USA open their 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup with a daunting challenge. Taking on reigning and four-time FIFA World Cup winners Italy, Bob Bradley's side are every inch the underdogs. However, as FIFA.com discovered, spirits in the American camp are high, bullish even, ahead of their first test in Pretoria/Tshwane tomorrow.
"It's not in our nature, it's certainly not in mine, to come to a tournament just to participate," giant American centre-back Oguchi Onyewu said from the USA's Pilditch training camp. "We're here in South Africa to achieve something. If it's a medal or a trophy, that's great." On the other end of the pitch, Clint Dempsey, who scored seven as Fulham roared to finish seventh in the English Premier League this year, is in the same frame of mind. "We're not considered among the favourites here, we know that. But if we keep our focus, keep calm and keep the ball, then we're in with a chance."
The clash with star-studded Italy will have special meaning for many of the American players. Six members of the current US squad were in the team that drew 1-1 with I Azzurri in Kaiserslautern three years and two days ago in the group stages of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. It was the only point the Americans managed in a demoralising campaign in Germany, and it was earned the hard way. The over-tough clash saw two US players and one Italian sent off, but the result inspires confidence that, on their day, the USA can match even the world's best.
"I remember that game," Standard Liege man Onyewu, 'Gooch' to his team-mates, said with a smile as the sun faded away behind the training stadium in Central Pretoria. "If this game turns out to be a physical battle like that one, that's not a worry for us. We can handle it. But these are two different teams and no two games are ever alike."
The Italians, who have ten players returning from the ferocious contest in Kaiserslautern, have at their disposal a bevy of lethal strikers in the form of Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Giuseppe Rossi and Fabio Quagliarella. Some tall and powerful, some smaller and trickier, all deadly in front of goal, the Azzurri frontline has scored no fewer than 10 times in their last two friendlies.
It's cause for some concern to Onyewu, but nothing that will get the big man of Nigerian ancestry too flustered. "I know they have some good forwards, you can't help but think about them and try to prepare for the guys you're going to face. But to be honest, I'm the kind of player who likes to make the opponent adapt to me and the way I play."
Confidence through the team
It's an optimistic point of view, and from youngsters such as Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore all the way on up to veterans like skipper Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey and Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard, the same positivity is seen. As Howard said: "We're nobody's favourite for the title. We know that. But we're going to scratch, claw and fight to get some results here."
Known to team-mates and friends as 'Deuce,' Dempsey, a rap recording artist when not terrorising opposition defences with his flicks, tricks and combative, physical style, is in wholehearted agreement. "Yeah, we're not favourites to win here," said this survivor of the Kaiserslautern battle in 2006. "But we know what we can do as a team when things are going right and we're playing together. We're united as a team and we're starting to feel good here."
As Dempsey points out, the US team will have the benefit of a busy recent 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa schedule in their CONCACAF Zone, whereas the Italians have not played a competitive match since April. "We're fresh off a come-from-behind win against Honduras and we're humming," Dempsey said of the schedule that has seen them play two meaningful games since the start of June. "We don't need to adjust to each other here as a team because we've been playing and training a lot together lately."
It's a tall order for USA here in South Africa. Up against not only Italy but also Brazil also in the first round, they have their work cut out. However, to a man, the Americans are optimistic, excited, enthusiastic and keen to shake up the established world order.