The summer international soccer season got off to an unpromising start Saturday when the United States men's national team (USMNT) was comprehensively dismantled by Spain, the reigning FIFA World Cup champion.
While the 4-0 thrashing was difficult to watch, U.S. coach Bob Bradley fielded a weakened side, further underscoring that the team came to Cary's WakeMed Soccer Park to train for four days last week with a focus on this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup, not the Spaniards.
The Yanks' visit to North Carolina coincided with a busy week of spectacle and scandal for soccer fans. Earlier that week, 4.2 million Americans, roughly the same number that viewed the Stanley Cup finals, watched the UEFA Champions League final, a battle between two of the globe's most popular and richest clubs, Manchester United and Barcelona FC.
Off the field, and in the luxury boxes, trouble brewed. FIFA president Sepp Blatter was immersed in an inglorious corruption scandal that, among other things, challenges the legitimacy of Qatar's successful 2022 World Cup bid as allegations swirled that the country offered bribes to host the event.
Meanwhile, CONCACAF, the federation that governs soccer in North and Central America, was in flux. The group's secretary general, Chuck Blazer, an American, provided evidence that the president, Jack Warner of Trinidad, was trying to buy votes for Mohamed bin Hammam in the race to unseat Blatter for FIFA president. Blatter was re-elected. Warner was suspended. The interim president, Lisle Austin of Barbados, fired Blazer on his first day. Blazer has since been reinstated, Austin suspended and the Warner investigation continues.
While the beautiful game was being tarnished by ugly business, Bradley's team unloaded from their private bus, players each grabbing a water cooler handle and equipment, and warmed up on Field 2, adjacent to the 7,000-capacity home of the NASL-leading Carolina RailHawks.
Bradley roamed the training ground June 1, peering in at a five vs. two drill where five players formed a circle around two defenders and tried to pass the ball without letting them get a touch.
"Get the weight of passes right." "Be sharp." "Don't loft it up if it doesn't need to be lofted up," he instructed.
Players were fighting for a place, eager to make an impression on Bradley.
"This tournament is similar to the way a World Cup works, where you are picking your best 23 guys," says Landon Donovan, sweat beads merging on his brow after a morning session in the North Carolina heat. "There's no real issues other than who is playing the best, so this is a big tournament for us."
The Gold Cup, a 12-team tournament operated by the embattled CONCACAF, which started Sunday and will decide the top spot in North America, is the most important non-World Cup event for the United States. Winning the tournament means a chance to play in the 2013 Confederations Cup, held in Brazil as a warm-up event for the following year's World Cup. The U.S. opened play Tuesday night, past the Indy's print deadline, against Canada, and they face Panama this Saturday in Tampa. Bradley's men are heavy favorites to reach the final June 25 in the Rose Bowl, where they are expected to face Mexico.
But why select Cary to train for such a prestigious competition?
The relationship between Cary and the USMNT began in 2002 when Capital Area Soccer League CEO Charlie Slagle called on his old friend, then-U.S. coach Bruce Arena, and offered a tour of the under-construction SAS Soccer Park, now WakeMed.
Slagle, who coached at Davidson College for two decades, touted the facilities, the time zone, the lack of fanfare and the availability of local golf courses. Arena agreed to hold camp at the still-unfinished site. The completion order came the day before the team was due to arrive.
They were so impressed that the team used it for its final domestic training sessions before heading to South Korea for the 2002 World Cup. They hoped to duplicate the results, a surprise trip to the quarterfinals by returning in 2006 for another 10-day camp.
Bradley, who assumed the helm after the 2006 Cup, brought the team back twice this year—in March to prepare for matches against Argentina and Paraguay, and again last week.
"When you think of how big our country is and all the places you could potentially go, we have continuously chosen to come here," says Donovan, who is the nation's best-known player.
The team's official home is in Los Angeles, and the U.S. Soccer Federation is based in Chicago, but Cary provides a natural, needed East Coast home. It allows the top European-based players, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra and the like, to operate with less time change and shorter flights and get accustomed to the summer heat.
The field at WakeMed is flat, not crowned like those built for football, and plush Bermuda grass sits atop a foot of sand. In the winter, the Town of Cary, which now runs the park, places a heated growing tarp on the surface instead of a rain tarp, which can kill the grass.
USMNT staff also appreciate the flexibility of the Town of Cary, which maintains the facility, For instance, they set up an ice-cold, 50-degree bath in the training room that is not usually on-site.
Players enjoy shopping in the mall or a round of golf in the peace and privacy they lack elsewhere, especially for the European-based footballers. But don't expect the team to chow on N.C. barbecue; for them it's a steady diet of training-table fare: chicken, vegetables, pasta or rice daily with the standard eggs, fruit, bacon and toast for breakfast.
Hosting the team solidifies the Triangle as a soccer destination, Slagle says.
"It's a soccer town," he says. "It makes me feel good that it was a soccer town when I came here 10 years ago, but it still is and it's thriving and growing."
It's growing nationally, too, but Donovan knows that the squad must keep pushing to truly spread the sport in this country.
"Our job is to continue to play well, continue to inspire and continue to build the sport," says Donovan, who hooked a new generation of fans with his group-winning goal against Algeria last summer.
"That's what our goal is. The rest of it we can't really control, but we know if we keep playing well and if we keep going the way we're going, people are going to keep following us—it's fun to watch."