U.S. Soccer Team Well-Positioned In World Cup

Sports commentator Stefan Fatsis talks to host Robert Siegel about Friday's World Cup matches. They also discuss the U.S. team's thrilling victory on Wednesday, Bill Clinton's visit to South Africa and the United States' chances against Ghana this weekend.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The final games of the first round of the World Cup in South Africa were played today. That means that of the 32 countries that began the competition two weeks ago, half are now out and heading home.

Tomorrow begins the single elimination phase of the tournament, with two games: The U.S. versus Ghana, and Uruguay versus South Korea. Joining us from Johannesburg is our own Stefan Fatsis. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: And before we look ahead, let's look back for a moment. You attended the U.S.'s dramatic one-to-nothing win over Algeria. How big a win was that?

FATSIS: Well, first there was the most thrilling end to a major sports event that I have ever witnessed in person, and it was enormously important for a bunch of reasons: one, media.

I think a zero-zero draw would have meant three ties by the United States and an early exit from the World Cup, and I think that would have emboldened the dwindling number of media critics of soccer in the United States.

Two, the ending demonstrated just how breathtakingly exciting and unifying soccer and this event can be. I really tried afterward to remember the last time you saw these kinds of scenes of explosive, spontaneous celebration over an American team sporting event, and all I could really come up with, Robert, was 1980 and the USA over the USSR in hockey. And that's a long time ago.

Three, that game allowed the United States to witness and replay those scenes, a kind of a confirmation that soccer doesn't have to be this isolated phenomenon that's only watched by a small group of people.

And finally, the numbers: 8.6 million viewers on ESPN and Univision, the most-watched soccer game in ESPN's history.

SIEGEL: And I would add number four, Landon Donovan stands all of five-foot-eight, the biggest hero in the world on that day, the same size as Pele, by the way.

Bill Clinton was at that game, and he's decided to stay along for tomorrow's Round 16 game against Ghana. He's actually there on business.

FATSIS: He is, and I think this is the fifth reason that this win was so important. The former president is the honorary chairman of a bid by the United States to host the 2018, or more likely, the 2022 World Cup.

The U.S., you'll recall, hosted the 1994 World Cup. Bringing another one to U.S. soil is a major part of the United States Soccer Federation's goals for increasing the sport's momentum.

So the morning after Algeria, after the game, Bill Clinton was already booked to meet with members of the FIFA executive board. Those are the guys who are going to choose the next World Cup hosts. 2014 is going to be in Brazil. That's already been taken care of.

So this was perfect timing. You got the master schmoozer, Bill Clinton, meeting with these very impressionable, international soccer officials who, believe me, were very, very impressed by meeting the former president.

SIEGEL: So let's talk about tomorrow's game, U.S. versus Ghana. At the last World Cup in 2006, it was Ghana who eliminated the U.S. in the first round. So this obviously is not a pushover.

FATSIS: No, no, this is a good team, and here's what I think you should look for. Ghana is very defensive-oriented, very organized. They play with four defenders and five midfielders with just one striker up top on offense.

So they don't score a lot, especially since they're missing their best player because of injury, Michael Essien. In fact, Ghana haven't scored two goals in a game since a World Cup qualifier against Mali last November. All three of their first round games finished one to nothing.

So the first goal here is going to be crucial. The United States needs to try to get the ball out to the wide, to the sides, to create some space in the middle and try to attack Ghana's boxed-in defense.

SIEGEL: So it's a game the United States could win.

FATSIS: Yeah, and you know what? If they do, they're going to get to play the winner of Uruguay and South Korea, which means that the United States, should they advance two more games, would not have to face one of the world's elite soccer nations until the semi-finals of this tournament. They are extremely well-positioned to do better in the World Cup than at any time in modern soccer history.

SIEGEL: Okay, thank you, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis is writing about the World Cup for NPR, for the New Republic, for Slate and for sportsillustrated.com. He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

And the World Cup mania continues online at our soccer blog. That's at npr.org/cleats.

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