in my house," Howard said with a big laugh. "Aren't kids funny?"
Told you so: Oguchi Onyewu took some time out Wednesday to get in a slight dig on critics who questioned whether the central defender would be ready for the match against England to start the 2010 World Cup.
"I said in interviews weeks ago that I would be ready," Onyewu said. "To finally, in a sense, silence the naysayers feels good and gets them off my back for at least one game."
Onyewu added, "I will go 90 [minutes] as much as you want me to go 90. I consider myself a 90-minute player, and have my entire career. I could go 90 tomorrow or the next day, it is not an issue."
Tuesday, June 15
JOHANNESBURG -- I first met Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash on the field at BMO field in Toronto for a friendly soccer game the day before the 2008 MLS All-Star Game. I knew he loved soccer, and after playing with him that day I was thoroughly convinced of his soccer credentials.
Nash's basketball career speaks for itself. The two-time NBA MVP is a sure bet basketball Hall of Famer. However, his real passion is soccer, a sport with which he has had a lifelong love affair. I caught up with him in Johannesburg as he gets his 2010 World Cup fix.
AH: How was the trip down?
SN: The trip down was kind of tough. I flew from Hawaii to LAX to JFK to Johannesburg. It was long one, but it's cool and I'm happy to be down here.
AH: What are your plans while you are in South Africa?
SN: We are only here six days but we're going to five matches so you can say we have our hands full down here.
AH: What matches are you most looking forward to?
SN: Well, as an England fan, I am fired up for the match against Algeria in Cape Town on Friday. But as a soccer fan, I got to see the Netherlands on Monday, I am going to watch Brazil on Tuesday night, Spain on Wednesday in Durban. And back here to Johannesburg for Argentina on Thursday and then to Cape Town to see England on Friday. We are getting it all in.
AH: What are your thoughts on the USA-England 1-1 draw?
SN: I thought it was a great result for the U.S. Obviously, there was a little luck involved but outside of the error that Robert Green made I thought the U.S. did a great job. They held their shape and their form and stayed disciplined. They were extremely focused and played hard and with a lot of energy. Especially in the second half, England started to get a bunch of balls into the box but there were no real clear-cut chances. I thought England did a good job and they deserved their point.
AH: The game felt like a 1-1 loss for England and a 1-1 win for the U.S. As a teammate, when a player makes a mistake like Green's, how best do you keep him going? Because it is a long tournament and you are going to need all of your guys on the same page to get your goals accomplished.
SN: Well, it is going to take a lot of strength from the player himself but obviously his teammates have to be supportive. Everyone has to rally around him and let him know everybody makes mistakes and that is a part of goalkeeping. They have to get him fired up again and there is the opportunity to forget all about it, like playing well in the next game. He has to have a lot of strength and the team has to have a lot of strength. The team has to come together also and score a bunch of goals to make it easier for him. Hopefully they will all play better.
AH: So far, of the matches you have seen during the World Cup, who has impressed you the most?
SN: Brazil and Spain are my two favorites and most people's two favorites. I did not see the German game as they always find a way to be in the mix. I would like to see the African teams do well as I think the Ivory Coast has a chance. But I was not impressed by Italy. My wife is from Paraguay so you know where I was leaning. [Laugh.] Also, Argentina was somewhat lucky to get away with a 1-0 win over Nigeria. It should have been 4-0 at halftime, but the Nigerian keeper [Vincent Enyeama] was outstanding, he had an unbelievable game. Argentina is still a danger despite the turmoil and slow qualifying, but they will be right there and have a chance to do well.
AH: What are your thoughts on how South Africa is doing as a host country?
SN: South Africa is a great country. Especially since they have grown so much in the last 30 years. I think it is fantastic the event is in Africa, fantastic it is in South Africa to show the world its growth and what the country has to offer. It is great that is here.
AH: And what about the South African national team?
SN: The team surprised everyone. They showed that they are not in over their heads. A lot of the naysayers were proved wrong. They played very well and scored a great goal and they had a chance to win it in the end against a Mexican team that is very capable. I think it was a fantastic result for the South Africans.
