The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have long believed that the best way to prepare for early season games in the broiling West Florida heat is to practice under the very same conditions.
The United States Men's national soccer team (USMNT) is following that lead this week, right down to the same grass on which the Buccaneers practice and compete.
On Saturday, United States will take on Panama in a Gold Cup qualifying round match at Raymond James Stadium, where the Buccaneers play their home games. To prepare, the team headed over to One Buccaneer Place, roughly a mile from the stadium, on Thursday morning for a brisk two-hour session under the hot sun.
Fast-moving clouds gave the team alternating periods of shade and sunlight, but Tampa's signature heat and humidity were very much in effect, making it easy for Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore and the rest to work up a sweat. Of course, Donovan and several of his teammates were familiar with the conditions, having been a part of the inaugural class of the U.S. Soccer residency program in Bradenton during his rise to prominence on the national team.
The USMNT also has played at Raymond James Stadium before, facing Ecuador in 2007 in preparation for that year's Gold Cup, which the U.S. would go on to win.
"A lot of us got some time down in Bradenton," said Donovan on Thursday. "The weather is seeming to cooperate a little bit, which is nice, and our last time here we had a good outing against Ecuador. I hope we can replicate that."
The US team has already notched one victory, defeating Canada, 2-0, on Tuesday to begin the Group C qualifying round. That match was played at Detroit's Ford Field, a domed stadium. This weekend's match could be more physically taxing, not only due to the weather but also because the opponent, Panama, is an athletic and aggressive club.
The US team has defeated Panama several times in recent years, including in the 2005 Gold Cup finals, but each outcome has been close.
"We expect the same again, a tough physical battle," said Howard, the goalkeeper who started every game for the US team during their impressive World Cup run last year. "I'm sure it will be hot because it is outside, unlike Detroit. I feel like if we can keep our shape, stay compact and obviously attack and do what we've done consistently I think we'll be okay. They're a tough team and I know they're going to play us tough as they have in the past. We're not expecting anything less."
Donovan sat out a good portion of the practice, as is his custom two days after a game, but curious onlookers from Buccaneer headquarters and a large gathering of media watched as Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Tim Ream, Clarence Goodson and other national-team stars worked at a rapid pace. The team spent a good portion of practice running a 6v6 1 three-touch drill.
That entertaining period featured three different six-player squads – grey, yellow and orange jerseys – that rotated in and out. In each six versus six competition, an extra player wearing a green jersey would serve as a neutral attacker, helping whichever team had possession. No player was supposed to touch the ball more than three times before passing it.
The USMNT practiced hard in hopes of duplicating its opening win against Canada. A victory against Panama would wrap up first place in Group C and send the US on to the quarterfinals, which will take place in New York and Washington D.C. The semifinals will be held in Houston and the finals will take place in the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles on June 25.
The U.S. could also guarantee one of the top two spots in the group, and thus an advancement to the quarterfinals, with a tie against Panama. However, a win would take the pressure off in the team's third qualifying-round game in Kansas City next week and allow it to dip deeper into the roster.
"Our goal in the beginning was to make sure we won these two games and give ourselves a chance to finish first in the group and potentially rest depending on how the results go," said Donovan. "Regardless, you want to ensure that you qualify for the end of the second game if at all possible, and it would be nice if there's a chance to rest guys and get other guys some minutes that we're going to use later on in the tournament."
The winner of the Gold Cup automatically qualifies for the Confederations Cup in 2013. As always, that tournament will played in the same host country and in many of the same venues as the World Cup that will follow the year after; in this case, that is Brazil. The US knows well the benefit of participating in the Confederations Cup. After defeating Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup finals, the USMNT played in the 2009 Confederations Cup and credited that experience with helping it excel the next year in South Africa.
"I think we all agree that playing in South Africa a year before the World Cup was a massive benefit, and the reason we got to do that was because we won the Gold Cup," said Donovan. "The experience of not just playing hard games against good teams in the Confederations Cup, but understanding how the travel worked in South Africa, the venues, the climate. Getting used to the lay of the land and the people, that was all beneficial and I think it helped us in 2010."
Of course, being crowned the Gold Cup victors is a worthy goal in and of itself. The Gold Cup determines a regional champion of North America, Central America and the Caribbean. The US team has won three of the last five tournaments, though Mexico is the defending champion after beating the US in the finals in 2009.
"This is important," said Howard. "It's not just an exercise in learning, it's an exercise in trying to win. We've done that in the past. We know what it means with the Gold Cup, what it feels like to put everything together over five, six, seven games and be crowned champions. It's a special feeling."
For one of the players on the gridiron-turned-pitch behind One Buccaneer Place on Thursday, it was a special feeling just to be at practice. Short one of their its three goalies, the USMNT recruited Jeff Attinella, a goalie for FC Tampa Bay of the North American Soccer League. A former Big East Goalkeeper of the Year at the nearby University of South Florida and a native of Clearwater, Attinella was thrilled to take part in the workout.
"I got a chance to come out here and train with them today," he said. "Growing up, it was always a goal to try to be a player on the national team. Fortunately for me, if it doesn't happen in my career I can always say that I got a day or two with them. It's something I'll never forget."
Attinella said the speed of the game at the national-team level was impressive, but he felt like he acquitted himself nicely. Team members shouted words of appreciation after he made an acrobatic kick save on a hard shot during a finishing drill.
" You get better by playing with better players, and these are some of the best in the world," said Attinella. "These are people that I look up to, people that I watch on TV all the time."
Donovan said the team would use Thursday and Friday to game plan specifically for Panama. In addition to the opportunity to wrap up first place in the group, Saturday's game is also a chance for the US team to get the measure of an opponent it may see down the line as it fights for a World Cup berth.
"This tournament is always important for us because we also qualify against these teams," he said. "So there's the games but there's always a mental aspect that's important as well. If we play Panama and they qualify in the future we want to know that mentally we have the advantage of beating them here and hopefully that stays in their minds."
In the NFL, coaches often tell their teams that games are won during the week in order to stress the importance of practicing well. Judging from the pace and the intensity of Thursday's workout, USMNT Head Coach Bob Bradley may preach the same principle. Hopefully Thursday's work at One Buccaneer Place will lead to victory Saturday at Raymond James Stadium.