At Women's World Cup, U.S. Faces A Difficult Road

The U.S. women were on a roll heading into Wednesday's match against Sweden in the Women's World Cup. But after a 2-1 upset loss, the Americans find their road to reclaiming the cup much harder now. The next obstacle: a quarterfinal match against a very tough Brazilian team. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins Michele Norris from Berlin for a preview.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The U.S. women's soccer team is playing on shaky ground at the World Cup in Germany. Yesterday, the team lost to Sweden two-to-one. And that means the U.S. moves on to face Brazil on Saturday. A major obstacle to the hopes of reclaiming the World Cup title.

Our regular sports commentator Stefan Fatsis is in Germany. He was at that U.S. Sweden game. He's also seen Brazil play this week. Hello, Stefan. Guten tag.

STEFAN FATSIS: Guten tag, Michele.

NORRIS: So, last night's game was the first ever loss for the U.S. women's team in group play. What went wrong?

FATSIS: Well, the U.S. looked a little unstable at times on defense. And Sweden exploited some lapses in the midfield. And both of those factors led to the Swedish goals. One was on a penalty kick, the other was off a deflection on a free kick.

But from where I was sitting in the stands, the U.S. controlled the game. The main problem last night and earlier in this tournament has been the Americans' failure to convert their ample scoring chances. A lot of shots wide or high or right at the opposing goalkeeper. That's going to have to change.

NORRIS: Now, before we look ahead to Brazil, I have to ask, what was that little dance they did on the field?

FATSIS: You know, I didn't get an answer to that. But I think that is a tradition with the Swedish players. They get in a little huddle and dance. In Europe you see a lot of that sort of group hug dance after a goal or a win.

NORRIS: It looked like they were doing the hokey pokey or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: As we look ahead, what should we be looking for in that U.S. game Saturday against Brazil?

FATSIS: Well, this is a quarter finals knockout game. Loser goes home. The U.S. did not expect to have to face one of the favorites. The Americans were seeded first here, Germany second, Brazil third. They weren't expecting to play one of those two teams until the semifinals. The big risk on Saturday is a gifted Brazilian forward, Marta. She has the most deceptive and sophisticated moves in women's soccer.

And Brazil, while far from unbeatable so far, has improved as the tournament has progressed. Marta and her fellow forwards are fast and the U.S. defense has occasionally looked plodding. So that's the pressure point right there.

NORRIS: Stefan, last week when we spoke to you, you mentioned that there weren't many U.S. fans at the team's opening game against North Korea. Different scene in that game against Sweden?

FATSIS: Yeah. Definitely more USA wigs and face paint, though, still outnumbered by singing Swedes this time. But what's really surprised me has been the lack of a U.S. media presence in Germany. ESPN is here full on. They're showing all the games on TV back home. But otherwise, the first round American media contingent was three writers. A few more are expected for the knockout stages. But, still, not that many.

NORRIS: Why so few reporters? A sign of the recession?

FATSIS: Yeah. Budgets are tight. You can do more from farther away these days. But the U.S. women's team is a victim of its own success in some ways. The attitude among a lot of media is they're going to make it past the early stages. Let's wait to cover them live. Wait until they play a game in which they might be eliminated.

FATSIS: And the irony is that this is the one sport in which the United States has been hugely successful and also which has generated mainstream media attention for women's sports. Coverage is discounted, though, because of that success.

NORRIS: Now, the U.S. did stride into this contest, but now the path isn't looking so sure for the team with yesterday's loss. Is this turning into a very different narrative?

FATSIS: Well, I venture that some of the media that were on the fence about using their credentials are going to be going forward with it now. But the story already had changed. The U.S. helped popularize women's soccer globally, dominated it for a long time. And that, when you combined it with a feature aspect - look at how empowering this is for girls, it gives them a team of athletes to identify with and root for, something that didn't really exist before - that made it a great cross-platform story.

And the gender aspect is still there. There were dozens of teens and preteen girls, including my daughter, leaning over the stadium wall in Wolgsburg, Germany last night to get post-game autographs from a couple of U.S. players. But precisely because the Americans don't dominate the way they once did, it should be a more compelling sports story.

NORRIS: So beyond the U.S. and Brazil on Saturday, who else is still standing?

FATSIS: The other matches are going to be Sweden against Australia, England, France and the host and two-time defending champion, Germany, against Japan. And after a shaky start and some local controversy over the performance and benching of a star player, Germany seems to be back on track. But my big observation about the Germans, Michele, is the wacky font that the team is using on its jerseys. It's like a bastard child of comic sans. And from what I've dug up online, it's a free font called action man. And it is plainly ridiculous on the back of a sports uniform.

NORRIS: Stefan, always good to talk to you. Have fun over there.

FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: That's Stefan Fatsis. He speaks with us regularly about sports and the business of sports. He's calling us this time from Germany, where he's been attending the Women's World Cup.

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