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24 June 10:32 am

Traveling to and from Manaus is, even in the best of times, a challenge. Manaus’ raison d'être is its usefulness as a port city in the middle of the Amazon jungle; it boomed in the early 20th century as a distribution point for a growing rubber industry and now has a population around two million. It’s very literally only accessible by plane or boat, there are no roads and the stadium was constructed at huge cost using only materials that could be delivered in either of the two aforementioned ways.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the best of times. This was the World Cup, and so the travel was a nightmare. I’ll spare you the gory details, as I suspect travel horror stories are just as boring for the listener as fantasy sports stories and fishing tales. The basics, though: answering a 1:30 AM wakeup call for a 9 AM Natal-to-Manaus flight, getting to the airport at 9 PM for a 5 AM Manaus-to Natal departure. We were the lucky ones; the trip has been split into two planes, creatively named Plane 1 and Plane 2. I’m on Plane 1, the Plane 2 prisoners left at 12 PM and 2 PM respectively for the above planes. This means they spent roughly 24 hours waiting in airports. Cue the sad trombone.

Once arriving, we were taken on a Manaus city tour by bus. Our tour guide, Marlon, largely passed the time by sharing local Manausian jokes. The best one: “When you do wrong on Earth, where do you go? You go to hell. When you do wrong in hell, where do you go? You go to Manaus.”

Manaus splits time between the seasons of “undesirably hot” and “egg-cooking-on-concrete hot”. Luckily we were still in the former stage, yet it was still over 100 degrees and over 80 percent humidity during the pre-match party. The game, mercifully, was at night, because the temperature was raised by the more than 40,000 spectators at the match.

It’s really difficult to objectively describe a USMNT match as when attended with the American Outlaws. The problem is that every minute contains an emotion raised to the millionth power. Faith: The “I Believe That We Will Win” chant, one so powerful and catchy Brazilians have asked me multiple times to teach them the words. Competitiveness: Every time the Portugal fans tried to get a chant going, AO made their best effort to drown it out with one of their own (I’m not sure how effective it was on TV, but it was extremely powerful from within that end of the stadium). Elation: Both U.S. goals, one to get the draw for the US and one to get the win. Despair: Allowing the Portuguese to score the latest goal in regulation in World Cup history.

After that, we were bussed to the airport. At about 1 AM, I wandered around and found several hundred USMNT fans passed out, sleeping on the tile floors. The Amazon had exhausted us all.

Sports are great because they’re proxies of the human condition, compressed into two to three hour blocks. Yesterday’s match against Portugal was one of the greatest examples of that in US history, and the American Outlaws experience just magnified it even more. I’m so lucky to be here.

23 June 10:01 am

It’s all becoming a little bit routine, isn’t it?

Nearly every single time RSL Captain Kyle Beckerman steps onto the field for the U.S. Men’s National Team, he turns in a workmanlike, stable and – ultimately impressive – performance.

Sunday’s 2-2 draw against Portugal was no exception, with Beckerman starting and playing the full 90 against Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. As always, Beckerman was solid tactically, positioning himself expertly and providing plenty of solid cover in front of the American backline. His four interceptions were second only to center back Matt Besler’s five and his two clearances were tied for fourth overall and tied for first among U.S. midfielders.

The defensive midfielder was also solid in possession, completing 53 of 58 passes, good for a 90 percent completion rate. Beckerman’s 53 successful passes were second on the team to fellow midfielder Michael Bradley and his 90 percent success rate was fourth on the squad on Sunday.

Most importantly, Beckerman gave the U.S. a victory in the critical “Midfield Battle for Hair Dominance” on Sunday, crushing Portugal’s mohawked midfielder Raul Meireles in the tackle and in the tresses.

As always, the Men In Blazers have more:



Beckerman and the U.S. will return to action on Thursday, taking on Germany at 10 a.m. MT with their Round of 16 hopes on the line. 

17 June 3:44 pm

Real Salt Lake midfielder Ned Grabavoy joined The Bill & OC Show on ESPN 700 yesterday, to get his take on the U.S.’s dramatic 2-1 win over Ghana. The RSL veteran had some great insight and analysis of the match and of course had nothing but praise for teammate Kyle Beckerman. Below are a few snippets of the interview but the whole thing is worth listening to here.

