Email Exchange: USMNT “Falls” to Portugal

Clint

About 12 hours after posting this, we realized we had referred to the USA-POR match, a 2-2 result, as an American loss throughout the exchange. Perhaps that more accurately reflected how we felt following the draw, but we still wanted to make the necessary corrections. Everything below should now reflect the actual result. Our apologies.

Today’s article: “We Went There: Watching the USMNT on Copacabana Beach in Rio,” Brian Phillips, Grantland

Michael Rosen:

Man, talk about a gut punch.

I don’t know where you watched the game, Cam, but over here in Berkeley I was packed into a bar filled front to back with Clint Dempsey jerseys and American flags. There was a distinct reaction for every goal – stunned silence after the flubbed Cameron clearance; shock and delayed excitement when Jones’s blast found netting; orgiastic, Borat-at-the-speaking-in-tongues-church exuberance when Dempsey scored the dick goal.

And then, nerves. An “I believe that we will win” chant here and there, but mostly silence. Around when the clock hit 94:00 and Yedlin had the ball trapped in the Portuguese, there was a swell of noise that just got louder and louder until the Bradley turnover. We don’t have to talk about what happened after that, I don’t think.

I was thinking about it: despite the USMNT salvaging a tie, can you remember a more painful game in your sports-rooting lifetime? The ‘Hawks-Falcons divisional game from 2013 was the only one that immediately sprung to mind for me. We were into the next round, and then Ronaldo was like “haha fuck you nope.” Often times, after, say, a late-innings M’s loss or a regular season ‘Hawks loss, I’ll be kind of bummed out for a few minutes but move on from my day. After yesterday’s tie (not even an actual loss!), I was legitimately pissed for the rest of the day, and woke up still angry about it. Is it the nature of soccer that leads to such devastation? Is it the national element of the game? Or just the fact that we get three guaranteed World Cup games every four years? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

And while we’re on the topic of speculation/conjecture, I want to hear your take on everyone’s favorite conversation of the moment: whether soccer will ever “catch on” in America, whatever that means. We see this every time around: people get way amped about the World Cup, and then let soccer fade into the background for the next four years. I’m guilty of it myself, although I’ve had a few failed runs at picking up an EPL team. Anyways, do you ever see soccer reaching the popularity levels of baseball in the U.S., or even eclipsing it? Will the entire country be waking up at 8 a.m. to watch the Arsenal-Manchester City match next in the fall?

Finally: where are you going to watch the game on Thursday? And what superstitions will you maintain/discard?

Cameron Seib:

Bless you for referencing that Borat scene, Mike. If you remember it well, you’ll know there’s a moment where a rather hefty man, dressed in full Sunday-dad attire, sprints in front of the pulpit whilst fist-pumping. Movie-viewing euphoria.

And speaking of Pentecostal churches, soccer. I watched yesterday’s match at home, alone. My dog even left my side after hearing the guttural noise I made in response to Nani’s early score. I’ll tell you, watching U.S. World Cup matches alone just isn’t the same. That can probably be said of any sporting event, but it’s especially true for these games. Because the World Cup, at least for casual fans like me, isn’t necessarily about the soccer. It’s about rooting on a team that represents the nation, perhaps the only national team for which the country really cares what’s at stake. Everyone around you can rejoice at a Dempsey goal, and that’s why I think this event is special. Unless, of course, there’s no one around you, in which case watching can kind of start to feel like you’re just rooting on any old one of your favorite teams.

That Seahawks loss was more painful for me, for a few reasons. Part of it’s Seahawk-specific; our team and fans are 12-inches of cocky heading into every game, so losing any matchup, much less one in the postseason, means days of that shit-talking being thrown back in your face. I’m also just more invested in the Seahawks than the USMNT. Lastly, and I can feel the spirt of Marx in my fingers as I type this, part of the dejection at the U.S.’s tie was dulled, for me, by the fact Cristiano Ronaldo made it happen. Ronaldo’s been my favorite player since seventh grade, when I saw him playing in his first World Cup and thought the mullet he then rocked was hilarious. And beyond just liking him, I couldn’t help but grin as, in that moment, Ronaldo transformed into a six-foot-one, walking middle finger. The entire match, the commentators are busting him for poor play, Twitter’s mocking him for his flops, and he responds by reminding everyone that he’s quite possibly the best athlete on Earth.

I think the heartbreak found in the World Cup is dually explained by your last suggestion, and the mere fact that it’s the biggest stage in soccer. As that Seahawks-Falcons loss showed, any disappointment in the postseason or a similar major event is torturous. We probably just don’t know this because Seattle teams rarely make it to these events. Also, like you said, knowing the fun of the World Cup, anything that pushes us further towards that four-year intermission, including a tie, is painful.

