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May 13, 2014

Bennett: Making 'Inside: U.S. Soccer's March to Brazil'

I fell in love with the United States national team the first time I saw them stroll onto the field, a vision in stonewashed denim, at the 1994 World Cup. U.S. soccer has come so far so fast since then, yet one thing has never changed.

To the wider American sports-watching-audience -- the vast world beyond soccer fans -- our national team is perpetually portrayed as a largely faceless collective whose sum is greater than the individual parts.

That truth struck me ahead of the 2010 World Cup, when I worked on a marketing campaign designed to introduce non-soccer-loving Americans to the stars of each one of the 32 participating teams. The design group effortlessly selected Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard to symbolize England, and Fernando Torres (!) to represent Spain. Yet when it was time to portray the United States, the group was flummoxed, unable to identify one or two players who stood out. After a long and fruitless conversation, it was decided to dump a third of the squad into a boat, mimic "Washington Crossing The Delaware" and have Landon Donovan play the "Sage of Mount Vernon."

The lack of an emotional connection between America and the individual members of its U.S. men's national team always perplexed me. As anyone who follows the squad through a qualification cycle can tell you, this U.S. team is stuffed to the gills with remarkable characters. Men who have dedicated their lives to pursuing their World Cup dreams, fighting for sporting respect, backed by families who have often made substantial sacrifices along the way.

I have always longed to play a small role in changing the way non-soccer fans relate to their national team, and was elated when U.S. Soccer agreed to allow me and my friend John Hock to direct "Inside: U.S. Soccer's March to Brazil," the "behind the scenes" story of their 100 days leading up to Brazil 2014.

My personal sense of mission was reinforced at the very first meeting with team leaders. The group, which included Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, talked passionately about the battle they feel they face to prove themselves in this country -- an ongoing grind toward recognition and respect in the United States. One of the strikers closed the meeting with a challenge: "Make us something we can show our children and grandchildren."

I blew out my cheeks, and joked that his demand put us under more pressure than we had bargained for. The player smiled and quietly set me straight. "If you want pressure," he said, "you should try playing a World Cup with the eyes of the nation upon you."

- No surprises on U.S. 30-man squad

- McIntyre: U.S. Hot List

The best of times, the worst of schedules

We have shot the series at a remarkable moment in U.S. soccer history. If the United States team is fighting to prove itself at World Cup 2014, to butcher Charles Dickens, this is the "best of times, and the worst of schedules."

The profile of the sport has never been higher in the country. The squad itself has rarely been deeper in terms of both personnel and tactical options. Yet the cruel gods of the FIFA draw have forced Jurgen Klinsmann and his squad to prepare for a gulp-inducing challenge in Brazil. One from which even a U.S. midfield line consisting of David Blaine and David Copperfield would find it difficult to escape.

While filming the series following 39 players in six countries, we have had a chance to examine up close how they are preparing to face what many have deemed an impossible challenge. What I have learned in the process is that though rationally it may seem like the U.S.'s odds are slim, emotionally these players are locked in to fight for their place on the final 23, and to fight for the respect of their nation. And it is a fight they believe they will win.

'It's all in your own hands to make it happen'

That belief comes from different places, buried deep within the DNA of each individual player. Michael Bradley sat in his Toronto apartment as his young son toddled around the kitchen, reflecting on how he had grown though his European odyssey. First, adjusting to the loneliness of life in small-town Holland, aged 18, then adapting to the demanding minutiae of Italian tactical preparation at Chievo, where the coach would keep them on the training ground for two hours drilling the squad on the correct way to kick off.

"We were out there for two-and-a-half hours, making sure every detail of the kickoff was perfect," he said. "It was eye-opening for me as an American to see how in Italy, small teams believe this gives them the best chance to win."

I filmed Jozy Altidore on a sunny day in Sunderland when he was enmeshed in the loving cocoon offered by his visiting mother and father, who both mistook me for Kasey Keller for most of my stay. Altidore talked honestly and emotionally about his struggles in the English Premier League.

The striker drew strength from the odds he has overcome to make it even this far, comparing the memory of his under-13 team in Florida where the defence consisted of "a tennis player, the captain of the wrestling team at center-back,and the shooting guard of the basketball team," to that of Spanish internationals who learned their game together from age 13 at Barcelona's elite La Masia academy.

We visited Aron Johannsson in the cheese town of Alkmaar, a compact and picturesque city whose club is perceived as a way station.

Johannsson has instructed his agent not to let him know who is watching him play because he wants to focus on scoring goals. The Icelandic-American is a player consumed by the mental side of the game. His house is packed with positive mantras and slogans about learning from failure. When he talks about playing Ghana, Portugal and Germany with relish, you believe him. Watching the player skateboard down the cobbled streets of Alkmaar being pulled by his French bulldog, Mia, he seemed like a young guy who has freed himself of all pressure.

His positivity is the kind Klinsmann would truly appreciate. In public, the coach oozes an indefatigable confidence, one he shares with everyone around him, from his players to German policemen shyly asking to take a cellphone selfie. Yet in the privacy of the coaching war room, Klinsmann is a study in focus, obsessing over every detail for each player so the team can, in his words, make the necessary jump from "college level to the NBA" that World Cup Group G will demand.

The stakes are high for him personally ("If we lose three games in the World Cup, you know, my job might be done," he tells us in Los Angeles) but his words in Austin, Texas, in front of a South By Southwest audience, are the ones I take away as the World Cup looms.

"The beauty of sports, on a God-given day, you don't know what happens in the next 90 minutes when you play ... and that's what we're gonna tell our players. 'Listen, you know, it's all in your own hands to make it happen. Why not?'"