U.S. Men's Soccer Team Tries To Jell Before World Cup

In one month, the U.S. Men's national soccer team plays Ghana, in the first of three tough opening round games at the World Cup in Brazil. A pre-World Cup camp opened this week at Stanford University.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. Soccer's World Cup is coming. One month from today, the U.S. Men's national team plays Ghana. That's the first of three extremely tough opening round games for the Americans. So they have one month to prepare. In fact, to play catch up with their opponents, in the words of their coach. A World Cup training camp opened this week at Stanford University. NPR's Tom Goldman was there.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It's that time again. World Cup time when non-soccer fans and media finally pay attention to some of the country's best athletes.

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GOLDMAN: Cameras clattered as players in dark blue shirts and gray jerseys walked onto Stanford's lush, green football field; first day of training camp. Their arrival had a Hollywood red carpet feel although stardom wasn't apparent to everyone. A photographer whispered to another: That's the head coach, right? It was Jurgen Klinsmann, who moments before, spoke to reporters about this special moment for his team.

JURGEN KLINSMANN: Your eyes light up when you go towards a World Cup. I mean, this is the ultimate thing you can experience as a soccer player.

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GOLDMAN: Eyes bright and spirits light, players gathered before warm-ups, for a game. With everyone packed tightly in a circle the object was to kick, or head, or shoulder the ball to someone else in the circle without the ball touching the ground. If it did, the person who struck the ball was out. As the circle got smaller, it became a fitting metaphor for the next couple of weeks at Stanford.

The group will be whittled from 30 to a final World Cup roster of 23 by early June. This is midfielder Brad Davis.

BRAD DAVIS: I know it's going to be competitive but for me, I'm not thinking about going home. I'm thinking about what I can do out here at the moment to make myself a sure spot in the 23.

GOLDMAN: While some countries already have set their final rosters, U.S. coach Klinsmann says his team has 50/50 cases all over the place - veteran defender Damarcus Beasley says who stays, or goes, won't solely depend on how they play.

DAMARCUS BEASLEY: You know, it depends on, you know, how they are in the locker room, it depends on how they are off the field with the team, you know, with the media. It all goes into account when you're playing a World Cup because, you know when we're there in Brazil, you can't have any bad apples.

GOLDMAN: While character plays a part, Klinsmann obviously wants a team in June that's supremely fit and prepared. And frankly, right now, he says the 30 at Stanford are not. Aside from Beasley, U.S. defenders have zero World Cup experience and half of the training camp roster plays in major league soccer, meaning those players only have had a few months of action.

KLINSMANN: A lot of our guys do not have the same foundation as our opponents have. We have to be clear about that. You know, they're coming from 10-, 11-month seasons, you know, they have X amount of games in their legs. Their foundation is different to ours, so we have to catch up.

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UNKNOWN MEN: (Chanting) I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win...

GOLDMAN: The hyped-up prediction in ESPN's World Cup commercial begs the question win what, exactly? The U.S. is grouped with three difficult opening round opponents - Ghana, Portugal and Germany. There are gloomy predictions 2014 will be a replay of 1990, 1998 and 2006 when the U.S. failed to get out of the opening round. Beasley was asked about the challenge in Brazil.

This team is like an 80 to one shot to win the World Cup. What do you think of that?

BEASLEY: You should bet on us.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: OK.

BEASLEY: No, I mean obviously, you know, there're favorites, you know, from, you know, Spain, Brazil, Argentina. You know, even Portugal and Germany, you know, in our group. So you never know what happens. You know, the one game in the World Cup. Whoever's better on that day will win.

GOLDMAN: And Jurgen Klinsmann will spend the next 30 doing all he can to make his team better on those three days in June. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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INSKEEP: It's NPR News.

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