My 40-year American Soccer Experience
The USMNT were eliminated from the 2018 World Cup finals recently. The loss sent shockwaves through American soccer* culture and understandably – it puts into question the entire structure of the game here in the US – but for me it brought a smile to my face. More on that later. The last time the US missed a World Cup tournament was 1986 in Mexico and coincidentally that was the first World Cup I remember ever watching. The dimunitive Argentinian, Maradona dominated headlines back then and I still remember watching him destroy an English defense single-handedly. He was flamboyant, highly-skilled, creative and the complete opposite of football in America at that time and in some ways today as well. Specifically thinking about this US defeat has caused me to reflect back on my forty-year arc of football. It traces most of my life and in some ways, perhaps, gives some guidance on how US footy culture can find its footballing soul again.
For me, it all started with a ball, a makeshift goal and a my youthful, beating heart. Way before I watched Maradona slalom through the English defense and punch the ball into the net with his Hand of God, I was a six year-old skinny-legged kid outside of Chicago. I still remember my first practice. The coaches, one of them being my dad of course, deemed two trees as a goal, a ball was rolled out onto the grass in a park and we were suddenly playing football, a scene probably played out repeatedly across 1970s America. I remember loving the team aspect of the sport, but also always wanting the ball. Always. I played with the freedom of naïve youth and in a style which I would not reclaim until my ‘playing career’ was over. After that era of firsts – first practice, first game, first goals scored, etc. – rules and skill training were drilled into my head by ‘coaches’ (mostly dads) trying to catch-up with the rest if the world. They introduced us to a game I would love for the rest of my life, but they probably did more harm then good. Nevertheless, it was my origin story.
When I wasn’t running around on the field, at that time, I was a fan of the first NASL. The doomed North American Soccer League. And even though a successful team played nearby – the Chicago Sting – lead by the strong, left-footed striker, Karl Heinz Granitza, I had New York Cosmos posters on my bedroom wall. I was fascinated by Pelé’s creative flair and the cavalier, Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia. Especially Chinaglia, who famously quipped “I am Chinaglia. If I shoot from a place, it's because Chinaglia can score from there”. His brash style and scoring boots started a life-long love of strikers. It was a distinct era of world talent coming to the states; in addition to Pelé and Chinaglia, we also witnessed George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Johan Cruyff to name a few, all past their prime, but still light years ahead of their American teammates.
Later, I was on the first travel team in my area. Apparently, I stood out or maybe I was just lucky. Teams were very unorganized back then. Nevertheless, from age six to twelve, all I wanted to do was kick a ball and six years of repeated play, combined with a growth spurt helped me dominate teams at that age. I have warm memories of impatiently getting the ball in the defensive area, spinning around and taking off towards the other team’s goal. Before anyone realized what was going on, I was quickly bearing down on the goal, easily blowing past a weak defense – usually the worst or biggest players on the team – pausing for a breath before I kicked the ball into the goal. My parents had make-shifted a goal from wood in my backyard with an old orange net and I practiced this sequence over and over. Dribbling at speed, slightly pausing and looking up to choose my spot, then placing it in one of the corners. To this day, the sound the ball makes when it hits and slides down the back of the net gives me goosebumps.
At some point around that time, it would have been the 1980s, I saw a vhs tape of Liverpool FC. A friend of a friend had gotten them from someone who recorded them in England, or so he said. This was pre-internet and it was passed amongst us like exotic porn. I remember staring at the poorly recorded games and trying to decipher the players moves, the coaches tactics and the rituals of the fans. Although it didn’t have the same effect that going to an Arsenal game in England had later on, it was a fascinating introduction to the other side of football – club teams and their traditions. And I felt like I was watching a ritual that had been going on for millennia, but was closed off from skinny-legged kids from America.
My senior year of high school (1988-89) in St.Charles, Illinois my team went 24 wins, 3 losses and made it to the state finals. We played Granite City, coached by the legendary Gene Baker from southern Illinois, and even though we matched them physically they had the mental toughness of a team that had played at that level before. It all emanated from their coach who made a series of smart, tactical decisions, while our head coach just stood and stared. Even our pregame prep was all wrong. By the time we took the field for kickoff we were beat, having spent all of our nervous energy on getting hyped for the game. When I got home after the game, I threw my muddy boots in the corner. They represented all of the blood and sweat of years of playing and I couldn’t even look at them. I thought that I deserved to succeed because of my twelve years of training and I had not lost a high school game in my mind, I had lost “the game of all games”. I took it very hard and I never played in those Pumas again. And I have know idea what happened to them.
Later, I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign who didn’t have a Division 1 team at that time, and initially I couldn’t care less. I still paid attention to world football, but I was more focused on design school. Eventually playing football started to creep back into my thinking. I would walk by an empty field and stare at the goals, hearing the sound of the ball hitting the back of the net. Eventually I decided to join an intramural team. Surprisingly I had very little expectation for myself and this is what helped me come back to the game. I noticed again the little things that I enjoyed so much; the excitement in the pit of your stomach right before kick-off, the joy of completing a long pass, the comraderie of teammates. Things that had been overshadowed by a focus on performance, speed, and destroying other teams. Maybe this was the thinking of a failed player I thought at the time, but I really didn’t care. I looked forward to my intramural games as much as I did when I was a young kid waking up on Saturday mornings. It was football without pressure and I rediscovered the game I had loved playing so much as a kid.