AH: Moving back Stateside, the Vancouver Whitecaps recently unveiled their logo, how excited are you about the MLS team starting play next season?
SN: I am incredibly fired up. We launched our logo and unveiled our uniform last week. We gave the fans in the area a glimpse of what is to come and I am so fired up. Vancouver is ready for it. I think we are going to be a great addition to MLS and just cannot wait to get our hands dirty to see how good our team could be and to see what kind of impact we can have as a franchise.
AH: I know this is your offseason and soccer is a big part of your offseason conditioning program, so how much soccer have you been able to play?
SN: I have not been able to play yet. Unfortunately, we went on vacation in Hawaii. We will be back in New York on Sunday and my charity soccer game, "Showdown in Chinatown," in downtown Manhattan is on Wednesday (June 23) so I am looking forward to it. That will be my first game so I will be thrown into the fire. But I will have fun.
AH: Enjoy yourself and get your fill of the World Cup.
SN: Allen, thanks for the time, I enjoyed it very much and I look forward to catching up with you soon. You do have to check out my goal celebration on You Tube. It is classic.
AH: I will. And Steve, thank you for your time and take care!
Tuesday, June 15
IRENE, Pretoria -- U.S. starting goalkeeper Tim Howard warmed up as usual with goalkeeping coach Zak Abdel and backups Brad Guzan and Marcus Hahnemann. During the first 15 minutes of training, Howard did not seem hampered by the rib injury sustained in a violent collision with England forward Emile Heskey on Saturday in Rustenburg. But he did not participate in the entire session as a precautionary measure, though he is on track to be available for selection Friday against Slovenia.
• In Major League Soccer circles, U.S. forward Robbie Findley's connections to the NBA and NFL are well known but probably not as much on the international level. Findley is cousins of Mike Bibby of the Atlanta Hawks, Eddie House of the New York Knicks, and Shaun McDonald of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"My mom's sisters are Mike [Bibby] and Shaun's [McDonald] mom and then Eddie House is married to Mike's sister. We all grew up together and I know them all very well. Shaun actually played soccer growing up so I watched a lot of his games. I like to watch basketball so I have been very into Mike's career. In the off-season when I was in college, I would go to the gym everyday with them and hang out. I actually play Shaun in FIFA online all the time so we stay connected."
Findlay has gone from 2009 MLS Cup hero for his club Real Salt Lake to U.S. starter vs. England in eight short months.
"It is a dream come true and I am just trying to soak it all in. I am thankful for all the hard work I have been putting in. A lot of people have helped me get to this point. And it is just a good feeling that lots of people have been getting in touch with me and it's a good feeling people are keeping tabs on me."
• U.S. Midfielder and avid fisherman Clint Dempsey has been fishing during his down time at the team's Irene Country Lodge base. And after starting slowly, Clint has got the upper hand lately. "I started 0-for-3 then on the fourth day I caught three catfish and one carp and the next day I caught two more catfish," Dempsey said. "The staff here wanted to cook them for me but I said I am cool, I am not trying to get sick. They are different than American catfish; their bodies are more like eels."
He also offered some insight on his goal celebrations.
"When I point to the sky I am thanking God for another goal in a major tournament and looking up to my sister," said Dempsey, whose older sister died of a brain aneurysm when she was 16. "I also put up the number 13 for my friend that passed away, Victor Rivera, he wore 13 in high school. Because I am close to his family, I want to show them love. He is gone, but not forgotten, just like my sister."
Monday, June 14
IRENE, Pretoria -- With the U.S. team set to get back to work on the training field Tuesday after spending Monday off with friends and family, the focus shifts to group leader Slovenia, which presents a different set of challenges for Bob Bradley's team than England.
"They are a hard-working team, very organized," Bradley said of Slovenia. "They have the ability to sit back a little more and still get you on the counter. My overall assessment is the pure speed and physicality of the England game is probably on the very high end, and the Slovenia game might be more of a chess match."
Bradley is not worried about the difference between preparing six months for England and six days for Slovenia.
