If you actually clicked on a link to read this post then, like me, you must be looking for hope. I applaud you for getting out there and dealing with this mess that our team has left us. I’m still holding out hope this was all just a bad dream. Whatever state I’m in I keep thinking about what the build up to the World Cup final will be like without the United States in the picture. I’m still processing like you are.
But an amazing thing is happening to me as I mourn over the grave of this version of the national team. I’m finding I love this sport even more than I did a few days back. What other sport could give us the ride we just went on? Put together it was a fascinating day. One I hope we never forget for many reasons. Of course there was an absolutely sick feeling in our stomachs the moment Phil Schoen revealed there was bad news from Panama. We knew it was over then. I had to look my kid in the eye and pretend that I wasn’t hurting worse than he was. I had to be strong and show that this really wasn’t a big deal. Sports are just a small part of life. But there were still a few short soccer moments left….
The day started at 5 AM my time with Syria against Australia. I watched Australia celebrate as their GOAT Tim Cahill rose above the crowd like a glorious yellow mountain to head in the winning goal. Hope beats in the chest of the Aussies, while Syria’s brief encounter with hope was stripped from them in a moment. While watching I thought about what it must be like to be Syrian, in a war-torn country, but having this escape, watching their team with pride.
Before the U.S. match I was nervous, but was looking forward to the release of a celebration. What whiskey I might sip after the match crossed my mind. Because of our remarkable technology we got to witness the South American appetizer as Lionel Messi punched in two goals in the first half to lift Argentina closer to their goal.
As the U.S. game kicked off (and FuboTV technology faltered as we were reminded that technology is never as advertised) my nervousness picked up. The game started off with the team looking slow. Arena’s teams aren’t much for defensive pressure, so perhaps that was okay, but they weren’t counterattacking either. The pitch looked wet and difficult. Trinidad & Tobago had just had a ton of rain dumped on them over the past few weeks. They don’t have slanted pitches to drain perfectly manicured lawns. That’s their reality, and it’s not like the U.S. relies on intricate passing to win their games anyway. We should be okay.
And then the casual clearance. Howard looked like he mistimed his jump. Understandable given the surprise of the moment. A goal. Okay, that’s okay. At the same time Mexico had taken the lead on Honduras. We were going to get a goal and be fine.
Twenty minutes later, the wonder strike from 24-year-old Alvin Jones. Uncovered but from distance. Howard again narrowly missing and this time I wonder if younger legs might have had more spring to touch that shot away. I think about inches and age and what atrophy does to the body, has done to my body, as we get older. I feel my knees wanting to leap toward that ball. They couldn’t have done it. I start turning my eyes to my phone to watch other scores.
At halftime it’s unsettling but if any team of the three is going to score two goals it’s going to be our team. I can’t imagine the other scenario.
The rest we’ve all relived many times by now. The phantom Panama goal. The ricocheted shot off the crossbar, off Ochoa and in for a freak own goal in Honduras. Pulisic’s last smash for a competitive U.S. team until 2019. Dempsey off the post. Trinidad and Tobago keeper Foncette making a number of wise saves and otherwise holding the box confidently. Panama breaks away for the win. The U.S. out of ideas. Out of energy. My son and I standing so close to the TV by now. Bradley jogging to the corner for the last chance. The team jogging even more slowly. I scream for them to move knowing that it’s not going to matter. Little Trinidad & Tobago playing for nothing but themselves and their few fans, wanting it much more.
My television turned from image to image, alternating between heartbreak and jubilation. I soaked in the beauty of the joy in Panama. I soaked in my pain and tried to imagine the pain in the players. What they have sacrificed. The amount of times they laced their spikes. But now Panama’s first ever trip to the World Cup. It was at the expense of our team, but what must that be like? The Honduran players not exactly sure what they had accomplished, but they were still alive.
In slow motion the ecstasy and heartbreak broken down by inches and the bad decisions caused by our human limits. And it hit me. What other sport so beautifully mirrors the extremes of our condition? From the mountains that are Tim Cahill headers to the back alleys that are Trinidad & Tobago pitches. Soccer is a place where the Davids take down the Goliaths. Where cultures collide and in unusual fashion celebrate together. Where anything is possible. Where absolute beauty in human form meets harsh reality on a regular basis. But it’s not a question of just pretty and ugly, of rich and poor, it’s about decisions of leaders and policies and resources and it goes all the way to how we teach our children. It shouldn’t matter this much but it does. I’m reminded of Milan Kundera’s brilliant book The Unbearable Lightness of Being and all we need to add to that title is “A Soccer Team.”
By contrast, other American sports are too orchestrated, too protected to give us this same world view. Soccer isn't the controlled entertainment of basketball, in familiar arenas that are never too far from home. In other sports there is no Azteca, no exposure on a hostile field. Our soccer players have to move from their comfortable spaces and face the reality of the entire world. It’s not easy. We don’t give them enough credit because they are compensated to do it, but it can’t be a simple thing.
I stared far too long at the pundits on TV and at twitter to get a sense of how everyone was feeling. I knew yet I kept going. I finally fell asleep after midnight but I woke just an hour later, and the replays of the goals rolled through my head over and over. I was hoping I would wake from this double dream and be able to read that the U.S. was actually in the World Cup. But I knew this wasn’t the truth, even in my half sleep. And so for nearly 24 hours this sport whisked me around the world and challenged my comforts, amazed me and ended with what we all could only hope was a nightmare.
Why does it feel like there is so much lost when this is really so little? Can any other sport replicate what happened around the world last night? There are elements of these things in all sports. The beauty. The reality. The rich. The poor. The games decided by inches. But not with this scale. Not to these extremes. Not with this kind of painful randomness. I have watched my teams lose Superbowls and NBA finals but I cannot remember a night feeling so helpless, and then so awed by the sport that can make all this happen.