SAO PAULO, Brazil — Far from Arena de Sao Paulo on Thursday night, the U.S. national team players gathered around a TV in their lounge at the hotel to watch the World Cup opener. Until Brazil and Croatia kicked off, their visit had been consumed by conditioning, workouts and bus rides. Though at the epicenter of the tournament, it seemed distant.
The enormity of the World Cup — and the impact of a single officiating decision — struck Thursday.
“The excitement level is at pretty much an all-time high right now,” midfielder Graham Zusi said Friday morning before the delegation headed to the airport for a three-hour flight to Natal. “The game yesterday kicks it up a notch even more to finally have this tournament started. And all the guys are itching to get on the field. I’m not different. So, yeah, it’s an exciting time.”
Added defender Matt Besler: “We can all feel it now.”
The Americans will play their Group G opener Monday against Ghana in Natal (6 p.m. ET, ESPN, Univision).
The opportunity to watch many games before they play their first — the U.S. opener falls on the fifth day of the tournament — allows them to gain a better feel for the officiating. The controversy surrounding Brazil’s victory reinforced the importance of careful defending in the penalty area. The Selecao benefited from a generous call by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura in the box Thursday, a decision that led to Neymar’s go-ahead goal in the 71st minute of the 3-1 victory. The Croatians fumed afterward.
In Friday’s first game, Mexico had two goals disallowed by dodgy calls in the first half Friday against Cameroon.
FIFA assigned an officiating representative to meet with every World Cup squad in the days before the tournament. American Esse Baharmast, a former MLS and World Cup official, met with the U.S. team Monday night for about 30 minutes. No particular points of emphasis were discussed, a team spokesman said, but players were allowed to ask questions.
Baharmast was at the center of controversy at the 1998 World Cup, when he awarded a late penalty kick to Norway against Brazil. The backlash was severe, but a day later, new video angles supported his ruling.
“Some rules may be hot – we have to watch out with tackling in the box, with holding on corner kicks,” said midfielder Jermaine Jones, who has a knack for collecting yellow cards. “So we just don’t touch the guys in the box.”
Nishimura’s decision hit home for the U.S. back line.
“As a defender, that was a tough one to see, but I think it’s a good one to see,” Besler said. “It’s a lesson that maybe some of us learned just by watching. It’s going to be called tight in the penalty box, so we have got to be careful.”
The Americans are all too familiar with officiating uproars. Four years ago, after rallying from two goals down to pull even with Slovenia, Malian referee Koman Coulibaly disallowed Maurice Edu‘s apparent goal without explanation and without clear video evidence of an infraction.
“Referees have got to get those things right,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said of the Brazil-Croatia decision. “It’s obviously a big moment and it’s not easy being a referee, but hopefully going forward those are taken care of.”
An American, Mark Geiger, will step into the spotlight Saturday when he handles the Colombia-Greece match in Belo Horizonte. Compatriot Sean Hurd will serve as one of the two assistant referees. Geiger will become the first U.S. ref to work a World Cup match since Brian Hall did two games in 2002.
U.S. notes: For logistical reasons, Coach Jurgen Klinsmann decided to skip the daily trip to Sao Paulo FC for training and, instead, allowed the players to remain at the hotel before departing for the airport. The squad will get in some informal exercise late in the day in the northeastern coastal city, known for white sand dunes, and conduct a serious workout Saturday. It will get its first look at Arena das Dunas on Sunday afternoon. … Defender Timmy Chandler, who did not train the past two days after suffering a minor leg injury, was expected to resume normal workouts Saturday. The purpose of sitting out training was to avoid contact, a team spokesman said. Chandler is not projected to start. … Jones was asked about Howard falling asleep in the team lounge while watching the Brazil-Croatia match. “We trained hard,” he said before deadpanning, “Timmy’s a little older.”
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