U.S. Men's Soccer Team Braces For World Cup Challenges

The World Cup begins Thursday in Brazil. The U.S. team has its first match against Ghana the following week, the start of the so called "group of death."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's been nicknamed the group of death. We are talking about the formidable opponents the United States soccer team has to play in the opening round of the World Cup, which begins in Brazil this week. The U.S. faces Ghana a week from today and then Portugal and then perennial World Cup contender, Germany. Let's bring in NPR's sports correspondent, Tom Goldman, who is packing his bags for Brazil as we speak. And Tom, I guess a really tough first round will make the U.S. battle tested if they go on to the second round. But let's go to the tune-up round. The U.S. - some good news. I mean, they went 3-and-0 in these pre-World Cup matches, right?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Yeah, they did. Winning, you know, David, is good and the U.S. did a good job of keeping its defense organized and cohesive, which is important because it's a defense with very little World Cup experience and it'll need to be strong against the supreme competition in Brazil that you mentioned. That said, U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley told reporters after the Nigeria game, which the U.S. won Saturday two to one, these pre-World Cup games mean nothing. He said he and his teammates said, after the Nigeria game, the fun starts now.

GREENE: Well, let the fun begin. What we should say in that game, a U.S. forward, Jozy Altidore, broke a really long scoring drought and picked up both of the U.S. goals. I mean, if he's heating up could this mean something good for the team?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, I mean, it helps with his confidence, surely. I mean, he hadn't scored since late last year. And especially the way he scored the second goal against Nigeria - he took a beautiful pass over the top from Michael Bradley, he crossed the ball in front of his defender then rifled the ball right-footed into the net. He insisted to reporters afterwards it was no big deal to finally score some goals. He says, it's his responsibility to help in other ways, which is true I'm sure but Altidore is a striker and strikers need to score and he finally did and there's hope that it will get him on a roll for Brazil.

GREENE: You know, Tom, I remember watching the first U.S. World Cup game last time against England. It was a tie. A lot of the American fans were really excited about that. The English fans were thinking that it was the end of the world. I mean, we're optimistic Americans and we want an upset. I mean, is there a chance here that the U.S. could sort of go on a run?

GOLDMAN: No.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: Look, David, don't take it from me, take it from head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. He said, we cannot win the World Cup because we're not at that level yet. And people have railed against him - what are you, anti-American? Well, he is German. You know, this is a man who won a World Cup as a member of the West German national team. He managed Germany into a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup. He knows of what he speaks and he's a realist. But he's not giving up. He's building for the future - evidence by the young team he's taking to Brazil. To get out of the group, and only the top two advance, would be heroic for the U.S. To play well and compete and maybe win one, that appears to be a solid goal for now.

GREENE: Tom, let me shift gears for just a moment if we can. A big question in the NCAA right now was whether players will be compensated and there's a big trial that is just getting underway.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, today in California the trial known as O'Bannon v. the NCAA begins. Sports expert Michael McCann calls this the sports trial of the century. Ed O'Bannon, former UCLA basketball player, filed this suit five years ago basically contesting the fact that athletes aren't compensated for the use of their likenesses and images in video games and TV broadcasts. Now the trial is expected to last several weeks. O'Bannon's side will argue the NCAA member schools are violating antitrust laws by conspiring to keep college athletes from benefiting and sharing in these college sports revenues. The NCAA says compensating would fly in the face of age-old amateurism rules that seem more and more outdated with each new TV contract worth billions. With a victory for O'Bannon's side or a settlement, athletes should get some form of revenue sharing, which would redefine college sports. And David, that's something critics have said is long overdue.

GREENE: All right, we'll be watching that closely. And meanwhile, the World Cup getting underway. Tom, have a good trip to Brazil.

GOLDMAN: Thanks a lot.

GREENE: Sports correspondent, Tom Goldman. This is NPR News.

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