The dream may have ended yesterday, the slightly foolish dream that this was it, this was the year that the squad of fighting Americans would claw their way to the golden trophy, but it also began again.
Soccer in America is an unusual thing. It is something that this current generation, this Millennial section, probably played at least some of their childhood, along with dance or baseball or football or anything to keep a young kid busy and tired during the long summer months. It was something for children, save a select few, something that used the football field in high school only when the football team wasn’t on it, something that got few column inches even if they went fairly far, something that only exists one-sidedly in at least one of the nation’s biggest conferences. It’s where football teams go to recruit punters, because a scholarship as keeper is much harder to find. It isn’t, or wasn’t, something that generated interest.
Like many, I had an on-and-off again relationship with soccer. One of my first sporting idols was Mia Hamm, and those powerhouse teams of the nineties, and I played in my youth, but dropped it in favor of dance and band and this and that. I only briefly picked up an infatuation with “football” when I needed something to sound pretentious about in high school, and only really returned to the sport through a World Cup. I bring up this backstory because I know it is similar to so many others of my generation, and of the current explosion of American soccer fans. As someone on Twitter pointed out during that Portugal match, the Portugal match with the water break, we all make the joke about orange slices, because we lived it. Soccer is much more embedded in American culture, current young American culture, than some want to admit.
This time around, though. This time around, the World Cup was everywhere. Buildings in Downtown Dallas glowed red, white, and blue, and the iconic ball tower projected a soccer ball onto it’s globular light-grid. The arenas of sport opened for thousands of viewers, with the palace of American football hosting rowdy fans to watch a soccer match on a Tuesday afternoon. Bars and pubs and wing places and anywhere with a TV were standing room only, and if you wanted a chair (or so help you, a table) you had to get there hours early. In Dallas, titular home of “America’s (American football) Team,” more than 20,000 people sat and watched soccer on the third-largest LED screen in the States on Tuesday, something previously unthinkable.
American soccer fans discuss the sport with a few technical terms, and a lot of cursing. It’s not the technical terms that draw my attention, though I know that there are those who will argue about the pluralization of offside(s) for hours. It’s the cursing. Groaning when a sloppy pass is made, cursing when a defender is caught out of position, caring enough about the game to emote, out loud, putting as much into something so formerly niche as the biggest selling sports in these states. Chanting! Not just the die-hards, but the regular folk, the regular folk who showed up in suits cleverly accented with national colors, screaming their lungs out with “I BELIEVE” and singing the national anthem at a volume that had to be heard to be understood.
Like the last game in the “Group of Death,” I think this World Cup was a loss that ended up a win. A loss, a loss with so many potential ties, a loss that could have been a win in the dying minutes of regulation time, but a win nonetheless. A win for a sport that so many said would never thrive. A win for a country so huge, and so seemingly divided, but so willing to come together, wear our flag (as a cape) with pride, drink in the middle of the day, and scream for our 23 representatives on an international stage. A win for the people who will now talk about Tim Howard as if he’s a close relative, a win for the people who had dreams of the one or two or ten shots the US took going in, a win for those currently swimming in heartbreak.
The temporary dream has ended, but the future of soccer has begun. In the next months, the buzz will die, a little. The paint will fade, the flags will come down, and the friendlies will go under the top baseball game on ESPN 2. It won’t die completely, though. The shared experiences, the utter joy of John Brooks’ impossible goal, the pain of a heartbreaking loss: These are the reasons that bars and pubs and stadiums will be packed come 2018 (and hopefully before then, for other matches). This 2014 team, this diverse, this so American in it’s hodge-podge nature, this athletic 23-headed-monster, this team - it has lit a spark that I do not believe will be extinguished. It may dim, it may quiet, but it will not go out. There are too few things to cheer for as a unit, and a band of unlikely heroes is ever so American.