A wide-ranging soccer post, including a “quick” history of my journey into being a fan of the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team. (You should know by now that when I say “quick” I mean “settle in for a read”. Of course, only ardent fans of soccer will probably read this post.)

My memories of soccer are synonymous with traveling. I have played a lot of soccer overseas. I’ve played in Belarus, Cameroon, China, Mexico and Romania, and it’s always been on missions and humanitarian trips. The world is flat when it comes to soccer.

Back in 1994, I started following the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team. That was the year the World Cup was hosted in the United States. I started reading up on players like Alexi Lalas, John Harkes, Cobi Jones, Tony Meola and more. I remember being fascinated by a Sports Illustrated article on Italian soccer player  Roberto Baggio. I was away from home during some of the World Cup, but I managed to watch some games. I watched part of the USA’s victory over Colombia from a Mexico Customs building. (I was on a mission trip to Mexico and we were held up at the border for awhile. The customs officials were very much in support of Colombia that day.)

Speaking of that trip to Mexico, there was a Mexican family that spent time with me when I was doing work. Why? I looked Irish to them. (My hair was dyed red at the time.) Mexico had just beaten Ireland in the World Cup, and the thought it was great that an “Irishman” was in Mexico. They reminded me that Ireland lost to Mexico, a lot, but I didn’t care. It was always a way to connect with people.

The U.S. team did well, but lost to eventual champ, Brazil, in the round of 16. (Felt bad that Roberto Baggio missed his penalty kick that gave Brazil the Cup.) The 1994 World Cup came and went, and a lot of people gleefully went back to mocking soccer in America. However, seeds were sown in America, with soccer, that would take awhile to germinate.
There wasn’t much soccer on television, and I didn’t have access to it anyway during my early years of being a missionary. I followed it loosely. MLS was just beginning. I’d read articles about the U.S. Men’s team when I came across them.

In 1998, I was touring across America with my missions work. I once again followed the World Cup, reading up on the U.S. Team again. I also read a lot about Brazil’s Ronaldo, since he was the best player in the world at the time. During the World Cup I was on tour in the northeast. One of the books I read on tour was the unabridged version of Les Miserables. I also managed to watch Les Miserables on Broadway when we went through NYC. Because of this, and the Americans flaming out in group play, I pulled for France during the World Cup. It was fun for me because France went all the way and upset Brazil for the championship. It drew me into international soccer more.

Other memories from the ’98 World Cup? Watching Dennis Bergkamp’s memorable goal live. And, Michael Owen. Later that summer of ’98 I went to Belarus for a missions/humanitarian trip. During the trip, we spent a day helping out at an orphanage. There were also four older men from England at the orphanage helping out. Our team was talking to them, and someone on our team suggested we play soccer. The Englishmen jumped at the chance, especially since this person suggested we play Americans versus English. The English guys were laughing. I remember thinking we’d get destroyed, and I said as much. I then brought up Michael Owen’s goal from the World Cup, and this seemed to earn some begrudging respect from them. (Americans always have to overcome world’s stereotype that we are second rate and fools when it comes to soccer.)

Once again, though, there wasn’t much soccer for me to watch after the Cup. I was a missionary, based in northwest Arkansas, and soccer wasn’t on the local channels there. (I could find a lot of preachers that were zealous in talking about the end of the world.)

In 1999, I played a lot in Romania when I was on a trip there. Played nearly every day, and it earned us credibility with the locals to share with them about our faith. I had played a bit growing up, but playing overseas allowed me to be serviceable when playing pickup games.

I kept reading about U.S. Soccer when I could online. A lot of my information came from Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, who would write extensively on U.S. soccer.

In 2002, I was leading a missionary school, and our field assignment was in China. The World Cup was hosted in Japan and South Korea. We were in China during the World Cup. It was also the first-time China had qualified, so there was a lot of interest in the World Cup while we were there. Especially with the proximity to the tournament. (It amused me when I heard Chinese talk about how they had a chance against Brazil.)

Our team watched a lot of matches the last two weeks we were in China.  I was following the U.S. team, of course, but wasn’t sure what to expect after the poor performance in ’98. Quickly, I was fanatical in supporting the team when they upset Portugal in their first game. I watched the game against South Korea and was amused at how Korea’s inspiration against America was Apolo Anton Ohno taking gold over a South Korean short-track speedskater in the 2002 Winter Olympics. On our flight home to America, the pilot informed the plane that U.S. lost to Poland. The plane cheered. He then said that Korea beat Portugal. More cheering, until he said that due to Korea beating Portugal the United States had qualified for the final 16. Disappointment for most of the people on the plane, except for a few of us!

I remember talking to one American, on one of my many plane flights from that 2002 trip, telling me how he use to play with DaMarcus Beasley. He told he wasn’t that impressed with Beasley, or other American players, because he use to play with them. Right. This guy was at least four inches smaller than me, but he had at least forty pounds on me. He could play with DaMarcus Beasley? Sure he could. (Commence me rolling my eyes.)

The United States was matched up with Mexico in the round of 16, and I remember thinking it was the perfect match for America. They knew Mexico’s style of play and had started to beat them consistently. So when they won 2-0 over Mexico it was not a surprise. Was it to the rest of the world? Yes, and the world seemed frustrated and scared. Soccer was the one major sport the world had dominated America in, but that wasn’t the case any more. The United States was no longer a pushover. It was beating some of the best soccer nations in the world, and this infuriated people around the world.

