World Cup Warmup Match: Czech Republic Beats U.S.
DAVID GREENE, host:
The World Cup is just a few weeks away. The U.S. is among the teams preparing. Last night in Hartford, Connecticut, Team USA took the field for a tune-up match against the Czech Republic. Good thing it was just a tune-up. The U.S. fell four-two.
NPR's Mike Pesca was there.
MIKE PESCA: U.S. Coach Bob Bradley has to cut seven of the 30 players who've been training with the national team. In last night's game, some of the players who saw the most action were the ones with the biggest question marks next to their names in the coach's notebook.
After the game, Bradley talked about what he was watching for in order to make his decisions.
Mr. BOB BRADLEY (Soccer Coach, World Cup Team USA): The window for plays is small, and the window shuts quickly. If there's too many times when now a play comes in their direction and the defender is able to just step in front of an attacker and come away with the ball, it tells you that he's still going 40 miles per hour when the game's going 60.
PESCA: For at least one moment, Herculez Gomez was up to speed. He headed in the game-tying goal in the 65th minute, but that doesn't mean he's headed to South Africa. He's hoping, though.
Mr. HERCULEZ GOMEZ (Professional Soccer Player, World Cup Team USA): It would mean the world, that's for sure. You know, that's every soccer player's dream to be standing where I'm standing, to have the opportunity that I have, and I'm aware of that.
PESCA: Gomez currently plays in Mexico, where he leads that country's top division in scoring. It wasn't too long ago that a player with that resume would be a foregone conclusion to play for the national team. But the U.S. is now deeper, and even quite good players could be cut.
Aside from the question of who would make the team, there was another query in the air: Stalwart defender Oguchi Onyewu was playing in his first game since knee surgery last October. He showed bits of brilliance, but he was also out-leaped by a player four inches shorter. Onyewu explained that had little to do with his health.
Mr. OGUCHI ONYEWU (Professional Soccer Player, World Cup Team USA): The first goal, you know, he jumped before me. So while he was in the air and I'm just trying to jump up, he had his forearm keeping me down, you know. But aside from that, you know, nothing else.
PESCA: Follow-up question: Is that - meaning leaping ability - is that something that will come in time? Onyewu looks confused. The other player just jumped earlier.
Next question: Did you feel rusty out there? Answer...
Mr. ONYEWU: Did you see any rustiness? Did you see any rustiness?
Unidentified Man: No.
Mr. ONYEWU: No, I didn't feel any rustiness.
PESCA: So the press, by potentially freaking out over injuries to star players, was in top international form. But there was one group clearly trying to round itself into playing shape last night...
(Soundbite of cheering)
PESCA: ...the fans. Perhaps they were overwhelmed by the disappointment of dropping a four-to-two decision to a Czech team that didn't even qualify for the World Cup. But American fans, while boisterous, weren't especially tuneful. Internationally, football supporters often sport songbook that would rival Rogers and Hammerstein. Even fans of the North America professional league sing team-specific songs.
But the fans in East Hartford couldn't muster much more than this.
(Soundbite of singing and clapping)
PESCA: Spectator Elias happily said a deeper repertoire will emerge if the fans can build on the few songs currently sung red, white and blue.
ELIAS: How do we get there? We've got to keep on doing this. We've got to exactly do what we're doing right now.
PESCA: The final 23 will be revealed on ESPN today. Then those players will jet down to Washington to meet two prominent fans: President Obama and former President Clinton.
A pair of tune-ups are scheduled before the real games begin in a little over two weeks. According to English bookies, the U.S. team's odds to win the World Cup are currently about the same as those of Cameroon, Ghana and Serbia.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, East Hartford, Connecticut.