The United States Men's National Soccer team comes to the Confederations Cup in South Africa looking to gain valuable experience for next year's World Cup, and hoping to upset the conventional wisdom which says they have little chance of advancing out of a tough group.
After a light session in a chilly stadium in West Pretoria, American players looked relaxed as they lingered after practice to sign autographs for kids who had attended the training.
The team arrived midweek in South Africa after the long trip from Chicago, where they played the second of a pair of high-intensity World Cup qualifiers last week. A victory against Honduras put the U.S. team in excellent position to qualify for their sixth straight World Cup. The players view this Confederations Cup tournament as a chance to prepare for next year's big event, which will also be held in South Africa.
Michael Bradley is a midfielder for the team. "We are really excited to be here - a chance to play three really good games a year before the World Cup in some of the same stadiums. At the same time for the team it is an important measuring stick because this time last year we played three games against big teams. And now we have another chance a year later to see the progress we have made," he said.
The United States has drawn an extremely competitive group in South Africa, highlighted by defending World Cup champions Italy and perennial power Brazil. Coach Bob Bradley says those challenges excite the competitive spirit of the team.
"We have a tough group, we know that, but we are so excited about facing the defending World Cup champions Italy in the first game, and the opportunity to be here in South Africa the year before the World Cup to experience the passion of the people here for the game is something very special," he said.
The United States kicks off Monday night against Italy at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria. That game will be followed three days later by a match-up with Brazil, before the U.S. rounds out group play against African champions Egypt in nearby Rustenburg. Facing a string of tough opponents, American captain Carlos Bocanegra says he understands the U.S. will not be favored to advance to the semi-finals.
The Americans earned the right to compete in the Confederations Cup by winning the North, Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) region championship in the 2007 Gold Cup held in the United States.
This is the Americans' third trip to the Confederations Cup, which is played once every four years. They have finished as high as third place, which they achieved at the 1999 edition played in Mexico.