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15 June 11:09 am

Andy's first post since arriving in Natal, Brazil with the American Outlaws ahead of tomorrow's U.S. v. Ghana match - kick at 4 p.m. MT on ESPN

Road to Natal

After a 32 hour journey, I’m safely in Brazil. The last two days have been spectacular and tiring, an exciting taste of what’s to come.

My first 2014 World Cup experience actually happened in Salt Lake City, at Rodizio Grill in Trolley Square. There, my friends and I attended a party thrown by the restaurant to watch Brazil’s opening match against Croatia. As I entered, a few Brazilians danced the Samba, waiting for the big event to begin, but it quickly got too crowded for that. It seemed as if the entire Brazilian population of Salt Lake City suddenly appeared, and it was significantly more than Rodizios expected. We all stood shoulder to shoulder. As the game began, the whole place shook as all Brazilians, and especially the young ones who attended, practically yelled the Brazilian anthem in unison. Then, when Neymar scored the equalizing goal, all stood up and cheered as one, with air horns and vuvuzelas and screaming and dancing and all. More celebrations came on Fred’s penalty, though perhaps more reservedly as the room sensed that it was an unfair decision. It was a veritable sea of yellow, though just a hint of what I would experience as I arrived in Brazil.

The next morning, I took a Delta flight to Houston, the meeting spot of the American Outlaws before taking a charter to Brazil. I found some fellow AO members at baggage claim and we desperately wanted to watch the rematch of last year’s final: Spain-Netherlands. However, there was just one establishment in the entire Houston airport complex featuring a TV that was outside of security, a literal hole-in-the-wall named the “Stadium Bar and Grille.” For those of you who will ever go to Houston, a tip: avoid the Stadium Bar. It has remarkably terrible food, exactly the kind you’d expect from a school cafeteria. Its only redeeming element was a single TV, which about 15 of us crowded around to watch the game. Two fans, especially, were notable: one was a Dutch man, who seemed almost too shocked at the proceedings to celebrate. Only the smile on his face and occasional hand gestures told the story of his inner emotions as he watched quietly. The other was actually my roommate, randomly assigned to me during the trip. He’s from Nebraska, and unfortunately lost his luggage when the airline sent the luggage to IAD (Washington DC) rather than IAH (Houston). He’s scheduled to receive it tomorrow, but we may have to share some supplies in the meantime.

As the day went on, and more and more U.S. fans arrived in Houston, I heard a wider variety of stories. The American Outlaws have grown greatly in the last four years, and I’ve met people from a wide variety of locales: some from large chapters (like Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco), and some from places as small as Carney, Nebraska, home of the smallest AO chapter with a population of just 35,000. We all waited to check in for our chartered flight at 8:30 to Natal, and as we waited to board, I looked up from my writing and decided to join a circle juggling a soccer ball. While the information phone may have been in danger from our touches, we didn’t particularly care.

The flight, a nine hour journey from Houston to Natal, Brazil, was an interesting experience in itself. We were served “dinner” at 2:30 AM due to delays, and as some tried to sleep, others tried to revel in the excitement of the times. Everyone, though, celebrated at the end of the flight, getting together for a rousing “We Are Landing in Brazil!” chant.

After getting through customs and grabbing our luggage, we were taken by bus to our hotel in Natal, a 35 minute ride from the airport. As visible on TV during the Mexico-Cameroon match, Natal has experienced heavy rain in the last two days. It’s clear that this is a rarity for the Natalians; indeed, I’m told Natal only receives rain 16 out of the 365 days per year. As we drove by, I saw kids making “mud angels” in the puddles, their parents waving to the bus filled with Americans.

The U.S.-Ghana game isn’t until Monday, meaning we have a day to get settled and learn about our surroundings here in Natal. Another dispatch from Brazil soon!

Andy

14 June 11:28 am

Think RSL players are feeling the World Cup? 

Watch the Claret-and-Cobalt's Colombian forward Olmes Garcia and Colombian-American midfielder Sebastian Velasquez celebrate their country's second goal in today's Group C match against Greece. Video courtesy of RSL Ecuadorian forward Joao Plata's Instagram account.

