Sometimes following a team becomes much more than following a team. Sometimes, sports and life can intersect in strange and moving ways.
My journey with United States soccer began 12 years ago, in Taiwan.
I'm in a a hot train station in Chiayi, Taiwan. You've likely never heard of Chiayi. Think of it as the Charlotte, North Carolina of Taiwanese cities, a bustling city with a redneck core. In Taiwan, rednecks are people in galoshes and do-ris queued up in the morning to eat the breakfast of champions: a bottle of Whisbih (a caffeineated demon brew of alcohol, caffeine, and a nicotine extract), a fried egg, and cigarettes. They queue up for trucks waiting to do road work or head to the fields for the day. It's 90 degrees, and the phone is making strange noises.
I'm making strange noises. The phone makes two beeps, and sometimes one long one, and I do not understand any of them. Moving to another country is to inflict a temporary brain injury on yourself, and the degree varies depending on how far removed said country is from your frame of reference. Move to England, and it is comparable to walking around with a mild concussion. Move to Asia at the age of 21, and you may as well have suffered an aneurysm, and then attempt to function as if nothing ever happened.
I hang up the phone. The phone clearly speaks Chinese, since all my efforting and pawing at the box nailed to the wall resulted in one frustrated American and one clearly baffled but polite Taiwanese operator. At least I think that was the operator; there are no guarantees. I could have been patched through to President Lee Tung-Hui's office for all I know. If that was the case, he was polite, thorough, and completely useless to an English speaker in need of serious help operating Taiwanese phones.
No one tells you about jet lag when you move to Asia: how it distorts your ability to think, function, or see anything objectively. I would walk back after the same fight with the phone across the road from our hotel, and sit in the hotel room in between teaching hours, waiting to hear about apartments, and would watch the only thing on our hotel television: American professional wrestlng, and the 1998 World Cup.
(For some reason, the WWF had secured a serious foothold in Taiwan. Listening to Hollywood Hogan-ah dubbed in Chinese still ranks as one of the most unsharable and delicious comedy experiences of my life.)
I followed the United States out of categorical obligation, out of homesickness, and by default. If you didn't watch any of the matches, good for you. You missed a United States squad with all the cohesion of cut-rate concrete, sent into a sputtering mess by Steve Sampson's mismanagement of the team and John Harkes pulling a John Terry on Eric Wynalda before John Terry even knew what a John Terry was. (Translation: he slept with his wife.)
Harkes was left off the team, the chemistry soured, and I spent the wee hours of the night in a tiny Taiwanese hotel room. Drunks crashing motor scooters in the streets served as my soundtrack for the images of a US team losing to Germany, Iran, and Yugoslavia in three easy steps.
The soundtrack in my case was entirely appropriate for the 1998 United States World Cup team. On the field, they bore the look of a shell-shocked team. Each player seemed to be broadcasting at great distance to the other over deplorable and aged ham radio equipment: crackle hiss pop crackle HERE COMES A PASS I'M KICKING IT NOW crackle hiss pop. They may as well have been calling each other from the phone across the street from me, barking in defensive calls over hissing Taiwanese phone lines in heavily accented Mandarin to a baffled teammate on a cellphone in France. They played soccer as if each were stranded on their own moons, kicking the ball across vast, unbridgeable spaces.
On my own moon in Chiayi, Taiwan, I drank Mr. Brown canned coffee, watching the United States make horrible mistakes while I wondered if I'd done the same. I want to say I met the United States team on a first-name basis under good circumstances, but that was not the case. I met them as failing strangers, flickering over a bad feed on an ancient hotel television, in a sweltering fit of Pacific Rim insomnia, far from home, utterly lost in every sense of the word, and wondering what any of us were doing.
I'm walking up the hill to the Brewhouse in Little Five Points in Atlanta. It's five in the morning, and the United States are going to play Portugal in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup. We've switched time zones, the team and I: I'm somewhere in the American-Euro Community timesphere, and they're in Godzilla Standard Time in Japan and Korea, lining up for a match against the best team Portugal may ever put on the field.
