TUKWILA, Wash. -- Bob Bradley was walking off the practice field toward the team bus when a father stopped the coach of the United States national team with a cheerful yell from a playground.
"Hey, good job on the Confederations Cup, man!" the dad shouted through a chain-link fence as a little girl played nearby. He then raised his coffee cup to salute the coach.
Two weeks ago, the guy might have thrown his mug at Bradley -- if he'd even known who he was.
Now, strangers are toasting the U.S. coach and his team.
Three days after its stunning success in the Confederations Cup in South Africa, a younger, scaled-down U.S. team was back home preparing for Saturday's game against Grenada, its opener in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Wednesday morning's 90-minute practice on a back field with only a girls' team watching through a fence was a relatively quiet plateau off the peak of becoming the first U.S. team to reach the final of a FIFA men's tournament.
That came after the U.S. looked outclassed while losing its first two matches in South Africa, 3-1 to world champion Italy 3-1 and 3-0 to South American champion Brazil. Some were calling for Bradley to be fired before a final first-round match against Egypt.
Then, the Americans advanced to the semifinals on the second tiebreaker by blanking Egypt 3-0 as Brazil beat Italy. There, the revitalized Americans shocked top-ranked Spain. And they led five-time World Cup champion Brazil, the world's new No. 1 as of Wednesday, by two goals at halftime before losing 3-2 in Sunday's championship match.
"People are excited," Bradley said Wednesday, looking anything but following a trek halfway across the globe in the previous two days. "We all feel good that you get to a big tournament and your performance gets soccer people up and going. And now it gives us momentum to keep it going."
Bradley and players Charlie Davies, Freddy Adu, Heath Pearce and Luis Robles were slow to get out of South Africa because of limited flights. Then they traveled more than 10,200 air miles through Amsterdam, Paris and elsewhere across nine time zones Monday and Tuesday before practicing through jet lag Wednesday.
All in an effort to win a fourth consecutive title in the Gold Cup, the championship for North and Central America and the Caribbean.
"Yeah, traveling halfway across the world definitely has an effect," said Davies, the only American on the Gold Cup roster who appeared in games in South Africa.
"It's just a matter of getting refocused. ... It feels really good to be back in the U.S."
Bradley, who is letting most of the national team regulars either return to their clubs or take a break, was home barely long enough to brush his teeth before arriving in Seattle.
"I went Johnannesburg-Dakar-Washington, D.C., to LA," Bradley said. "Come home for three hours, and then into Seattle."
No wonder CONCACAF, soccer's North and Central American and Caribbean governing body, is allowing the U.S. to add seven players to its Gold Cup roster. The national team will likely announce those reinforcements Thursday, to swell the roster to 30. Teams can dress up to 18 for a match.
What clicked for the Americans to go from international flops to international force in a week?
"The work that's gone on for the last few years. The competition we've played against. The experience that we've had together. That all comes into play," Bradley said.
"The first two games, the results were disappointing. But there were positives, especially against Italy. And we knew going up against Egypt that we still had a chance. We talked at halftime about how 3-0 was probably what we needed. And the response was strong. And you could tell that momentum carried over."
Bradley and his four weary travelers were met in Seattle by the only two regular national team starters on the Gold Cup roster, Hannover right back Steve Cherundolo and Houston forward Brian Ching, who are returning from injury.
Ching missed the last two World Cup qualifiers and the Confederations Cup because of a strained hamstring.
Cherundolo, whose 51 international appearances lead the U.S. Gold Cup roster, is coming off hip surgery. The defender, who helped win the 2005 Gold Cup with current teammates Jimmy Conrad and Santino Quaranta, hasn't appeared for the national team since last Oct. 11 against Cuba.
The U.S. completes first-round play next Wednesday against Honduras at Washington, D.C., and July 11 against Haiti at Foxborough, Mass.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press