SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — Brazil’s largest city features high-rises as far as the eye can see and a tangle of highways that slows traffic to a slug’s pace. Wedged in here, Manhattan would be a quaint neighborhood.
Amid it all, the U.S. national soccer team has staked claim to an oasis — a collection of training fields and support facilities that will serve as base of operations for its World Cup initiatives.
At Sao Paulo FC’s immaculate grounds, there are fields featuring different types of grass, a fitness center, pool, sleeping quarters if naps are necessary and a fully staffed kitchen. There are bird feeders supplied with fruit and lovely landscaping. The driveway off the main road is draped in a canopy of trees.
And there are peacocks roaming the property. Yes, peacocks, which are named after former SPFC players.
The birds were not part of the welcoming party when the Americans arrived for their first workout late Monday afternoon. Everything else, though, was in place on a cool, gray day in the Barra Funda district — including Sao Paulo’s notorious backups.
“It’s been fantastic,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “We haven’t had any problems, other than the traffic.”
The Americans, who will play their first match next Monday against Ghana in the northeast city of Natal, were eager to stretch their legs after two days of travel: from Jacksonville, Fla., where they completed a three-game send-off series with a 2-1 victory over Nigeria on Saturday, to Miami and then an eight-hour overnight flight to the world’s ninth-most populous city (12 million).
The delegation flew commercial, but as dictated by the players’ collective bargaining agreement with the U.S. Soccer Federation, they sat in business class.
One notable absence: Coach Juergen Klinsmann, who remained in Miami with adviser Berti Vogts and scout Matthias Hamann to observe Ghana’s friendly against South Korea on Monday evening. They will rejoin the squad for Tuesday morning’s session, traffic permitting.
The U.S. team will face Belgium in a closed-door scrimmage Thursday, the same day tournament favorite Brazil meets Croatia across town at Arena de Sao Paulo in the opening match of the month-long, 32-nation jamboree.
The Americans were happy to get settled here after three weeks of preparations that took them from training camp and a friendly in Northern California to games in the New York area and Jacksonville.
Their arrival in soccer’s most passionate country reminded them of what lies ahead.
“It’s like Christmas morning,” said Howard, who is slated to start for the second consecutive World Cup. “We’re excited to be here, and now it has gotten real.”
Long before they knew they would have to play all three Group G matches in the north, the Americans claimed Sao Paulo FC’s grounds, which are considered perhaps the nicest in the nation. Klinsmann also brought the team here in January, although most of the players on that trip were not named to the World Cup squad.
After the schedule was determined, the USSF considered moving operations to a northern site but decided SPFC’s facilities and Sao Paulo’s place as Brazil’s transportation hub would best suit their needs. Most World Cup squads are based in and around Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro.
Nonetheless, the U.S. team will have to fly at least three hours on a chartered jet to each of the first-round venues.
The climate will also require acclimation. While it’s winter in Sao Paulo, with the temperature ranging from the low-60s to the high-70s, Natal, Manaus and Recife are closer to the equator and will provide tropical conditions. Manaus is in the middle of the Amazon region, a city of more than 1 million accessible primarily by plane and boat.
The Americans received a dose of steamy weather in Florida and, for further acclimation purposes, will arrive in each Brazilian city two or three days ahead of the matches. They will re-board the plane within hours of the final whistle.
“It doesn’t get much better” than the SPFC facility, Howard said. “The guys in January said it’s fantastic, and it lived up to it. Now it’s business. [The U.S. camp and matches were] all really fun, but now we focus on Ghana, trying to figure out how to beat them.”
U.S. notes: The Americans will hold an open practice Wednesday for 700 spectators, who received invitations from the local organizing committee of the U.S. diplomatic offices. . . . All 23 players were aboard the flight to Sao Paulo and none is carrying any significant injury, a team spokesman said.