Garcia, Velasquez, Plata and the rest of the RSL squad will be in action tonight, taking on the NASL's Atlanta Silverbacks in U.S. Open Cup play at 6 p.m. MT at Atlanta Silverbacks Park. Watch a live stream of the match right here on RealSaltLake.com. 

13 June 2:41 pm

Bone up on the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil with the first video in this year's Soccer Smarts with Professor Leo World Cup series.

13 June 9:31 am

Real Salt Lake defender Chris Wingert got in on the World Cup prognosticating this week, providing some insight for The Shin Guardian’s fantastically thorough U.S.-Ghana preview.

Here’s Wingert on how the U.S. should look to start the game against the Black Stars:

“I would say the US has to stay disciplined.  Our chances will come if we stay patient and defend well–similar to the game against Nigeria.  If we get involved in a track meet early and don’t defend with numbers, I think we’ll get exposed.”

And here’s the RSL left back on what to watch when the U.S. is defending set pieces:

“In the game against Nigeria the US looked to have a few guys playing zone defense on Nigeria’s corner kicks.   Personally, I’m not a big fan of playing zone when defending set pieces.  It allows the attackers to get a free run at the ball since nobody is responsible for impeding these runs.   If you have a great ball-winner in the air (maybe like an Omar Gonzalez) then it might be smart to leave him free and let him hunt the ball.  All the other attackers should be accounted for with individual defenders in my opinion.”

Be sure to check out The Shin Guardian’s entire preview here. Read it, you’ll learn something. 

12 June 5:05 pm

Real Salt Lake kicks off its participation in the 101st Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament on the road, taking on the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks in a fourth-round match at Atlanta Silverbacks Park at 6:00 p.m. MT on Saturday. The match will be streamed live on RealSaltLake.com and broadcast live on ESPN 700.

Here are a few storylines to watch ahead of Saturday’s clash:

RSL out for revenge after coming up short in the 2013 U.S. Open Cup Final

Real Salt Lake will be looking to make amends after letting the 2013 U.S. Open Cup Championship slip away last year, falling 1-0 to D.C. United in the Championship match at Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 1, 2013. Reaching last year’s Final was the furthest the Claret-and-Cobalt had gone in the tournament, besting previous runs to the Quarterfinals in 2006 and 2011. Real Salt Lake posts an even record in Open Cup play, recording nine wins and nine losses all-time. The Claret-and-Cobalt has fared better against lower division teams, unsurprisingly, posting a 5-2-0 record. Both of RSL’s losses came at the hands of NASL side Minnesota United FC.

Real Salt Lake boasts multiple connections to NASL

Real Salt Lake has three players on its current squad that have previously played in NASL, specifically the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Claret-and-Cobalt goalkeeper Jeff Attinella played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies from 2011-2012, helping lead the Rowdies to the NASL title in 2012 while finishing second in NASL MVP voting and earning a spot on the league Best XI. RSL midfielder Luke Mulholland played for the Rowdies from 2012-2013, helping win the NASL title in 2012 with Attinella and became the first player to be named to the NASL Best XI in back-to-back seasons. RSL defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe spent a year with the Rowdies in 2011 in a year-long loan with the Chicago Fire.

RSL Head Coach Jeff Cassar also has a connection to the Atlanta Silverbacks, spending a year with the NASL side in 2002 before returning to MLS’s FC Dallas the following year.

Can RSL forward Devon Sandoval carry over last year’s successful Open Cup form into 2014?

Real Salt Lake forward Devon Sandoval shined in the 2013 U.S. Open Cup in what was his first year with RSL. The New Mexico native ended the tournament as the Claret-and-Cobalt’s leading goalscorer, recording three goals in two appearances. The target forward scored in RSL’s 3-2 win over the Atlanta Silverbacks and bagged a brace in the club’s 5-2 win over Charleston Battery. RSL forwards Alvaro Saborio and Joao Plata finished second in scoring with two goals apiece.

RSL to be the first MLS team to play at Atlanta Silverbacks Park

Real Salt Lake will be the first Major League Soccer team to play at Atlanta Silverbacks Park on Saturday. The unfamiliarity with the turf field, and the team itself, will be an added element to the match along with mounting injuries and World Cup absences.

