World Cup: A Test of U.S. Soccer

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U.S. midfielder DaMarcus Beasley advances the ball while being defended by Oguchi Onyewu

U.S. midfielder DaMarcus Beasley advances the ball while being defended by Oguchi Onyewu during practice at the U.S. training Camp in Cary, N.C. Tom Goldman, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Tom Goldman, NPR

Without much fanfare at home, the U.S. men's soccer team has become solidly competitive, holding its own against the world's best teams in international play. As the World Cup approaches, the U.S. team is ranked fifth in the world. But the team faces a brutal stretch in the initial round of play. NPR's Tom Goldman has part one of a two-part report.


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


And I'm Michele Norris.

A loss to Morocco apparently hasn't dimmed the World Cup hopes of the U.S. men's soccer team. The tournament begins in less than three weeks. U.S. coach Bruce Arena blamed last night's 1-0 loss on overtraining. He says the team was a bit leg weary. Still the American team is ranked fifth in the world and they say they're ready and able to go farther than in 2002, when the U.S. made the quarter finals.

NPR's Tom Goldman visited the U.S. training camp in North Carolina.

TOM GOLDMAN: Wait a minute, didn't the U.S. men's soccer team finish last in the World Cup just eight years ago? And isn't it the U.S. women's team that always makes the big splash on the world soccer stage?

Yes and yes.

But that doesn't mean things can't change, and they have, says 24-year-old American star Landon Donovan.

LANDON DONOVAN: This is the best soccer playing team we've ever had. You know, in the past it was let's fight our way through games, try to scrap a 1-0 result if we can and see how it goes. Now, we're good enough to beat teams and beat team pretty handily.


GOLDMAN: Soccer is a game, but the 23 members of the U.S. national team were hard at work last week on a velvety green field in Cary, North Carolina. The practices at SAS Park were startlingly intense.

The pace was so quick, bursts of speed and communication. No names, just handles. Chingy was Brian Ching. LD, Landon Donovan. Beas, Demarcus Beasley. They were waterbus in red shirts and dark blue shorts darting this way and that. Bodies hurtling toward the ball with such recklessness, yet somehow avoiding contact with each other.

A few times the choreography broke down. Two players crumpled to the ground after knocking heads in midair. Team captain Claudio Reyna dropped to all fours after taking a ball flush in the groin. In the midst of it all, Coach Bruce Arena, his Long Island accent piercing the soft North Carolina morning.

BRUCE ARENA: Look at the line. Look at Pablo. Pablo sets the line, guys.

GOLDMAN: And then he'd let up.

ARENA: Well done, guys. Good concentration. Get a drink. Pierre, you got them, Pierre.

GOLDMAN: Pierre is Pierre Barrieu, the team's fitness coach for the past six years. He was partly responsible for the U.S. success at the last World Cup. The buzz in 2002 was that the Americans' fitness was an asset compared to other countries in the tournament. And what does good fitness look like to the average soccer fan?

PIERRE BARRIEU: You know, you have the obvious parameter, which is which team is running the best in the last 20 minutes of the game.

GOLDMAN: To help achieve that, Barrieu strapped black belt-like heart monitors on each player in North Carolina to study the workloads on their hearts at different times during the practice sessions. It's part of the regimen Barrieu says the U.S. players accept much more willingly than elite soccer players he's worked with in Spain and France.

BARRIEU: I think that soccer is not the number one sport in the U.S., makes these guys being down to earth and not behave like big stars and being very open minded about things they can do.

GOLDMAN: On paper, the U.S. players have a right to behave like stars. Their number four world ranking, recently lowered to five, places them ahead of soccer loving nations like France, Argentina, even England, for goodness sake. But, in fact, the ranking is on paper. It's based on a point system that even veteran U.S. goal keeper Kasey Keller admits doesn't always translate to how good a team is on the field.

KASEY KELLER: It's a bit false and I think everybody can realize that around the world that we're not the fourth best team in the world, but we know that when you start getting into the top ten, top fifteen, any of those teams can beat anybody.

GOLDMAN: The U.S. surprised the soccer world in 2002 by reaching the World Cup quarter finals. U.S. players understand there's pressure to do even better this time. Never mind the bad luck of the draw. The Americans are in a tough opening round group which includes Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana. If the U.S. doesn't advance beyond that group, many will say the World Cup was a failure. Indeed, high expectations are the price of American soccer success.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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