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.