United States players participate in a juggling drill during a training session in preparation for the World Cup soccer tournament on Friday, May 16, 2014, in Stanford, Calif.
STANFORD, California — Kyle Beckerman says he and the 29 young men with him "feel like we go to Stanford right now." They do spend most of their time at this idyllic Northern California university. And it's true that he and the other soccer players who make up the United States Men's National Team (USMNT) can be seen in campus gyms and cafeterias.
But, while most of the actual students here worry about evaluations in computer science or economics, history or psychology, Beckerman and his compatriots are steeling themselves for a different sort of test: the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Most mornings for the past week, since World Cup training camp officially began here on May 14, the players have woken up early and gone for half-hour runs on empty stomachs. Then it's breakfast and a shower, followed by a practice session on Stanford's football or soccer field. They eat lunch in a campus dining hall, alongside the students. After lunch, a second practice session. Dinner comes around 7 p.m. "There's a little bit of ping pong being played," Beckerman admits with a sly smile — followed by precious sleep before another grueling day.
Anticipation builds for the greatest event in sports — but it comes with an edge. USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann invited 30 players to camp. They've come from across the United States, from professional teams in Mexico and Europe, as well as from other countries that — if hard pressed — they'd likely call home. This Wednesday's arrival of German-American midfielder Jermaine Jones marks the first time all 30 have been together.
But only 23 can make the trip to Brazil. Klinsmann must name his final roster by June 2, and there are painful cuts to come.
You've made a lot of sacrifices and you've done everything you can to get to this stageYou've made a lot of sacrifices and you've done everything you can to get to this stage, so now you want to cross that final finish line," says Maurice Edu, a member of the 2010 World Cup team but no sure thing for Brazil. "But in saying that, I think it's important just to focus on what you've done to get here ... not only will you show well for yourself, but you're going to make this team a lot stronger as well."
Beckerman is another player whose ticket to Brazil isn't guaranteed. The 32-year-old fell in love with soccer during the 1990 World Cup, when his mom found the TV schedule and he taped all the games. He remembers seeing Klinsmann, now his coach, lead West Germany to the title. Now he's on the doorstep of his first World Cup, a feeling he calls "really cool."
On Wednesday, Beckerman's road to Brazil (hopefully) includes fielding pre-practice questions inside Stanford Stadium — home of the 2013 Pacific-12 Conference football champions — from local and national media. Red, white and blue U.S. Soccer banners ringing the stadium drive home the same slogan in English, Spanish and Portuguese:
- "One nation. One team."
- "Una nación. Un equipo."
- "Uma nação. Uma equipe."
Then it's over to Cagan Stadium, which the Stanford soccer team calls home. Beckerman warms up with several other players, including Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and DaMarcus Beasley. Laughs and hearty choruses of "Ohhhh" burst forth as the group kicks a ball around in a tight circle. Before Altidore joins the circle, he kneels to tie his cleats and Klinsmann saunters up for a private moment.
Klinsmann calls all the players together before media is dismissed. At the Cagan Stadium gate, an usher dressed in red makes sure curious passersby don't peek in for too long.
None of the American players are global icons like Argentina's Lionel Messi or Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, the latter of whom the USMNT will face in group play. But many are celebrities in their own rights, world-class professionals who have traded elbows and knees with the game's greats. Some are millionaires many times over.
But this being Stanford — where Chelsea Clinton attended while her father ruled the free world, where Tiger Woods attended while ascending as a sports icon — most students aren't too preoccupied with the spectacle.
"I think in general it's not a huge part of campus consciousness," says Jana Persky, a student and editor at the Stanford Daily. "We get a lot of people and teams and things coming around and people have so many varying interests.
There are some people who think this is the absolute coolest thing ever and some who couldn't care less because they're studying for their CS midterm.There are some people who think this is the absolute coolest thing ever and some who couldn't care less because they're studying for their CS midterm."
But many of the players — particularly those who grew up in Europe and never attended college — see it differently.
"It's funny just because it's so random," a laughing German-American forward Terrence Boyd says of lunching next to students in campus cafeterias. "I feel like I'm in a high school movie. You're just standing there with your food like, 'Hey, is there some space? Alright. Cool, cool.'"
Of course, Boyd says all this in his heavily accented English. The 23-year-old was raised in Germany by his German mother after she separated from his American father. That background — not exactly Johnny Hayseed who grew up kicking the pigskin on the Nebraska prairie — isn't unusual on the American team here at Stanford.
Boyd, Jones, Fabian Johnson, Julian Green and Timmy Chandler are all German-American. Mikkel Diskerud played for Norway's youth teams before committing his future to the USMNT. Omar Gonzalez and Joe Corona both chose to play for the U.S. over Mexico. Aron Johannsson was raised in Iceland after being born in Alabama. And don't forget Klinsmann, the USMNT coach who's a soccer hero in Germany.
According to Johannsson, however, fitting in among such a mixed group is no problem at all.
"I think that's a strength of this team" he says, "That no matter where you're coming from, you come into the team and you're already a part of the team after a few days."
When you're packed together 24/7 like a bunch of college freshman on campus for orientation week, it's either form a bond or combust at the seams. The training helps, suffering together under the sun and Klinsmann's sharp gaze. But so does the downtime, the ping pong battles where third-string goalie Nick Rimando has "been on fire," Beckerman says.
But, Beckerman adds, those games don't go too late: "This first week it's been really intense so a lot of it's just getting a little bit of shut-eye to try and get the body ready."
Whether from Germany, Norway, Iceland or the States, all USMNT hopes point to one final destination: Brazil, a dream that can't be achieved without some sleep.