Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re tired of hearing and reading about soccer. I know. It’s all over the place…ESPN, SI, NBC News, Fox News, Nickelodeon…actually, I have no idea about Nickelodeon…but it’s everywhere. You can’t get away from it. And the game itself isn’t that great anyway. I mean…who cares about a game that can end in a tie? That’s just pure communism. Why play a game that no one wins? What’s the point? And…OMG…it takes so long for something to happen…it’s like watching a David Lynch or James Mangold movie. And why do you have to look like the bassist from 311 to play the game? And who cares if it’s called “The World Cup”? Most of the world can’t get anything right anyway…much less a game. Why should any of us care? We have baseball now, and football is only nine weeks away. Trust me, I get it. There’s a part of me that still holds to these questions and suspicions of the world’s most popular sport. I am not joking. I have a natural and innate opposition to the game of soccer. The nature and culture of this sport are more X-Games than Super Bowl or World Series…and that just isn’t me. The game of soccer, however, found me as I roamed the world for a while, and much like a new foreign friend, I grew to respect, admire, and trust it. That same game, and our national team, now begs for your attention.
The summer months of 2000 were exhilarating and heartbreaking at the same time. A beloved friend and professor, Janet Rahamut, had been murdered the night I left to study in Ecuador for the summer. That was June 4th. After having only been there for a few days, my school flew me back to the States to be deposed by the police and to attend the funeral, only to ship me back to finish my studies in language and culture. It was the last credit I needed to graduate. The following weeks were spent in quasi-isolation. I was already functionally fluent, and didn’t require much prep time for exams or instruction. My friends, however, did, and that left me many a night to scurry about town in the shadows and solace of thought. One such night I was at a pub called the Reina Victoria that flew the Union Jack. In spite of the fact that I really didn’t feel like talking to anyone, a very loud and gregarious group from England invited me to game of darts. That match of darts turned into a 5 week friendship that centered on tales of travel, favorite pints, lots of trash talk, and yes, the game of soccer. It was with them that I learned to hate Chelsea and love Liverpool. It was with these fine folk that I watched the English lose a nail-biter to Romania and Germany get waxed by Portugal in the group stage of the UEFA European Championship. I had a vague sensibility about the rules and strategy employed, but whether I did or didn’t, it didn’t matter. The atmosphere was incredible. The café they chose had the English game on one side and the German game on the other. It was packed with every ex-pat in the city of Quito. It was loud. It was frothy. It was wild. It was like college football, except their team was their entire nation, not just their state. When I asked about their thoughts regarding my beloved American team…they shrugged…and hmmmed…and sighed…and replied…”You have to care to be good.” It was the first time I got it.
That thing is going on with our team these days…this feeling of national pride and support. There is something organic happening to the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT), and it is exciting. The M.O. of our team has been, for a while now, that of a sleeping giant, but one who refuses to wake up. Meaning, a nation so large, with so much talent, and so many resources is one that is expected to succeed, at some point. But we haven’t, really. But here’s the thing…that air of slumbered and chained mediocrity seems to be sliding into the ether as this 2014 World Cup moves out of the group stage. From our coach, Yurgen Klinsmann, his storied career, and his controversial decision to leave off our favorite son Landon Donovan, to the irrepressible way this very young USMNT found a way to escape “The Group of Death” against 99% of predictions… in terrible weather and while traveling more than 99% of the other teams…this team…our team… has something. There is this feeling that our expectations are finally beginning to match our potential. These 23 young men wearing our flag’s colors just did something special and invigorating. They never quit (I still don’t want to talk about Portugal!), they showed equal parts gumption and athleticism, and you hardly ever see them flop or bite someone. This version of the USMNT will be looked at in posterity as the kernel and seed of something that can be, and will be, great one day. If you are paying attention, you are seeing the beginnings of a thing that will win and endure in the not too distant future. It is happening, and we are watching it unfold. Next up: Belgium.
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W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.