In the quarterfinals, the United States played Germany. It led to a few playful arguments between Jana and me. She pulled for Germany, and this made me upset. When Germany (controversially) beat the U.S., I vented on her a bit.

The aftermath was good for the team. There was more press given to the team. Their FIFA ranking was in the top ten. (Although they probably shouldn’t have been, no one in America was complaining.) I started noticing more front page articles about U.S. Soccer on sites like SI.com and ESPN.com. I kept reading the articles and columns, and Grant Wahl became a favorite writer of mine. (Also thoroughly enjoyed ESPN’s Michael Davies commentary throughout the Cup.)

The 2006 World Cup was tough. The United States team had expectations to perform well, but they had also been drawn into the “group of death”. They didn’t qualify for the knockout stage, and a lot of anti-soccer people piled on about soccer in America being a joke. (They did score on and drew with Italy. They were the only team not lose to the eventual champion.)

People who mocked soccer must be scratching their heads as to why there has been so much media attention on this World Cup. What happened between 2006 and 2010 to cause American media to take notice of soccer? Well, a generation of people had grown up with the U.S team playing competitively in the World Cup. (The 1994 World Cup being in America didn’t hurt either.) It was easier to follow the sport due to cable and the Internet. The MLS had slowly built a loyal following. America’s diversity and immigrants brought in a soccer influence. David Beckham coming to America to play in MLS. Americans were playing in the best leagues around the world. It all came together to advance the sport in the American’s public consciousness.

I knew it was here to stay when I saw ESPN’s BottomLine providing updates on soccer scores from leagues around the world. They wouldn’t be giving updates on matches from English Premier League unless there was serious interest.

It’s funny to me now to hear certain sports commentators regularly comment on how soccer isn’t relevant. If you have to make your case all the time that soccer isn’t relevant, you might be the one losing relevance.

Is it ever going to top football in America? No, and I don’t think anyone expects it to. Some anti-soccer people always raise this point, but so what? Soccer is more than a niche sport in America now. No one knocks basketball or baseball because they aren’t bigger than football. Why knock soccer? It’s easy to, but those people are losing influence.

Where is hockey since it’s strike? Where is golf when Tiger isn’t playing? What will happen to the NBA when there is a (probable) lockout? What is college basketball outside of March Madness now that all the talent jumps to the NBA? What happens to the NFL when the impending labor strife hits next season?

Every sport has its issues, and a number of them could have work stoppages. You know what one of the things is that fills the void now? Soccer. The problem many in the media have had is expecting a switch to flip and all of a sudden everyone would be soccer fans. Soccer needed to take time to build on its modest successes. It’s been 16 years since the ’94 World Cup. A lot of growth has occurred, and it will only be more so by the end of the decade. A generation is 25 years. This current generation growing up with soccer, since the ’94 World Cup, will expect and want the sport to be in the sports mainstream. It’s the same expectation the rest of the world has.

To the world, though, it is the beautiful game. And lately, America has shown glimpses of playing joga bonito (play beautifully). First, there was the 2009 Confederations Cup where they upset world number one Spain. (Spain’s first loss in 35 matches.) Then they played Brazil in the Final. When the U.S. went up 2-0 heading into half over Brazil, it almost seemed like a dream. Reality, hit when Brazil came out and went into a gear that no other country can seemingly play at. Brazil came back to win 3-2, but the U.S. showed spirit, joga bonito, in playing with the best in the world. Maybe it’s not the kind of beautiful play like Brazil or Netherlands, but it was beautiful to watch as an American fan.

Then, there was the recent World Cup match against Algeria. The United States played with flair and spirit, but weren’t able to put the ball in the back of the net. It seemed the U.S. was not going to advance, and the anti-soccer media in America were ready to pile on about it. Then, Landon Donovan slammed home a rebound, in stoppage time, and the team earned a victory. They won their group. Perhaps as important, the U.S. Team had its signature moment. It was joga bonito.

Americans rallied around the team and their indomitable spirit. It was great to see.

The euphoria may have been short lived with their loss to Ghana in the Round of 16, but just as encouraging were people being disappointed by the result. People are starting to expect results with U.S. Soccer.

As far as what went “wrong” with the U.S. team, I’ll leave that to Grant Wahl and Michael Davies. America did better in this Cup than Italy and France, the two finalists from the previous World Cup.

The future? I think it’s good. Soccer is continuing to gain fans in America. MLS has sustained success. U.S. has more players going abroad to play in the top leagues. (Quickly, I do find it amusing that international media denigrate the U.S. team consistently. When an American journalist asks one of their international ilk what American players could play on other international teams, the international journalist usually says, “No one”. Like there’s objectivity there. So, none of the other World Cup squads would take Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley. Right.) Most importantly, people expect the U.S. to make the knockout stage in the World Cup. Now, they just need to make the jump to the next level. (Need a quality forward for that to happen.)

The point of this post? Just some personal thoughts on soccer. I’m already looking forward to World Cup 2014. (Jurgen Klinsmann as the next manager?) I’m hoping the U.S. can host the World Cup again in 2018 or 2022. (I’ll want to go to a match!) Eager to see which American steps up as the next star. (I’ll guess Michael Bradley.)

I look forward to playing again overseas, or with my boys in the backyard.

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