I have a lot of feelings after what went down these past couple weeks, and past couple years, and past couple decades. I am unabashedly and undeniably in fucking love with U.S. soccer. I cherish it.... the team and the players and the games and tournaments and fans. It all just does it for me. I love singing the songs and chanting the chants and gearing up for gameday. It's part of my identity and, with my miniscule contribution to it, I am a very small part of its.
With no small amount of regret, I'm not in as deep as many others are. I haven't traveled to see the team, though I should. I didn't go to the World Cup, though I might have under a different set of financial and familial circumstances. I'm not a sterling example of the ideal U.S. soccer fan, but just a guy who played some as a kid, got into the game progressively through the 90s, latched onto an English club team in 2002 and has progressively grown into a massive fondness for the sport and for the men and women who play the sport wearing the Stars and Stripes. I screamed and cheered in '99 when Chastain won it in PKs. I laughed with uncontrollable emotion in 2002 when McBride put the US up 3-0 to Portugal. I wept with joy when Liverpool's mighty Reds shook their fists at fate and won the Champions League in 2005. I sat, stunned and sullen, on the floor of Nag's Head in Hoboken last Sunday when Christiano ruined our night, only to smile as he repaid the debt days later when with his winner against Ghana.
Sports. They are individual, yet communal. They happen to us and with us and with those we are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be surrounded by as we watch.
With predictable regularity, the World Cup cycle gives me immense joy and excitement, coupled with the equally regular insistence of various onlookers that soccer, and particularly soccer for Americans, is something to be defined in certain, concrete terms. Is it arriving? Has it arrived already? Are the fans getting better or worse or are they destined to be a group subject to hearty and deserved derision?
So we get, even from people who feign "not to care," various bullet-pointed lists of the things that make the sport wrong for America, only to be countered by lists proclaiming the various reasons that it is superior to every other option available on the country's sports landscape. We get anger and defensiveness and writers scrambling for page views (not unlike myself, perhaps) and fans of all sports standing up to tell each other why their chosen sports pastime sucks and, while they're at it, to clarify to those other fans that it's entirely possible they suck.
It's a bigger conversation this year because so many people have chosen to care about the sport in America - not just fans but, perhaps even more so, detractors. Lost in the conversation, however, is an appropriate recognition that, despite the varied attempts to define the sport and its fans in America, what we've seen over the past weeks and years and decades is overwhelmingly un-definable. The AO movement has started something great, one could say, but that "something" wasn't created out of nothing; it existed before anyone was an Outlaw. Sure, America is experiencing a rising tide of new fans, but not all are new fans of the sport, and not all will continue. Some have been watching games for years and find themselves more able and more eager to let the excitement wash over them because, well, we have a critical mass. Some have finally been convinced of the sport's beauty and likability, and some just like to yell USA!
Some fans are dicks to new fans and some of those dicks might only be dicks on the days that they happen to be in a sour mood or didn't eat lunch or whatever and now whoever is sitting next to them at the bar thinks all soccer fans are the pits. Some fans are entirely lovely and sometimes that's because they hate the idea of soccer hipsters and want to counter it, and sometimes it's because they're just fucking great people.
Some fans grew into their love of the American national team through their love of the more-developed game in Europe, such that their idea of being a fan is that of being a supporter and wearing scarves and using the same terms that they hear announcers use when calling a Tottenham game.
Maybe it's easy to forget that sports culture is far from homogeneous since America's professional sports and the way in which most people digest those sports has become so packaged. After all, it's way easier to have an accessible product for consumption when that product is predictable and easily defined and consumer friendly. So, when Keith Olbermann and others state that they want soccer to be more American, they fail to realize that there's no such thing. Football isn't American because it has any intrinsic quality that makes it so; football is American because it's been around long enough and been popular enough that the idea of "American" has grown to include football as its own. Football and baseball and basketball and hockey are American because they've all been on American TV every week, sometimes every night, with such regularity that to call them un-American is altogether foolish. Our culture has expanded to accept the sports beloved of our people, as it should, but the idea of making soccer a quintessentially American sport is far too vague a concept to be a guidepost.
People are coming to soccer and to their support of the U.S. national teams in very different ways, with a variety of different perspectives on the sport and what it means to be a fan, such that it surely seems to many to be an altogether foreign enterprise. Supporters of soccer in America and of the national teams bring their cultural baggage and assets and songs and passions, and their different ideas on what the sport should be in this country. We didn't invent the sport and we surely didn't get in on the ground floor, so we're putting the product and our experience together with the pieces of soccer culture that we have available and that we enjoy. And onlookers are left trying to make sense of what soccer will be for sports fans in this country. Is this genuine? Or are we all just trying to latch onto other countries' sporting exports?
How about we, maybe, don't try to define this, though? How about we enjoy the fact that the sport and its American cultural niche are hard to pin down in any way other than by simply stating that it's all tremendous fun?