The Golden Generation--Luis Figo, Rui Costa, and a dozen other players who never would fulfill their international promise--are lining up to play what will be a warm-up for them against a vastly inferior US side, an American team made of the same castoff material we always assembled our teams from: college players, second and third-tier Euro players, guys eking out livings in the Saudi league and other bizarre, far-flung soccer environs.
Correction: they might have already lined up and given the US that ass-whipping, since I'm late, and for all I know the US, some twenty minutes into the match now, may have already surrendered five goals. This is a given, that we're not good, and that this will all end badly, and yet I'm up with the birds at a time in my life when I usually came home to them for...for this.
A silhouette of a fan appears at the top of the hill. He's wearing an Uncle Sam top hat and American flag across his shoulders as a cape. I don't know why he's out there. In retrospect, maybe he just wanted to tell someone, anyone what had just happened. In Little Five Points at five in the morning, this would likely be a homeless man looking for grain alcohol, but he would have told him all the same, and possibly bought him a beer.
Instead he sees me, and screams at me down the hill.
"WE'RE UP ON PORTUGAL TWO-NIL! FREAKING PORTUGAL!!!"
I start sprinting up the hill. Every fan has a focal moment, a point where, like a serial killer, you crossed the line from being a normal person to someone who would discard everything in the name of obsession. With U.S. soccer, being up two goals against Portugal at five in the morning is mine.
The rest of the month is a blur. I almost get fired from two jobs. My bank statement goes into overdraft thanks to the eight dollar "orange juices" served bright and early at the Brewhouse, which in fact are screwdrivers sold on the sly to circumvent liquor laws. I apologize day and night to my wife, who sees me for a grand total of four hours that month. My co-workers politely ignore me working drunk, which to my credit I do very well. (At least I think I do it well. I was drunk.)
I get up at 2 in the morning for games. I almost get into a fight with an American hippie in an italian jersey who says he can't root for the US because "We've killed too many people." (My retort: "One too few, in my opinion.") I fall off the edge of the fireplace and spill an entire 24 oz beer in celebration when we score the second goal in a 2-0 win against Mexico, hated, cheating, cheap-shotting Mexico. I nearly break a bone in my hand when Claudio Reyna's prayer of a midfield shot, taken when Oliver Kahn was hopelessly out of position, goes just that wide [holds hands a foot apart] in our final loss to Germany.
Like most of my twenties, the United States making the quarter-finals of the World Cup was a giddy blur of bar tabs and hazily remembered moments. I'm not even sure it really happened, and wouldn't be if I hadn't ruined shirts, potential letters of recommendations, professional prospects, and several thousand cells in my liver in the process. For one month in 2002, I let the brakes off and let life roll downhill without caring, and when it ended the United States had come within one goal of beating the eventual runners-up. A soft landing by any accounts, I say.
It just feels wrong. I'm skipping work again, and almost getting fired, and in fact having that meeting, that meeting with my supervisor, the one where she says "You just don't seem like you want to be here." I don't, in fact: I'm terrible at my job, and spend the better part of my day watching the World Cup on pirate feed, covering the window in my office to reduce the glare on the screen and popping up an Excel spreadsheet each time someone walks in.
The notable exception to this is my Ghanaian co-worker, who in the next office over thumps on the wall to let me know: your team sucks. I'd love to argue, but the 2006 team seems to be playing like two different animals sewed together. The husk of the old--the 2002ers, the McBrides, the Hejduks--is coming off, and the new--Donovan, Dempsey--hasn't quite got its sea-legs. The result is a disjointed mess that loses a howler to the Czechs 3-0 and draws in a disgraceful game against Italy, an Italy squad at their dive-y, theatrical worst.
I blow off work for a "meeting" in the case of Italy. Two of my co-workers see me, but there's mutually assured destruction at work here. Jorge Larrionda sends off not one, but two of our players in what becomes a nine on ten game that the Italians still can't crack open into a win.
(To this day, if I see him in person, I will assault Jorge Larrionda for that game. I am not exaggerating. I have graphs and diagrams of precisely how I would hurt him. This has required some planning, but I've had four years to think about it.)