Even though the World Cup was in the US in 1994, I fell in love with Arsenal Football Club around that time. I spent a period of time in London and got the opportunity to go to two premiership games. I saw QPR with my girlfriend of that time and Arsenal at Highbury without her. Arsenal got under my skin. Much later in life I would tattoo a cannon on my right calf, but back then I was instantly smitten with the fans, the stadium, the chants and even the crest. The team was in transition then – this was right before Arsene Wenger became manager – but it didn’t even matter. Arsenal Football Club was the culmination of what I thought football should be, a lifestyle, a way, a tradition. They were the whole package and unlike watching Liverpool on vhs tapes, I was lucky to walk into Ferrier and Binne’s Art Deco stadium firsthand and into the welcoming arms of the Gunners.
The years 1998-2008 were a blur for me. I focused on my wife, career and daughters being born. I remember watching France win the World Cup and being thrilled by Thierry Henry joining Arsenal. The way he would pick the ball up in his own defensive half and run at the defense reminded me of how I liked to play when I was a kid. His goals and even his celebrations were just so cool. Arsenal was rising and Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles felt like a once in a lifetime phenomena. My playing faded, culminating in pulling both hamstrings in one game. I got the ball in the midfield, and my brain said “dribble with that burst of speed you love so much” and my body said “nope”. I started playing EA’s FIFA, buying a new title every year and tracking the improvements made with each release. FIFA softened the let down from stopping playing competitively.
Chicago got a new soccer team in the newly minted MLS – the Major League Soccer. I got season tickets & sat in the supporter’s section. It felt like a simulacrum of English premiereship fandom – enjoyable, but not quite right. And the football was hamfisted. I had become one of ‘those fans’ – spoiled by the sublime touch and tactics of European football. The MLS was nearly unwatchable. Every time a player sent an errant pass to a teammate or had a heavy touch, I felt my eyes rolling. Not fair to them or me for that matter.
2008-2018, my daughters played football – rec league at first, then travel when they showed signs of being quite good. Each one of them could play college football, they all have natural abilities. As they were growing up, my wife and I made an important decision – we chose a well rounded path over only focusing on football. Their coaches became increasingly more manic, the expectations increasingly more absurd. As they got older, coaches were demanding practices every day for hours, multiple games per week, strength and speed sessions and playing year round. It broke my heart because I knew they were such good players, but we backed off and it was the right decision. I coached my twins on their last team, having gotten the foundational level national coaching certificate and fancying myself a bit of a tactician. We were the most organized rec team my area probably has ever seen and we won our league tournament at a canter. More importantly, they had so much fun. All three of my girls and I still play in our backyard. We juggle, play small-sided games, pass back and forth to each other. It’s sublime.
Coinciding with my daughters playing was the ascendency of the USWNT, and we were once lucky enough to see a friendly against Germany in person. Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath (an Arsenal fan) are goddesses in my household. I will always remember the look on my girls faces when Wambach equalized on Rapinoe’s gorgeous cross against Brazil in the World Cup. Going from hopelessness to glory in the space of seconds, it wasn’t just a goal – it was an affirmation that everything would be alright and that women can do anything. “Rapinoe to Wambach” ranks up there as one of the greatest moments in not just football, but in my sporting experience.
Playing in the park. American professional leagues. Travel teams, high school and college sports. Experiencing the culture of football in other leagues & countries. Adopting a club team as your own. Playing EA's FIFA. The ascendency of the USWNT. Perhaps American fans have experienced many of these aspects of football. In many ways this is the arc the game has taken the past forty years for everyone. The problem is not the experience—it’s our history after all!—the problem is how American football culture has reacted to it all. While it’s a uniquely American forty-years of football history, football is the world’s game; and completely unownable by one culture, (no matter what the Brazilians think). And because of that I was completely un-surprised that a team like Trinidad & Tobago could shock the Stars & Stripes. Even though I feel for US fans, I really do, I had a smile on my face because T&T played with the freedom of a kid; without pressure and for the love of the game. Trite notions for sure but completely accurate. And the US (except one player**) played like entitled, wealthy suburban teens. T&T’s win was proof of world football’s beating heart. Proof that football rewards those who play with love. And proof that it doesn’t care about where you were born or how much money your family has. Pelé stood in the middle of a field years ago in his last game as a New York Cosmo and tried to tell us that, but American football wasn’t ready. It needed to go its “own way”—spend millions of dollars on performance clothing, import trainers from around the world, hire speed and strength specialists for our youth, build soccer specific stadiums; all fine ideas, but with the mis-guided promise of an American exceptionalist style of soccer that will "guarantee success". If we are to take the recent USMNT performance and the 10 games in “the hex” as the example of where we’re at as a footballing nation, then its culminated in a culture of elite players that are truly lost. And more poignantly, players that can be beaten by a team with purpose. Many blamed the loss on the conditions in Trinidad & Tobago, but it had absolutely nothing to do with it. Put those two teams in a world-class stadium, with a world-class pitch on the same night and T&T would still have won. Watch the highlights and its self-evident.
So where does US footy culture go from here? It doesn’t matter. The beating heart of world football continues on. But if America is going to truly transform, then it needs to pull its muddy boots out and go play. Set aside the misguided notion of America winning the World Cup some day. Set aside the idea of creating a uniqely American version of the sport. Embrace what the world does—roll the ball out onto the park, the street, the backyard and play. "Pay to play" must tranform into "just play". It's that simple. If we can do that then maybe, just maybe our hearts will beat fast again. And that love will translate into success. In the meantime, there's a whole world of football to enjoy. Even in the US.
* That’s the last time I’m calling football, soccer. If you’re offended, stop reading.
** Go Youtube Pulisic