Venues, light travel could help U.S.
For better or worse, stadiums will be among the more permanent legacies of World Cup 2010. South Africa has spent billions building new showcase venues across the country. Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Nelspruit and Polokwane will all have sparkling new facilities, and the organizers broke the bank to upgrade Soccer City in Johannesburg.
Teams playing in those venues will be privy to the latest amenities and plush luxuries. But not the Americans. Bob Bradley's team won't be seeing any of those new stadiums, at least not until the quarterfinals, should the U.S. make it that far. A more, shall we say, gentrified bunch awaits the Americans.
That's fine by them. The draw back in December not only provided the team with a reasonable if not favorable group, but also doled out a remarkably light travel itinerary and a first-round schedule to be played in the same stadiums the team visited during the Confederations Cup last year. If that trip was meant primarily as a dry run heading into this year's World Cup, Bradley couldn't have asked for a better rehearsal if he had drawn it up himself on the locker room chalkboard.
The coach knows familiarity with the stadiums can be parlayed into a slight but precious advantage, since each of the South African venues is unique. The older stadiums that the U.S. will call home for a second straight South African winter all have their share of unique characteristics, a factor which may ultimately have an impact on the matches.
The World Cup will begin for the Americans in the same place the Confederations Cup run found its wings. It was to Rustenburg that the team came looking for redemption, after a pair of thrashings at the hands of Italy and Brazil. The subsequent dismantling of African champion Egypt, combined with Brazil's triumph over Italy, resulted in an unexpected pass to the semifinals and that historic date with Spain.
So when the Americans take the field on June 12, they will do so with fond memories of Royal Bafokeng Stadium. This time around the team may be less surprised by its surroundings, somewhat incongruous with world soccer's biggest stage. A sleepy settlement in the far north along the road to Botswana, Rustenburg is somewhat difficult to reconcile with the expected home of a World Cup venue in the age of the urban mega-stadium.
But for much the same reason the World Cup has come to Africa, games have come to the Northwest Province in the name of geographical equity. Eight of South Africa's nine provinces will see World Cup action, and the games here will be played at Royal Bafokeng, an aberration in the rural suburb of Phokeng built with mining royalties by the local tribe.
The venue's remote location means fans are in for a treat if this match is their introduction to Africa. Despite what are likely to be cool temperatures for the 9:30 p.m. local time kickoff, spectators who arrive before sundown will feel they have arrived at the very heart of the continent as they gaze out on the green countryside and open sky. Those in the upper rows will have time to admire the rolling Magaliesberg Mountains stretching away into the distance, before darkness erases the view and refocuses attention on the field below.
The stands should be packed with American fans, who lead foreign ticket sales for the Cup, but they will likely meet their numerical match in the English throngs sure to turn up in Rustenburg. Royal Bafokeng, which seats 42,000, has a surprise in store for the supporters who hope to shout their side to victory, though. One of South Africa's premier athletic venues, it features a wide track that separates spectators from the field. Fans can scream their lungs out here to little effect -- the noise will simply dissipate into the dark African night.
When the U.S. World Cup train rolls into downtown Johannesburg six days later, it will make another familiar stop. Not to be confused with the sparkling new Soccer City complex on the outskirts of town, Ellis Park will be Jo-Burg's secondary venue. It's a cozy one, the ample 60,000-plus capacity disguised by steeply sloping stands, giving the stadium an intimate feel difficult to replicate in newer construction. Built in 1928, Ellis Park has long been a centerpiece of South Africa's sporting scene, most notably playing host to the famous 1995 Rugby World Cup final documented in the film "Invictus."
The change in atmosphere from the laid-back countryside venue of Rustenburg will be immediately apparent, even if the U.S.-Slovenia game will draw considerably less attention and fanfare than the opener against England. If Royal Bafokeng epitomizes the calm and endless expanse of the African countryside, at Ellis Park fans will get a taste of the life and energy of the African metropolis (Johannesburg's metro population is more than 7 million).
There are fears of some empty seats at games elsewhere in the country, but Jo-burg is the center of soccer passion in South Africa, and Ellis Park is certain to fill to the brim. The local fans will arrive in bright dress, toting their infamous vuvuzelas. The noise begins hours before kickoff, and lasts clear through to the final whistle.
All that could work for or against the Americans. The South African crowd will at some point choose a side, and support it as if it were its own Bafana Bafana. Like most fans, South Africans generally appreciate high-quality soccer. If the Americans are in rhythm, the crowd may get behind them. When the U.S. took a two-goal lead on Brazil in the Confederations Cup final, chants of U-S-A rang through Ellis Park.
On the other hand, if things are not going well, Ellis Park can resemble a mountainside crashing down on a struggling team. If tiny Slovenia, population 2 million, is building toward accomplishing something monumental against the Americans, the vocal crowd is more than likely to throw its full weight behind the Europeans.
There is plenty to enjoy in regal Pretoria, the executive capital of the country, though the Americans didn't have such a great time here last year. By the last group match of the World Cup, though, the team is sure to have long forgotten its previous outings in Pretoria -- losses to Italy and Brazil by a combined score of 6-1.
The venue here is a quaint, multipurpose stadium in the mold of Ellis Park. Unlike its soccer-crazed sister city to south, however, Pretoria is the domain of rugby, and the Springboks are lords. The somewhat reduced level of passion for soccer in Pretoria may be just as well for the Americans, who won't mind a more subdued crowd against African opponent Algeria, likely to be the fan favorite if it is representing the continent well.
There's one more factor to consider here: Pretoria, like the other first-round venues the Americans will play in, sits at almost a mile above sea level. The cumulative advantage of the Americans' light travel schedule is likely to kick in at this point. The team will have spent more than three weeks at altitude, while Algeria arrives from a match at sea level in distant Cape Town.
A victory here would go a long way toward securing a place for Loftus Versfeld in American soccer lore, as it would likely mean qualification for the second round. There as well, the U.S. would be in good shape as far as venues go. Win the group against the odds and the Americans head back to Rustenburg; finish in a more likely second place and it's on to Bloemfontein, the scene of that historic triumph over Spain last year. There, the Americans could once again call on their Confederations Cup experience, hoping that where last year's memories end, new ones begin.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio, and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.