U.S., Mexico Face Off For Regional Soccer Supremacy

About 90,000 people are expected to fill the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, to watch the latest match in a long-running soccer rivalry: The United States against Mexico. They're meeting in the finals of the Gold Cup. Robert Siegel talks to sportswriter Stefan Fatsis for more.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Ninety-thousand people are expected to fill the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, tomorrow to watch the latest match in a long-running soccer rivalry, the United States against Mexico.

The teams are meeting in the finals of the Gold Cup. And joining us to preview the game is sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Hi, Stefan.


SIEGEL: First of all, what's the Gold Cup?

FATSIS: It's the regional championship for the Caribbean and North and Central America. And it's held every other year. This one is big because the winner gets to play in the Confederations Cup in 2013, and that's a tune-up for the World Cup that will be played the following year.

But what's really at stake is national pride. There have been 24 games over the last three weeks in the United States. Stadiums have been packed, and that's largely because Hispanic fans turn out to support their countries.

The Rose Bowl is going to be pro-Mexico and raucous, and this really is one of the most intense international rivalries in all of sports, you can argue. And Mexico dominated it for decades. But since 2000, the U.S. has had the upper hand, especially when games are played in the United States.

SIEGEL: Okay, well, let's hear about the two teams in the championship game and first the U.S. Which players are people talking about?

FATSIS: Well, they're talking about the three American soccer players that most sports fans have heard of. They combined on the only goal in the semifinal win over Panama the other night in the Gold Cup. The scorer was Clint Dempsey. He just finished one of the best seasons ever by an American in Europe.

And the assist on Dempsey's goal against Panama was from Landon Donovan, and he's the leading scorer in U.S. soccer history. But he came into that game as a substitute, which was surprising. I do think he's going to start tomorrow in the final.

And then the pass to Donovan came from a player that many fans have probably forgotten about: Freddy Adu.

SIEGEL: Yes, Freddy Adu, the one-time boy wonder of American soccer, went from being the future of the game to being a name out of the past. What happened in between?

FATSIS: Forgotten. You know, he turned pro at age 14 with Major League Soccer. He touted as the American Pele. He signed a million-dollar endorsement deal with Nike. But he headed to Europe in 2007, and since then, his career has just gone downhill.

He's played for five different teams, the latest in the second division in Turkey. In retrospect, it was just too much, too soon. He needed those teenage years to develop his skills and to mature. Instead, he was thrust into competing against men.

But Freddy Adu is just 22. Going to that lower-level team in Turkey was seen by the U.S. coach Bob Bradley as a sign of his determination to revive his career, and he earned a spot on this Gold Cup roster. And he's so focused that he stopped tweeting.

SIEGEL: Let's hear about the Mexican team. Who's the player to watch on Mexico?

FATSIS: Oh, that's easy. It's Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, the little pea. He wears his nickname on the back of his jersey. And he's one year and one day older than Freddy Adu, but his career has only had an upward arc.

He turned pro at 15, but in a soccer country, that didn't merit any national attention. He climbed through the Mexican pro league, and last year he became the first Mexican player signed by world power Manchester United in England. And Hernandez scored 20 goals in 45 games in his first season.

Chicharito is super-fast, he's strong. He's got seven goals in five Gold Cup games. So watch for the little pea.

SIEGEL: So much for men's soccer. I gather that you're off to Germany tomorrow to watch some women's soccer.

FATSIS: Yes, I'm taking my daughter for what I hope will be a fun and inspiring couple of weeks in Germany at the Women's World Cup. The United States is one of the favorites, along with two-time defending champion Germany and Brazil.

We'll be at the Americans' first game next Tuesday against North Korea in Dresden, and I hope we can talk afterward.

SIEGEL: I'll talk to you then. Have a great weekend, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis, who joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate magazine's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen.

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