We've got plenty to be proud of without having to worry about whether this sport, this passion of ours, will succeed in our country; whether it will ever be accepted as an unquestioned part of national life without a thousand writers and hacks telling us why it - and by extension, we - are incompatible with the pre-existing sporting cultural identity of the Unites States. We don't need to worry about finding a discernible American identity for our national team and its supporters. In fact, with the cacophony of cultural influences on our sport and our support, it all may just be American enough.
Obviously this monstrosity - and I mean that in a good way, I promise, this is great! - couldn't get edited and uploaded in time, so obviously that meant it going live after the match yesterday, but them's are the breaks with amateur, poorly crafted, digitally recorded, oral sports takes.
Barrister and Phil (@Mechaphil) linked up again to re-hash the joy of winning at Old Trafford and look forward to Liverpool's trip to Cardiff. In the middle of it, we talk about Julian Green committing to the U.S. Men's National Team, FIFA corruption, and the glory of American deliberate indifference.
Bonus clip at the end of this massively long episode as we welcome the hottest of takes from Rochester's biggest (only?) Cardiff City supporter, recorded before the game, at halftime, and immediately after Cardiff's 6-3 loss to the Mighty Redmen. /farts
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As always, all of the DGWU podcasts are available at deargodwhyussports.libsyn.com. Cheers.
I love international soccer. I love the passion of it, I love the tournament structures of the men's and women's world cups, and I love seeing a squad of US jerseys take the field and try to do us proud. I love these things despite the fact that my footy fandom is in the minority in the US and that most American sports fans could give a shit if the Stars and Stripes win a weekend friendly, much less a World Cup. Let's be honest - the men's team looks lost on the pitch a great deal of the time. Sure, they've shocked the world a few times in the last decade, but any true fan is always sitting with hope for a miracle when they root on the Yanks in any legit international tourney. (And, honestly, the Gold Cup is not all that legitimate...and even that we managed to blow). The women's team, on the other hand, has been largely dominant. The 1999 World Cup victory in penalties, on American soil, was the pinnacle of that dominance. Indeed, the fact that they hadn't won since then was the true shocker.
For a country full (or really, not full at all) of soccer fans who've been waiting for the sport to take off in this country, the women's team has always carried the most promise, and the most expectation.
And, for those who watched the disasters of the last two Women's World Cups - the first coach initiated, the most recent player initiated - it's fair to say that the women may have been burdened by those expectations. Fair? Unfair? Anyone's guess could be right, but it's gotta weigh on your mind when you take the pitch with the knowledge that your success or failure is being looked to as the barometer for the game's success or failure in your home country.
As a fan, I wanted the team to win, for the sport to continue its growth with a jolt of energy and enthusiasm, and for sponsors to start lining up to support a game that is far more enjoyable than the monotony of a NASCAR race or the tedium of mid-season MLB. So, naturally, I was disappointed on Sunday. But, as an aspiring realist, I'm also acutely aware that the game's success in the US is dependent on so many factors other than the success of the Women's Team in any given tournament, particularly when the Men's Team is consistently getting bounced out of the World Cup's first round of the elimination stage (if that...). So, when the team lost, I feared that the storyline that has been so thoroughly fed to us - that the US Women's team is the best in the world and should never lose, and that their success could mean a huge uptick in interest - would come back to bite the team in the media coverage that followed.
In other words, Cue the Douchebags.
Let me preface this by saying that I think it's totally fair to criticize the manner of the US team's loss. They held two separate one goal leads that should have each iced the game, only to give up absurdly poor equalizers that forced overtime and then the penalty shootout. And then they didn't close in the shootout itself.
But, what I cannot stand, is bullying - and unresearched bullying at that - taking the form of some distorted feminist meme that demands we all treat the US Women's Team the same way we would if they were men: like good for nothing chokers. Because, clearly, they are much more than that to anyone that's been paying attention.
I start with Greg Couch of AOL Fanhouse. Putting aside my gut instinct to just spend a paragraph taking potshots at AOL generally, Mr. Couch's article, entitled "U.S. women's national team deserves serious criticism," is emblamatic of some of the bullshit reporting coming out of various corners of the internet over the past couple days. In the piece, Mr. Couch essentially argues that any pride in the women's team - any refusal to dwell on the epic fail that was their loss - is somehow an indication that we're condescending the team by failing to call them out for the loss. Indeed, taking his cue from President Obama's tweet ("Couldn’t be prouder of the women of the #USWNT after a hard-fought game"), Mr. Couch feels the need to equate the Prez's sentiment with that of a parent patting the head of a 7 year old from whom "you don’t really expect much and don’t want to hurt feelings."
Or maybe its just that some people choose to voice support in defeat, to not point out the obvious - that a higher ranked team got beat by a lower ranked team after crumbling with the lead - when they are debriefing the biggest story in U.S. women's sports since, well, 1999 probably. That's not insulting to the women on the U.S. team - women who I am sure are well aware that they fucked up. It's patriotic and it's optimistic and it's, frankly, a more accurate interpretation of the hard road that the team had to travel just to get to the final. President Obama and all the rest of us have every right to be proud of this team, regardless of the ultimate result in the final, without being told we're somehow condescending these women we so greatly admire.