The Silverbacks, coached by former U.S. international Eric Wynalda, currently sit in eighth-place in the NASL standings with a 3-5-1 record this season. Silverbacks forward Jaime Chavez, leads the team and league in goals scored with five, and is coming off a two-goal performance against NASL side Indy Eleven. The Silverbacks have struggled defensively this year, conceding a total of 20 goals in nine games played. In 2013, the Silverbacks reached the NASL Championship match but fell 1-0 to the New York Cosmos.

12 June 12:13 pm

Real Salt Lake kicks off participation on the 101st Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament on Saturday, taking on NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks at 6:00 p.m. MT at Atlanta Silverbacks Park. Saturday’s match will be streamed live on RealSaltLake.com and broadcast live on ESPN 700.

Saturday’s match will be the second year in a row that RSL has faced Atlanta in its opening match of the tournament. The Claret-and-Cobalt hosted Atlanta on May 28, 2013 at Rio Tinto Stadium, which resulted in a thrilling 3-2 win in extra time for the Utah side.

Check out the highlights from that wild and rainy match that jumpstarted RSL’s run to the 2013 Open Cup Final.

11 June 3:14 pm

Really cool illustration work by Devin Dulany for Howler magazine's online piece on RSL Captain Kyle Beckerman and USMNT teammate Jermaine Jones

Entitled "Our Dreaded Midfield" and written by Mike McCall, the piece details how - after years of being viewed as fighting for one spot in the starting lineup - Beckerman and Jones just might team up together in Jurgen Klinsmann's XI in Brazil.

It's a really nice read; certainly worth the time for all you Beckerman fans out there. Here's the money quote, given by Klinsmann after he started both Beckerman and Jones in the midfield in the U.S.'s 2-1 win over Nigeria on Saturday: 

“I saw a lot of work that they did, tremendous cleaning up all over the place,” Klinsmann said in his post-match press conference. “We know Kyle, and that’s his specialty, to protect his teammates and run endless miles for the team. Jermaine in that half position has more freedom to go forward so he can kind of switch back and forth with Michael Bradley, and he knows that there’s someone behind him there, so ‘If I lose the ball in my run, Kyle is going to clean up for me.’ It worked out really well.”

11 June 10:47 am

U.S. Soccer has released another series of videos, this time providing short highlight clips of for every player on the U.S. World Cup roster. With the big event kicking off tomorrow, get even more hyped by checking out some of Beckerman and Rimando’s best plays for the USMNT. You can find all 23 videos here.

11 June 10:39 am

RSL Head Coach Jeff Cassar took a quick break from the training field and film room on Tuesday night, rolling up to the Lionel Richie and Cee-Lo Green concert in a pretty rad tank top.

RSL assistant coaches Daryl Shore and Andy Williams were also at the concert. Andy thinks he and Cee-Lo look a bit alike. See any resemblance?

Cassar, Shore and Williams and the rest of the RSL coaching staff will run training sessions in Salt Lake on Wednesday and Thursday before departing for Atlanta ahead of Saturday’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match at the Silverbacks. 

10 June 2:40 pm

RealSaltLake.com is excited to introduce its new World Cup blog contributor, Andy Larsen. Andy will be travelling to Brazil with the American Outlaws, the official supporters group of the United States Men’s National Team, and chronicling his adventures for our Dispatch from Brazil series. All of Andy’s Dispatch from Brazil pieces will be posted on RealSaltLake.com’s The Sovereign and World Cup page.

We look forward to having Andy provide a glimpse into one of the greatest sporting events in the world!

First a little about Andy:

After years with a love for soccer as an RSL season ticket holder, Andy Larsen signed up with the American Outlaws to follow the USMNT around Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. As a writer, Andy is best known for his basketball work as the managing editor of Salt City Hoops, the ESPN Truehoop affiliate for the Utah Jazz. In addition to being the only credentialed Utah Jazz blog, Andy and his team of writers at Salt City Hoops also host a podcast and are featured guests each week on ESPN700.

Before Andy jets off to Brazil this week, he tackled U.S. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s controversial decision to exclude American stalwart Landon Donovan. Check out his first contribution below.

Will Landon Donovan’s absence from the World Cup haunt the U.S. in Brazil?

