New Coach, Meaningful Win For U.S. Men's Soccer

The U.S. men's soccer team tied archrival Mexico in an exhibition game this week that's getting a lot of attention. It was the debut of the U.S. team's new coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, a former star of the German national team who's raising hopes for the future of soccer in America.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: A new era in American soccer began this week. Jurgen Klinsmann made his debut as coach of the men's national team. Klinsmann is a former German national team star and coach. Under his guidance this week, the U.S. tied archrival Mexico one to one. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us on Fridays to talk about sports, and he's with us now. Hey, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, the game on Wednesday was just an exhibition match, no high stakes, but it got an awful lot of attention. Why so much attention?

FATSIS: Well, this is the first time the U.S. has a coach with a world-famous soccer name. Klinsmann won a World Cup as a player in 1990. He coached Germany to third place in the World Cup in 2006. But he's really kind of an American now. He's lived in California for well over a decade. He's been interested in his job for a long time, and he was clearly having a good time at the Mexico game - animated on the sidelines, animated in his postgame comments. And for soccer fans, they would have noticed a big difference from his predecessor, Bob Bradley, who is really laid-back. Klinsmann's got a megaphone for soccer now, and that could be a really good thing.

NORRIS: So big name, big task also. Can he actually make the U.S. a better soccer country?

FATSIS: Well, he got two jobs. One is short term: make the U.S. men's team better before qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, which starts next year. More broadly, he's talked about changing the culture in the country. One thing he wants to do, promote the game better in the inner cities, identify and nurture more Latin American players, Latin American descent. The second thing that he has stressed is that while youth soccer is well organized here, especially in the suburbs, as we know, kids don't play enough on their own, for fun, with no adults around, and that's how expertise and talent is formed.

NORRIS: Stefan, let's just stay with that idea of developing young players for just a minute. There's some news about a player who was once much talked about, Freddy Adu. He's coming back to play in the U.S.

FATSIS: Yeah. It was announced today that Adu is going to join the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer, and that ends his peripatetic few years in Europe. He was a former wunderkind. He turned pro at age 14. Then he was sold to a top team in Portugal, and he just languished overseas. But he's looked good in a couple of recent appearances for the U.S. national team. This will be a nice little boost for Major League Soccer heading into the end of its season, as was news this week that the league has signed a three-year deal with NBC and its cable properties. NBC is also going to show some national team games leading up to the 2014 World Cup. The deal is worth a reported 10 to $12 million a year. So that's another good small step for the sport.

NORRIS: Stefan, this is the first time we've talked since you returned from the Women's World Cup in Germany, and despite losing in that final game, the U.S. women were welcomed home with a big wave of publicity, and then they all then had to go back to play in their professional leagues. Has that publicity helped the women's league?

FATSIS: Yes. Short term, definitely, Michele. Attendance is up at the Women's Professional Soccer, WPS games. TV ratings are up also. But as Jere Longman detailed in a story in The New York Times this week, the league is on really shaky financial footing. It's losing millions of dollars. It ends its regular season on Sunday. Playoffs start next week. But whether Hope Solo and Abby Wambach and these other stars whose Q ratings spiked after the World Cup are going to have a league to play in after this season is definitely up in the air.

NORRIS: Now, I don't have much time left, but I can't let you go without asking about another major athletic event you've been taking part in this week. The National Scrabble Championship in Dallas, Texas, how did it go?

FATSIS: It went OK. I won 17 out of 31 games in Division II, not what I was hoping for. In Division I, though, Nigel Richards, this guy from New Zealand, won his third National Scrabble Championship. He's a remarkable player, remarkable brain athlete. Congratulations, Nigel.

NORRIS: Always good to talk to you, Stefan. Thanks so much.

FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: That's sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. He joins us most Fridays. He's the author of the book "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players." It's just been published in a 10th anniversary edition.

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