On Kyle’s performance:

“I think he was the best player on the field. I know I’m biased but coming from a position that is a little bit of an inglorious position for me, Kyle was absolutely unbelievable in that game. I think he plays the position a little bit differently for the U.S. because the players around him, but a guy that has to stay home a bit more for the U.S. and really clean up things, and can’t really get involved in the attack like he likes to for RSL. But at the same time maybe that’s asked of him a little bit more for the U.S. and I thought he did an unbelievable job in there and did everything that was asked of him and more.”

Grabavoy also approved of U.S. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to use the diamond midfield formation – the signature of RSL – that allowed what he thinks are the four best two-way midfielders to be on the field at the same time. But Grabavoy wouldn’t be surprised if the German coach mixes things up in the next match against Portugal on Sunday.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he did especially knowing that a point in the next game maybe gets you through. For me as a coach, I think maybe I would think of switching shapes, but at the same time...he is a guy that claimed to always stay on the front foot and he’s going to try and be as aggressive as he can going forward. So I just think it remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised to maybe see them shift towards a 4-2-3-1. Maybe you play Beckerman and [Jermaine] Jones deep in the midfield with [Michael] Bradley in front of them.”

Even with injuries to Jozy Altidore and Matt Besler,  the RSL midfielder claims the Americans “couldn’t be in a better position” heading into Sunday’s clash in Manaus.

17 June 11:36 am

Wow, what a 48 hours! It still hasn’t completely hit me yet that I’m in Brazil (!), watching the US Men’s National Team play in the World Cup (!) Let’s start from where we left off in the last post.

Early Sunday, the rain continued pouring in Natal, to the point that flooding became an issue in the streets. As we collected our tickets from the FIFA Ticketing Center, our taxis had to plow through the water. It seemed about a foot deep in some places, though the news channels here showed locations where people were in up to their waists. Luckily, the rain stopped later that day, allowing the city to dry out somewhat.

That night was the official US Soccer night-before party, and I’m incredibly impressed with how US Soccer put the event together. They actually converted a used car showroom into a pop-up “arena” for the night, filled with gigantic TVs everywhere, plenty of food and drink for the huge crowd, and a DJ and Brazilian band. The crowd for the event was great too: we started off with some US soccer chants, then the group just got into the music: crowdsurfers and energy everywhere.

On game day, us American Outlaws were bussed to a pizza-and-sushi restaurant (yes, really) near the stadium.  That was another amazing experience: as a convoy of the Brazilian military sent to protect us watched on, we chanted and sang the National Anthem and God Bless America. Passing busses of Brazilians snapped photos and cheered us on. It was incredible. When the time came, a group of thousands made the March to the Match, again passing happy and surprised Brazilians in their streets.

The new Arenas das Dunas is beautiful; it was a remarkably intimate experience for a large stadium that seats over 40,000. Part of the credit for that goes to the Brazilian hosts, who made every effort to chant along with a majority US crowd. The group of Brazilians in front of me had a difficult time learning to pronounce “I believe that we will win”, but they eventually figured out a reasonable facsimile. The Dempsey goal was a flash: neither the crowd nor the Ghanaian defense believed that it could happen so quickly. Then progressed 80 minutes of hell. Jozy and then Besler got injured. Dempsey went down. Ghana bore down on the US left side, attacking Beasley to nearly calamitous effect.

Ghana eventually got their goal, and the Ghana crowd erupted, and rightly so: it was a great goal. For the last 10 minutes, the stadium buzzed. As you all know, John Brooks scored, and everyone lost it. The best description: So. Many. Hugs. We all bussed back to the hotel, all still in a daze, all of us not quite believing that the US had finally beaten Ghana and given themselves a great chance to advance out of the group.

We now have five days off in between games, during which I’ll be exploring more of Natal before heading off to Manaus. What a happy five days it will be.

Andy

17 June 7:21 am

One of our favorite parts of John Brooks’ game-winning goal for the U.S. last night was the celebration.

No, we’re not talking about Brooks’ celebration – though his weird, I don’t know what to do with myself so I’m just gonna go lie down over here thing was pretty good. We’re talking about Jurgen Klinsmann and Nick Rimando’s hug on the bench.

10 out of 10, dudes. Robin van Persie and Louis van Gaal could learn a couple of things from you two.

RSL Head Coach Jeff Cassar had our favorite quote about the celebration. 

Nick had a really nice follow-up tweet, too. Just really well done all around. Bravo.

16 June 11:05 am

The latest video in the Soccer Smarts with Professor Leo World Cup series takes a look at the group stage - the opening round-robin tournament featuring all 32 participating nations.

15 June 10:09 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 10:28 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 1:41 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.