"In reality we had five weeks to prepare for the World Cup, the players will tell you that only in the last four to five days before the England match did we turn the entire focus on England. Our staff has done the homework along the way and we have done that with Slovenia and Algeria as well."
U.S. defender Steve Cherundolo was also not fazed by the quick turn-around.
"Just like at our clubs, you have only a few days to prepare for an opponent and then a few days later you have the next opponent," he said. "It is a pretty normal situation for us players and we'll prepare for them by using video and stat sheets, really nothing different."
Slovenia may not be the only opponent the U.S. faces Friday: the team also must avoid an emotional letdown after the result of the England game.
Sunday, June 13
JOHANNESBURG -- We did not get far into our trip back to Johannesburg after the U.S.-England match late Saturday evening in Rustenburg before ABC/ESPN play-by-play broadcaster Martin Tyler's cell phones began going off in rapid succession -- a signal that for the British press, the sky had indeed fallen.
England goalkeeper Robert Green's gaffe, allowing Clint Dempsey to become the second American to score in consecutive World Cups and earn the U.S. a 1-1 tie, will no doubt go down as one of the biggest goalkeeping blunders in World Cup history.
But any team that has progressed far or won a tournament such as a World Cup needs some luck at some point. And Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg (where the U.S. beat Egypt, 3-0, in the 2009 Confederations Cup, sparking an eventual second-place finish) could be the team's lucky charm, elephants and all.
When asked whether he was confident Howard's rib was not broken, Bradley said, "I don't know."
Bradley added: "Tim will be evaluated later today and a decision will be made whether or not further tests will be needed. Obviously he was sore today. He did a great job of taking a tough hit and staying in it and playing really well. We will assess him later today and figure out what we need to do from there."
Starting defender Steve Cherundolo, who made a strong showing on the right hand side of defense, was worried when Howard did not immediately get up after the collision with Heskey.
"I was concerned when he stayed down, and then when the trainers and doctors came for him, I knew that it was something potentially serious," Cherundolo said.
"Anytime you are in a big game like that and you get injured there is no chance you are coming off," he added. "And Tim is no different than the rest of us. It speaks to Tim's character and I do think anyone in his position last night would try and finish the game, which speaks a lot about this team's character and probably the reason we tied the game and were rewarded with a point."
The U.S. continues to concede early goals, and that has been a point of emphasis for Bradley and his staff.
"We talk so much about managing the early part of the game," Bradley said. "We had the kickoff last night and were a bit sloppy. I am not sure of it is a slow start, but the part that comes next is you have to have the ability to play collectively as a defense."
But Bradley is confident in the team's growing mentality.
"We believe in the fact we have been hardened along the way and we believe we can play against top teams, tough teams," he said. "There is a good sense of the way 90 minutes works, where different moments in the game allow the ability to push a little bit harder."
News and notes
• The USA has advanced from the Group Stage of a World Cup each of the three previous times the team has earned at least a point in their World Cup opener.
• Bob Bradley's breakdown of England's goal: "When the ball came into [Frank] Lampard, Michael [Bradley] stepped up to slow him down, [Wayne] Rooney came into the hole and Gooch Onyewu has to make a decision about how much he needs to step. The initial pass from Lampard was intended for Rooney but skipped past him to Heskey. In that moment the space between Gooch [Oguchi Onyewu], Jay [DeMerit] and Carlos [Bocanegra], caught in a tough spot: Can he recover and track [Steven] Gerrard? All it takes in these games is a couple of seconds where the reactions are not as good as they need to be. We left a hole and we paid. We are trying to get everyone more comfortable of what tips the scales in these kinds of games."
• If there were 8,000 U.S. fans, as reported at last night's match, the rest of Royal Bafokeng Stadium was filled with English fans, making it feel more like a game at Wembley Stadium in London than at a neutral site in South Africa.
• Marked out of the match: It took Rooney 17 minutes into the U.S. game to get a touch, and he didn't get any touches in the box until after the 70th minute.
Allen Hopkins covers the 2010 FIFA World Cup for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter.
9hMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne
18hMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon
1dMarc Stein and Calvin Watkins