U.S. Soccer Teams Start Road To 2014 World Cup

Robert Siegel talks to sportswriter Stefan Fatsis the U.S. men's and women's soccer teams.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The U.S. men's and women's national soccer teams are busy these days. In the past week, the men have beaten Scotland and been beaten by Brazil. They play Canada on Sunday. And the women are gearing up for the Olympics. Earlier this week, they defeated China.

Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis attended one game for each gender and he joins us now, as he does most Fridays, today to talk about soccer. How are you?

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: I'm well, Robert. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the men. A big win over Scotland, followed by a decisive loss to Brazil. The U.S. team has been under new management, the former German player and coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. How's that working out so far?

FATSIS: I think it's working out very well, but I tend to think long term. The U.S. routed Scotland, which - no matter what you say - is a European side. The score was five to one. You don't see that sort of scoring line very often in international soccer. The reality check came a few days later against Brazil here in Washington on Wednesday. The Americans lost four to one, but they produced some wonderful moments that reflected Klinsmann's effort to get the national team to move the ball faster, more fluidly, to attack the goal more aggressively.

With every game that it plays, the U.S. is fielding players who have high level experience in top leagues around the world and it is showing.

SIEGEL: Now, you should explain. This current flurry of games is in preparation for qualifying for the 2014 World Cup tournament, which will be held in Brazil. Didn't the last World Cup just end?

FATSIS: You know, with heartbreak for the Americans in the second round in South Africa in 2010 and that was a result that led to Klinsmann's hiring. So now the road to 2014 in Brazil begins and the U.S. starts off with its first game ever against Antigua and Barbuda. That's a week from today in Tampa. They're also going to play Jamaica and Guatemala in this semi-final round of regional qualifying. That'll go through October. The men have made it to the last six World Cups.

SIEGEL: Well, let's talk about the women now. Unlike the men, they qualified for this summer's Olympics in London and they are coming off a heartbreaking loss in the World Cup finals.

FATSIS: Yeah, they are. First, let's mention the men's Olympic tournament is for U23 teams, 23 years old and younger. It's not the case for the women and, after the World Cup, this is the big event for the women.

The U.S. lost, of course, in the finals of the World Cup in Germany last summer to Japan. The team that's going to travel to London will be almost entirely the same. In fact, there's going to be just one new player on the team, another forward, Sydney Leroux, a 22-year-old who played at UCLA.

SIEGEL: The women, of course, have been tremendously successful in international play over the years. But once again, here in the U.S., they are without a professional league at home. Why can't women's pro soccer stick?

FATSIS: Well, the short answer is that it hasn't found the model that appeals to investors, sponsors and fans. And that seems hard to explain. That national team game against China over the weekend drew a sell-out crowd of 18,500, but on a weekly basis, those same fans - and we're talking about a lot of girls and their families - just didn't turn out for WPS, Women's Professional Soccer, the league that folded just a few weeks ago.

Is there a solution? I think the next attempt will be direct affiliation with the men's league, MLS, sort of like the relationship between the NBA and the WNBA in basketball. That's already happening in a few cities - Denver, Washington, Seattle, Vancouver.

SIEGEL: Now, the second biggest international soccer tournament after the World Cup gets underway next week in Poland and Ukraine, Euro 2012. Some problems - fears of racism and also an Italian soccer fixing scandal that led the prime minister there to propose even possibly suspending Italian soccer for a couple of years.

FATSIS: Yeah. And, at the very least, not going to Euro 2012. There were 19 arrests in this match fixing scandal. And then, in Poland and Ukraine, some families of black English players said they won't attend because of fears of racist violence in those countries. There was a BBC documentary on the subject and then denials of racism and xenophobia from officials in both of those countries.

Racism is an issue in European soccer. The authorities there shouldn't be ducking it, especially coming into this big event.

SIEGEL: OK, Stefan. Have a great weekend.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. He also appears on Slate.com's weekly sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen.

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