I really don’t have a great answer for where soccer’s headed in the U.S. It’s certainly caught on here, in Seattle, but I think a lot of that has to do with a certain demographic, as hipsters love cultivating a soccer-loving image for themselves. I think the level of media coverage soccer gets will go a long way in determining its eventual popularity. Yes, TV stations are only motivated to air events if there’s viewing demand, but I think a lot of people forget that those same stations can artificially create demand. If ESPN began scheduling, say, two primetime MLS matches per week, and really gave them the whole Monday Night Football treatment, I think soccer’s popularity would grow surprisingly fast. There would be more exposure, and general sports fans would feel it their duty to tune in to matches that were being hyped as big events.

I’ll be watching Thursday’s match in my living room, again alone. Keep me on FaceTime at the bar?

MR:

Fuckin’ Saussure reference last week and a Marx reference this week? You realize I have to deal with these guys 8 hours a week in class, right? Unless you were referring to a certain Marx character from Capital, in which case, carry on.

Chipper is definitely a solid companion for any occasion, but he probably didn’t have the nationalistic spirit that most people watching the U.S. game on Sunday did. I think you’re right, though. Will Leitch of Sports On Earth has written that part of the fun is that unlike any given U.S. professional sporting event, literally everyone around you is supporting the same side. I tend to agree with that.

“Twelve-inches of cocky” is an interesting phrase, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard that one before. I would like to think I’m more invested in the Seahawks, considering I’ve spent the last 10 or so years watching pretty much every single one of their games. Maybe I’m discounting how pissed I was after that Falcons game because the NFL season is in this weird dead period and it’s hard to remember how the emotional highs and lows of football work. I feel pretty strongly rooting for the USMNT, though. Maybe’s soccer growing on me.

That’s a really good point with the programming shaping what the American public wants. To push back, though, don’t you think that after watching the World Cup, American fans would be suspicious of the quality play they’re watching in the MLS? We’ve both been to a couple of Sounders games, and we’ve definitely had a good time, but the athleticism and brilliance we see in the World Cup is completely absent in the MLS. That’s a well-trod counterpoint, but I’ll side with it until I see any evidence to the contrary.

I feel kind of bad, because we haven’t discussed Phillips’s piece, which I thought was absolutely brilliant. I know you’re not a huge fan of his writing, thinking he’s a little hit-or-miss, but you can’t deny how every single sentence he writes kicks you in the ass. There is no cliché, no generalization at all present. If he’s anything, he’s original, and when he hits Peak Phillips he’s as good as it gets, I feel. The paragraph where he’s describing the US and Portugal styles — I was just shaking my head in jealousy as I read it. So, yeah, I liked the piece a lot, and his piece last week about trains and Brazil and the origin of soccer was probably my favorite piece of sports journalism from the last few months.

CS:

Funny you bring up Ms. Marx, as she actually invented the classroom version of flopping. She’d always come into tests or presentations or whatever, clearly unprepared. But when the answers evaded her, she’d act like it was the exam’s fault, or the teacher’s! Never would she acknowledge that she brought the metaphorical “fall” upon herself, which, combined with her tears, always resulted in sympathetic treatment. A lot like Ronaldo falling of his own accord, blaming it on the defender and putting on Ronaldo Pout Face, and thereby drawing a free kick.

Chipper and your “dog” Zeppelin are biological cousins, so you know they’re both English Springer Spaniels. They, like the rest of our friends across the pond, consider investing one’s self in the World Cup an exercise in futility.

On the matter of national spirit, what differentiates the World Cup from other like events is that the results seem to matter. Television and history and friends tell us the World Cup is a BIG deal, so a USMNT win feels real meaningful. And because any good patriot is interested at the prospect of the U.S. securing an important victory, we’re left with sardined bars and Grant Parks across the nation – the defining aspect of the Cup. Compare this to the FIBA World Cup, or the World Baseball Classic. Most could care less how their country fares in these events, which might explain why WBC games are about as packed as a Wednesday Royals-Mariners matinee.

Yeah, I didn’t touch on the quality consideration of soccer’s potential in the U.S. Your question’s tough to answer, because soccer is the only sport whose top league is not located in America. Our leagues have always been the highest quality, so it’s tough to discern whether we’re fans because they’re “our” leagues, or because of their quality. Though, I would bring up the fact that NCAA football is perhaps the most popular sport after the NFL, and that March Madness is probably the most-hyped American sporting event after the Super Bowl. We don’t seem to care that college football and basketball games aren’t filled with the world’s top talent.

I’m actually becoming a bigger fan of Phillips. I remember discussing him with you once, when I brought up the “hit-or-miss” criticism. I explained that it seemed Phillips always approached articles wanting to make some paradigm-shifting “point,” and that he sometimes succeeded in this to great effect, but often was the victim of his own insistence and produced contrived arguments. I think this is still true to some extent, but that being said, the actual words are never anything short of excellent. His scenes are lively but not over-decorated, his humor biting but not obnoxious. My favorite Phillips piece is this primer to the 2014 NCAA Tournament. It’s nearly as funny as a fat man in light-wash jeans parading around a Pentecostal church.

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