Another voice in the chorus of douchebags is T.J. Simers, whose headline describes the World Cup loss as "disgraceful." He starts the article with these two sentences, setting the tone for the hyperbolic shite that follows: "In all my years watching futbol, I have never seen a side on the pitch gag as much as the U.S. gals. Talk about just dribbling it away."
COME THE FUCK ON.
The Google tells me that, when not incessantly bitching about the current state of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Mr. Simers dabbles here and there with soccer commentary, much of it bitching about David Beckham and the LA Galaxy. Other than that, though, his resume seems utterly devoid of any contact with The Beautiful Game. So forgive me if my initial reaction is to punch him in the face for saying "In all my years of watching futbol" to open his article. Maybe he's a fan, too, I don't know. But, even if he is, all the more reason to call him out for the unsubstantiated drivel that follows.
In addition to the wolf in sheep's clothing argument about being "fair" to the women's team by calling them out for the chokejob on Sunday, Simers goes to the mat and brings out a series of comparisons so that the casual soccer fan can fully understand the implications of the USWNT's loss in the final. "This was the mighty Soviet hockey team losing in Lake Placid to a bunch of kids and then fearing the next stop might be Siberia. . . As mismatches go, this was Oregon versus USC. The Mavericks against the Lakers."
Ugh. Where to begin.
Well, for starters, Mr. Simers - and to an extent Mr. Couch as well - COMPLETELY gloss over the fact that, while favorites, the U.S. was not so heavily favored to make this a David v. Goliath matchup. When FIFA last did their world rankings in March, Japan ranked 4th. FOURTH. Behind the U.S., Brazil and Germany, each of whom was favored by many columnists and soccer pundits to win the torunament. But, suddenly, moving to Japan in the 4th spot is coming upon an outmatched underdog with no hope of success. Mr. Stimer, Google is a wonderful thing. You can use it to find facts, in addition to that weird fetish porn you're into. #UntrueTJSimersFacts
Sure, the U.S. hadn't lost to Japan in 25 games, and they thoroughly dominated the match in such a way that probably gave the casual fan the impression that the ladies from Japan were simply bad. But, to somehow equate the stellar play of the U.S. team with the alleged poor quality of the Japanese team is simply sloppy reporting. Japan had already beaten Germany, the two-time defending champion and home nation, so any allusion to them being a bad team is stupid. And the reference to history - which includes very dated history of a women's game far less competitive and skilled than it is today, to anyone who has been paying attention - is simply not a fair metric for whether the ultimate result is a disgrace or not.
Listen, I get that this team lost, and lost in a way that can fairly be called "choking." Fine. But, to push aside the success that they had - beating a Brazillian team from behind, and in doing so denying the reigning world player of the year from the elusive World Cup title - is, I think, a really self-satisfying exercise for sports writers who don't much care about soccer and are eager to take any opportunity for cheap shots at the future of the sport in America. After all, for these writers, soccer's success hangs in the balance whenever our national teams take the pitch in a big tournament. The need for real infrastructure and recruitment at all levels of the national game is apparently lost on these guys. All we need is a great moment, and then we're all hooked right? Maybe, but after the magic that was 1999, and the little sustained interest that followed, I tend to think the process is more about baby steps than the need for one big splash to get Americans' attention. Looking at this one game, and concluding that American soccer is going nowhere because the USWNT lost is missing the big picture, and is ignoring the great things to be happy about with respect to the future of the American game.
For the fan that got hooked during either of the past World Cups - last year with the men, or this summer with the women - the key isn't to give them a winner on the international stage, the key is to give them a watchable sport to keep their interest up during the years between these opportunities for international glory. To that end, if a writer really wants to talk about whether the game can maintain American fan interest now that people have cared enough to sit down for a few matches, let's start talking about the infrastructure, about the national pro leagues and make sure that the new fans of the game are actually aware of what else might be out there for them. For guys like TJ Simer, American women's soccer may be on hold until next summer's olympics, but for those that know, by way of example, the WPS will feature a match between the WNY Flash - featuring Brazillian superstar Marta and American Alex Morgan, among others - and the magicJack - featuring American Abby Wambach - Wednesday night in front of a sold out crowd in Rochester and a national TV audience on Fox Soccer Channel. For those that know or care to do a little basic research online, the Beautiful Game is being played every weekend in our own backyards, with some of the most talented and skilled players on the planet, both men and women.
In my eyes, no grand opportunity has been lost, beyond the obvious opportunity win the World Cup itself, with the result on Sunday. Sunday's loss does not spell the end of the U.S. Women's Team's success in international play, nor does it indicate any sort of danger for the future of women's soccer in American generally. Indeed, a 4-seed beating a 1-seed is exactly the kind of parity the sport needs to gain ground on the men's game, both here and abroad. Calling these women chokers, for the sake of some quasi-principled argument, misses the point about why I, and many other soccer fans across this county, are feeling proud of our ladies today. And why I, for one, am excited to keep watching them and giving them the respect they deserve by continuing to be a fan.
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