U.S. faces its biggest test yet: Manaus

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SAO PAULO – Jurgen Klinsmann gave the United States national team a full day off Wednesday with no practice session in advance of Sunday's game against Portugal.

It was, in part, a chance for players to continue to recover from a physically grueling victory over a tough Ghana club. That game took place in the heat and humidity of Natal in northeast Brazil and left them not just dinged up but also drained and dehydrated. On Tuesday, only reserves took the field for light training, so the starters haven't done much of anything since returning.

"It was very tough," captain Clint Dempsey said after the game. "It was really humid."

[Related: Portugal's loss to Germany boosts World Cup hopes for U.S.]

Well, it's about to even get tougher and more humid, which is why a full regeneration has to be a priority heading both in and out of their next game.

The Americans will now travel to the most extreme environment of the World Cup, one place that has proven as to be just as ridiculous of an idea in practice as everyone assumed it would be when it was first announced.

Sunday's game will be in the city of Manaus, which is in the remote heart of the Amazon rain forest, just 214 miles south of the equator. It promises playing conditions that will exceed even the difficulties of Natal and has coaches, players and the international soccer union screaming about the potential risk to the athletes after the opening game there between Italy and England drew universal condemnation.

"At times it felt like [I was] having hallucinations due to the heat," Italian star Claudio Marchisio said after defeating England 2-1.

Criticism of staging four World Cup games in Manaus is not new. Few understood why Brazil would make the distant city of nearly two million a host site when it lacked a stadium and reasonable infrastructure. Being reachable only by plane or riverboat, it is a challenging and expensive place for fans to visit.

Brazil has been criticized heavily for spending nearly $300 million to put up a modern stadium – with material shipped up the river at great cost – that even local officials acknowledge has almost no obvious uses after the World Cup. (Local professional teams draw few fans and no one is certain the playing field will survive the rainy season.) It's been cited as the prime example of government waste and FIFA arrogance, by Brazilian protesters.

[Photos: The USA's World Cup win over Ghana in headlines]

Now the focus is on actually playing these games, and that remains a critical element of Klinsmann's game planning.

Participants ripped the steamy conditions last week. The temperature for the England-Italy game was 86 degrees, with deep humidity that led to a draining heat index of 91.

"Ridiculous," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said.

It might be even worse for the U.S. and Portugal. Sunday's forecast, according to weather.com, calls for 85-degree temperatures and 85-percent humidity, which, according to the U.S.' National Weather Service, would mean a heat index of 99.

The Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil (AP Photo/Bruno Magalhaes)
The Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil (AP Photo/Bruno Magalhaes)

Welcome to the Jungle.

Both Italy's and England's players and coaches, as well as FIFPro, the international players' union, said there was a need for cooling timeouts (there were none under FIFA guidelines) to guard against physical risk. All wondered who had the bright idea of ever bringing the World Cup to Manaus.

FIFA rules don't provide for cooling breaks unless the temperature is more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit, ignoring, FIFPro contends, humidity, time of day, lack of cloud cover and other factors.

"FIFA's heat policy simply does not pay enough attention to detail," the union said in a statement. "… Putting a player in harm's way is shockingly irresponsible."

[Photos: U.S. soccer fans catch World Cup fever]

Those that competed said not only was there a health threat but also the level of play was affected.

"It was ridiculous not to have [cooling] timeouts," Prandelli said. "We had to slow down our pace to regain our breaths. It was impossible to maintain the intensity. … It's just absurd."

And he was the winning coach.

Prandelli has theorized that teams, particularly European teams, that have to play games in the warmer north will be at a disadvantage in the late stages of the tournament because of the continuing drain of the conditions. That would presumably also factor into the U.S., which will play Germany in the northern beach town of Recife in the teams' final group game next Thursday, a quick and likely difficult turnaround after Manaus.

[Video: Will Cristiano Ronaldo miss USA-Portugal?]

That Brazil should have found a different host site goes without saying at this point. It also isn't changing. The game will be played.

The challenge for Klinsmann is figuring out how to neutralize the heat, or perhaps be better prepared than Portugal for it, thus turning it into an advantage.

Klinsmann is likely to continue to dismiss any focus on the playing conditions – he is almost religiously opposed to excuse making, especially prior to the game. However, he made myriad decisions that show his concern – decisions that also might help.

One is staging the team's base camp here in Sao Paulo in the southern part of the country, despite having to play all three group games in the north. The U.S. has the longest travel, nearly 9,000 miles, of any World Cup team.

This is winter in Brazil and temperatures in Sao Paulo have been moderate with dry and even cool conditions for the scheduled morning practice sessions – although things are predicted to heat up with midday highs approaching 90 later this week.

The Americans are also based at the modern facilities of the Sao Paulo Football Club, which offer amenities and treatment options akin to an NFL practice complex. So while travel is long, the time spent between games is presumably maximized for recovery.

Then there was Klinsmann's roster selection, which skewed toward younger, faster players who might be able to handle the stress better. Although a team is allowed just three substitutions per game, Klinsmann got the game-winning goal against Ghana and the corner kick that set it up from reserves John Brooks and Graham Zusi, respectively.

He also staged what was essentially a month-long camp that included three pre-World Cup exhibition games, including one in the warm conditions of Jacksonville, Fla. Conditioning work was a priority throughout.

"We've been working hard in these camps to make sure we're ready for games like this," Dempsey said.

And finally it seems to have included what was essentially two days off, including a full no practice on Wednesday. Klinsmann doesn't want to discuss the heat, the humidity or this game in the jungle, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Rest up boys, he's saying, you're going to need it. Perhaps like never before.

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