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Jun 10, 2006

Free and easy

HAMBURG, Germany -- The United States has always had a unique approach to the World's game.

This World Cup, just like four years ago in South Korea, Bruce Arena has allowed his players to stay in the same hotel as their families. It may not seem like an important detail, but it runs contrary to the conventional wisdom in soccer, which believes the bonds formed by a sequestered team lay the groundwork to success.

Defender Jimmy Conrad, whose posse includes his wife, parents, and youth club soccer coach, was surprised that more teams don't have similar policies.

"I just assumed that at least your wife would be able to come, and maybe your kids, but we just found out the other day that Holland's players wives are only allowed to come to the second game and they were really excited about it," Conrad said.

"What sets us apart as a team is how many people we allow into our circle. We don't want to leave anyone out."

As a result, the American players have struck a balance between playing in the most important tournament in the world while still taking time with their wives and children to enjoy the experience.

As friends and family began to travel en masse to Hamburg, the United States held a meet-and-greet yesterday before the tournament started off. The event is just one of a number of activities that lend a sense of normalcy -- offsetting the frenzy that is the World Cup.

The family policy is indicative of the easygoing approach Arena employs. Perhaps more than any other team in this year's World Cup, the United States takes a democratic approach to their preparations. Arena trusts the judgment of his captain Claudio Reyna and the other veterans such as Brian McBride and Kasey Keller and asks their opinion on any number of decisions, including the team's attire, schedules, and even the menu at the training table.

"Nothing is really set in stone," said Marcus Hahnemann. "We decide what we are wearing to the game and the whole setup is more relaxed than other countries and that's what we need."

Arena's policies have allowed the players to stay relaxed despite the pressures of the World Cup and a potentially distressing level of security surrounding the team.

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While the heightened security may have been an issue for the first couple of days in Hamburg, the players have since adjusted. For the most part, they have become accustomed to the armed guards outside the hotel and 20-car police escorts to and from the training ground -- "the parade" as Jimmy Conrad called it.

"It's been pretty intense. The first couple of days were a little overwhelming," Conrad said. "Now we're used to it. It's almost as though we know the security guards by first name."

The German government is taking all precautions to avoid an international incident like the one that stained the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The entrance to the team's downtown hotel is blocked off and sentries with machine guns stand guard outside the U.S. training facility in Noerderstedt -- a northern suburb of Hamburg.

But the heightened security hasn't prevented them from getting out and experiencing the city. The players come and go as the please and have managed to get out and enjoy the charms of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. Since there aren't that many recognizable faces on the U.S. roster, most have been able to slip by autograph seekers as they enjoy a good meal of a walk around the wide streets of Hamburg's bustling downtown. As long as they don't wear any identifying clothing, the players are free to walk around the city with relative anonymity.

"It's understood that as long you are not embarrassing the team, you're fine." Hahnemann said. "Last night my cousin and uncle were here and I had a cup of coffee downstairs in the hotel with them at 11:30. None of the coaches would come down and say, 'why were you up so late?'"

"It's better to let guys use their judgment. This is so important to everyone they are not going to do something stupid at this stage."

There are some limits, however. In Hamburg, the family members stay on a different story of the hotel and there are some areas that are off-limits to family members. This allows the players a modicum of privacy to focus on the task.

The same policy worked four years ago in South Korea, as the United States advanced to the quarterfinals. Perhaps more than any other reason, it is the desire for continuity that is accountable for the United States' family-friendly policies.

Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at andrewwinner@gmail.com