The team is clearly in between things. So am I: I don't know where I'm going, but it's not this office, not this life. I'm writing a bit. Okay, a lot: compulsively, badly, sometimes far too quickly, but writing, and it's piling up, and sometimes checks for tens--sometimes hundreds--of dollars land in the mailbox. It's starting to affect my work, but I don't care, and with the World Cup it only gets worse. Later, when i blow off three hours of work for the Argentina-Germany match, my boss asks me in again for what could be "the talk" where she tells me it's time to get out the sad little white box of doom and put my things in it. She starts to speak, but I cut her off.
"I had a very important meeting with a partner today, and this saved our relationship with them."
"I had to watch Germany-Argentina with her, or she wouldn't contract with us anymore."
"You expect me to believe that?"
"Yup. Call her."
I don't know if she ever did, but it didn't come up again. Sometimes a little bullshit will fail you, but a lot of bullshit has never done me wrong in a crisis.
A few days later, the US is dying against Ghana, just slowly bleeding out possession and running out the clock on the 2006 World Cup. My Ghanaian co-worker bangs on the wall when Ghana scores their second goal.
"YOU DON'T WANT THIS, YANKEE! YOU DON'T! WOOOO!!!"
She's howling it from the next office over, and she's more right than she could possibly know.
Landon Donovan, at full speed, rams home a wayward deflection from Algeria's goalie on a Clint Dempsey shot. I'm at the Midway, in Atlanta, not drunk, not in between things, a half-finished beer perched dangerously on the bar rail with my laptop open and trying desperately to hold the freshly scattered pieces of my brain together. Donovan runs, his body on full autonomous control, unthinking and frantic with glee, finally sliding on his belly to the corner flag on the left side of the field. Ian Darke bellows noises made incomprehensible by the noise of hundreds of people losing their minds simultaneously.
The bar has exploded. A man in a flag worn as a cape leaps up on the divider between the tables and the bar where I'm working and begins pounding on it with his fist. A man in a 1994 US jersey has his arms up. He is crying. My phone skitters across the floor, and I dive for it, because I have people to text, to call: did you see that? Did you just verify that same event happening with me? Can we both relive it for days, months, and years to come, feeling the same elation by checking with each other that yes, that did happen? Can we verify that every so often, without condition, good things happen even when the worst is on the verge of overtaking it?
The lines are jammed, and the bars on my phone die. Yesterday, when Donovan put the US into the round of 16 for the second time at the last possible second, the internet experienced the biggest traffic surge it had since the election of Barack Obama. Twitter collapsed. Yahoo Sports' servers exploded in a cave somewhere in California. The bars on my cellphone shriveled to a nub. For a moment, the clamor to reach out to someone else and tell them about it, to relive it--to warm the leftover moment up for one last taste--overwhelmed the capacity to do so.
I'm trying to write about it, and I can't. White space sits on the screen, and I want to fill it. I want to say how for twelve years I've lived with this team and not even known it, running parallel with them across the globe, failing, standing in between things, and having moments of random, squandered glory in the interim between mediocrity, frustration, and moments of complete collapse. I want to, really, just like I want to know the rest. I want to know how this team pans out versus Ghana on Saturday, the team that knocked us out last time in a blaze of miserable flames. I want to know if we can go further than the quarterfinals, or if Tim Howard can top the dazzling save-post-pattern throw sequence he made to Landon Donovan to save the game. I want to write about all of this.
I can't. There's all this joy in the way. This team, by sheer coincidence, has been grafted to me, and for the moment all I can see is hope, stars, puppies, and Randy Macho Man Savage eating a Slim Jim while riding a unicorn to Freedomland in a clouded cartoon sky. We've been through things, this team and I. We've sat in the dark together, had lost weekends, and had half-baked times of abject failure.
This was not one of them. On some huge life-map, I'd tacked my course using this team as a reference. Pins and lines ran all over its meridians: lost, confused, giddy, absent. With Donovan weeping during his postgame interview, I put another pin on this spot: happy.