The mood in Jacksonville, Florida, is different from the stressed isolation of Palo Alto, California, and the media-propelled chaos of New York City. The U.S. team appear both looser yet more intense. Arriving in Florida 14 days before their opening group-stage game, the players have a clearer sense of the squad hierarchy, yet in practice, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is noticeably ratcheting up the emotion, chastising and bellowing at his charges in training.
"We do that purposely," Klinsmann told me. "In the beginning, we try to build a foundation and get the group together. The more you go towards the first game in the World Cup, you intensify it. You're going to go into more details. You're interrupting them more. Your words are coming across more strongly."
As the players prepared to grapple with Nigeria, they took time to confront the famed 17th hole at Sawgrass (Michael Bradley came closest to the hole. I asked him for the secret to unlocking the green. "I wouldn't say I unlocked it," he laughed. "I just hit a decent 9-iron") and spend time with military servicemen before boarding the plane to Brazil.
They take off for Brazil with three exhibition game victories under their belts. Bradley was quick to put that feat into context. "When people look back at 2014, they're not going to remember games against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria," he said. "We're using these games ... to make sure that now when Ghana comes, when Germany comes, when Portugal comes, that we're ready."
The team head down to Sao Paulo with differing yet determined opinions of what merits success. "We can get out of the group," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "The reason it's labeled the Group of Death is because we're in it. We feel like teams are not going to be excited to play us. Of course we're the underdog, but we relish that role. So, you know, [success is to] get out of the group. See what happens from there."
Klinsmann was less positive about the underdog moniker. "Maybe for the film industry [Americans] like to start off as the victim and then kind of change it all around. I don't think that in general Americans are underdogs," he said. "Realistically, we are really hopeful to go through the group and then ... and then start it even higher. Because, if you go through that group, that means at the end of the day you can beat any team in this World Cup ... So, why [are we not] kind of thinking, why [are we not] saying it should be a round of 16? Why [are we not] saying it should be quarterfinal?"
"You understand when you play and compete at the highest level the margin of error, between winning and losing is so small," Bradley said. "It can mean that we play three really good games and are lucky and go on. It can mean that we play three really poor games and, you know, aren't even close and are back on the plane after the group stage," he said. "We have our chance on the field three different times over 90 minutes to see if we're good enough ... when the whistle blows and none of it will matter. You know, who's playing, who's not there, who's the favorite. It all goes out the window," he said. "There's no god-given right to do well."