RECIFE, Brazil – After a draining 2-2 draw with Portugal in Manaus, the U.S. Men’s National Team and coaching staff exited the arena after facing rounds of questions about the result. It didn't feel great, each party said, to see a win and certain advancement to the next round evaporate in the final 30 seconds of the game. The key now, they agree, was putting that behind them and focusing on Thursday's crucial clash against Germany.
Immediately after that, the team flew back from the Amazonian city of Manaus on a FIFA-chartered flight. As on the trip there, sandwiches were served from a cart that rolled through the aisles. The team didn't need them; nutritionist Danielle LaFata had already made plenty of her own for the team. Besides, the team had regeneration work to do in the aisle ways and sleep to catch up on.
In the four hours it took for the players to get off the field in Manaus and on to the plane back to their São Paulo home base, two of the team's primary challenges had already reared their heads: recovering mentally and recovering physically.
“I think it’s paying off that we tried to prepare for all these circumstances that we are going to face in Brazil," head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "I think that the team has the confidence to take this game to Germany and tell them in our body language and in our energy that we are ready for them and we are ready to get that last little piece done in order to move on to the next round.”
In order to do that, the team must feel at its physical peak. And to achieve that, the team must eat right, stay hydrated and do everything possible to mitigate it's travel schedule – the most daunting such itinerary of any team at the tournament. Over 18 days in Brazil, the team has already taken five flights, totaling nearly 9,000 miles travelled and 21 hours in the air. LaFata has made it her mission to ensure the schedule doesn't affect players' energy levels.
"I told the guys to prepare for these flights like they prepare for a game," she told ussoccer.com. "These guys, their muscles are constantly recovering, and they're even burning through carbohydrates as they sit."
As such, LaFata has instructed the players to hydrate themselves accordingly, drinking eight to 16 ounces of water for every hour in the air. She also brings four large coolers and a couple cardboard boxes filled with food on the flight with her, so the team can avoid airline sandwiches that she calls "not fit for human consumption."
For the team's two-and-a-half hour flight to Manaus, LaFata packed 30 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, 40 ham and turkey sandwiches, various granola and oat bars, pistachios, cashews, trail mix and a concoction of peanut butter, oats, honey, and flax seed colloquially referred to by the players as "power balls."
"Half to three-quarters of the food will be eaten by the end of the flight," she says. LaFata also arranged for flight attendants to walk up and down the aisles offering bottles of water every 30 minutes or so, just to ensure the team's hydration going into a steamy environment in the middle of the Amazon.
On the way back, though, the team begins the process of mentally shifting gears. And for that, they'll get considerably less help.
"It would’ve been easy to hang your head, but I think the guys did a great job taking the positives out of what we could have," said midfielder Graham Zusi about the tie with Portugal. "Obviously we were pretty gutted at the end of that one, but in hindsight when you look back at it, we put ourselves in a great spot. Four points after two matches, I think any of us would’ve taken that."
The team will have had little problem switching gears, if only because of the quick turnaround. After a full five days of rest between its first two games, the U.S. has enjoyed only three before the big game against Germany.
Not that anyone will be using that as an excuse.
"The circumstances will be, again, very challenging. It’s a one o’clock kick-off, it’s going to be hot and humid, and both teams will hit the wall a couple of times during the 90 minutes," Klinsmann said. "We are prepared for that. Our goal is definitely to beat Germany and win the group."