Last weekend, I attended one of Salt Lake’s fine Brazilian barbecue restaurants (or churrascarias). Naturally, having stacks of fine meat brought to me was delicious, and the experience was a treat.

Then, an irony hit me: in just 2 days, I’ll be visiting actual churrascarias, you know, in Brazil. Meanwhile, Landon Donovan won’t be, left off the 23-man roster to Brazil barring injury. How did this happen?

Let’s look at Donovan’s credentials: He’s MLS’s all-time leading goal-scorer (and impressively, primarily from a midfield position) in both regular season and playoffs. He ranks second in assists. He’s been on MLS’ Best XI 6 times, and he’s captured MVP, Golden Boot, Silver Boot, and Goal of the Year; essentially winning nearly every award there is to win. Importantly, he’s got the team hardware, too: In America’s domestic league, he’s won MLS Cup five times, Supporters’ Shield twice (runner up three times), and the US Open Cup.

Oh, imaginary contrarian, so his MLS resume isn’t enough? Let’s look at what he’s done for the USMNT: he’s the US’s all-time leading goalscorer and assistman, coming in second in appearances. He’s won Gold Cup four times, led the Confederations Cup run in 2009, was the 2002’s World Cup Young Player of the Tournament, and probably single-handedly saved the US from a group-stage exit in 2010 with his goals against Slovenia and Algeria.

In short, as Andres Cantor said after the most famous goal in US soccer history, “Landon Donovan es el major jugador en la historia de los Estados Unidos”.

And lest you think he’s over the hill, his 2013 performance proved otherwise: he was CONCACAF’s MVP for the USMNT’s Gold Cup win, scoring 8 goals in 11 appearances in 2013. That’s the very best yearly strike rate of his career (well, save for his 1-for-1 performance in 2000). And days after being snubbed from Klinsmann’s final roster three weeks ago, Donovan went on to break the MLS all-time goal record, scoring twice against the Philadelphia Union to give him 136 goals. Donovan added another one a week later, scoring against Chicago Fire.

Manager Jurgen Klinsmann has his own impressive resume, and the USMNT’s 12-game winning streak through 2012-2013 reveals that his tactical style works just as well in America as it did in Germany. But two weeks ago, Klinsmann decided that his vision for the club didn’t include Donovan; reports have suggested that the two haven’t seen eye-to-eye since Donovan’s call to Bayern Munich in 2009.

As a result, what could have been a synergistic relationship between two great international legends working together for US soccer glory has instead transformed into a referendum on Klinsmann’s managerial talents. Now that he’s made himself the unquestioned lead story, Klinsmann fairly will receive the blame should the US struggle in 2014 without Donovan.

Obviously, despite the decision, the World Cup goes on. The USMNT heads to Brazil for its most challenging test ever, and wherever the USMNT goes, so do the American Outlaws, the official supporter group of the team. I’ll be following along with them.

How did this happen? As a longtime RSL season ticket holder and soccer fan, I’d known for a long time I had to find a way to see soccer’s biggest event at some point in my lifetime. In 2012, I decided to start saving money for a trip to Brazil, and that year I put my name down on the already-full waiting list for the American Outlaws all-inclusive package. In January of this year, I got an email saying that a spot was open! I jumped at the chance, sent in my payment, and locked in to follow the USMNT wherever they ended up in the group stages of Brazil.

And what an itinerary! For most of the two weeks of the group stages, the home base of American Outlaws and therefore myself will be Natal: a relatively small Brazilian city in the northeast, famous for its beaches and sand dunes. Naturally, we’ll be there, loud and proud, for the US’s first game with Ghana. Then under a week later, we’ll take a chartered plane to the Amazon jungle to the city of Manaus, witnessing the USMNT battle Cristiano Ronaldo and his 10 Portuguese teammates. Finally, we’ll take a bus to Recife, and watch the US battle Germany, almost certainly for our nation’s World Cup life.

Along the way, I’ll be experiencing the thrill of the World Cup and Brazil – trying out a new language; visiting beautiful beaches, lakes, rainforests, and jungles; interacting with the citizens of Brazil and every other nation imaginable; and of course, trying out the local cuisine, including those famous churrascarias.

It’s just too bad Landon Donovan won’t be along for the ride.