In theory, you could support the U.S. Men’s National Team without really loving America, but it would be a waste of emotion. If you weren’t bound by blood or dirt to this country — if you could choose a national side on merits alone — surely you’d pick the Brazilians for their talent and flair, or Argentina its attacking style, or the young, talented Belgians for their potential. An objective soccer fan wouldn’t choose to back the star-crossed Americans, a capable but overmatched team that doesn’t measure up to the USA’s cultural resonance on a global scale.
But this isn’t about choice. It’s about identity, and love, and a cultural ideal of diversity that lesser countries can’t stomach.
It’s about identity, and love, and a cultural ideal of diversity that lesser countries can’t stomach.
On June 17, 2006, in a World Cup remembered as a disappointment for American soccer, my recurring interest in the U.S. Men’s National Team — a quadrennial bloom since 1994 — turned evergreen, something bone-deep and permanent. Love shines more brightly with a backdrop of hate, and for 90 minutes I spit venom at Italy and referee Jorge Larrionda with a rabid black rage. For 90 minutes, the Azzurri dove and flopped at every whisper of contact, and Larrionda indulged their theatrics.
After Daniele De Rossi earned a straight red for elbowing Brian McBride under the eye — drawing a wicked gash that took the U.S.’s best attacker off the pitch for medical attention — the Americans looked poised to upset the European powers: they had a man advantage in a tied game with over an hour remaining. Then Larrionda handed out two questionable red cards to the Stars and Stripes in the span of three minutes, just before and after halftime. The U.S., once sporting the advantage, now had to play the final 43 minutes with nine men on the field.
In the 65th minute, with the Americans holding possession in the Italian half, Carlos Bocanegra and Simone Perrotta both slid to win a lazy touch by DaMarcus Beasley.
The ball scooted down the sideline, and Bocanegra popped up and raced to regain possession while Perrotta feigned a shattered femur.
As a Perotta lay prone, waving his "injured" leg in the air, Bocanegra slotted a pass to Beasley in the box, who fired a strike under Gianluigi Buffon.
The goal was disallowed; Larrionda ruled that McBride had screened Buffon from an offside position. Boos rained down on the pitch. Perotta continued his theatrics. The stretcher came out. I remained unconvinced.
In many ways, the 1-1 draw that day was a quintessential result for American soccer: the USMNT’s speed and strength helped them hold the shore against a team with superior talent; a world-class American goalkeeper turned in a heroic performance; and what could have been a momentous step forward was instead a bitter stumble, a moral victory remembered mostly by the die-hards (see also: the 2-0 halftime lead over Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup that ended in a 3-2 loss).
That tie with Italy bound me emotionally to the USMNT. From then on, it wasn’t just the World Cup, it was the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup. I still wanted more. I watched every World Cup qualifier, every friendly to gauge which players could see the next World Cup roster. In the months between FIFA matches, I followed the news of U.S. players; a pool of 40 or so players spread through the top leagues of at least eight different countries. I bookmarked Stars and Stripes FC.
How did this happen? A sense of patriotism, sure; I'm an evangelist for the sprawling beauty and complexity of the States and its citizens. But love of country isn't all of it. Two other key factors shape my obsession: the perpetual underdog status of the team against the world's best, and the rich diversity of the players who comprise it.
Americans love underdogs. After all, the nation itself began as an upstart facing off against a global empire, and there's something of an individualistic, anti-authority stance programmed into the American mindset.
Americans love underdogs. After all, the nation itself began as an upstart facing off against a global empire.
But the love of underdogs is not a uniquely American trait. According to an exhaustive Slate article, "people in Singapore and South Korea have more or less the same love for the long shot as Americans," while Nadav Goldschmied, a professor at the University of San Diego, concluded that two-thirds of Americans instinctively cheer for underdogs, a slightly lower rate than the 72 percent of Japanese who favor the dark horse. (Conversely, only 57 percent of Chinese and 52 percent of Israelis identify with the little guy.)
The psychology of cheering for an underdog is straightforward enough: cost-benefit analysis steers us in that direction. If you cheer for the favorite and they win, your expectations have merely been met, while a loss is devastating. (This is why Yankees fans can sound bitter about anything less than a World Series victory.) But if you back the underdog, a loss simply fulfills expectation; a win, though unlikely, produces a stronger emotional high.
The problem for American sports fans, though, is a dearth of native underdogs on the international stage. It's a nice problem to have, but Olympic story lines tend to be "Do we have more medals than China?" and "Can the Americans continue their dominance?" Don't get me wrong: I love watching Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, but their inevitable gold generally felt like a box getting checked.
In team sports, basketball's a cakewalk. The American hockey team submits to Canada but is otherwise a world power. American football has little interest outside our borders. And the United States has never finished better than fourth in three World Baseball Classics, but the mere idea of "international baseball" is still nascent -- and poorly executed by the WBC, at that.
The World Cup, then, is the best chance to root for an American underdog. (Apologies to USA rugby, which is more minnow than dark horse). Because of the United States' Cold War soccer coma -- it didn't make a World Cup between 1950 and 1990 -- the country lacked the infrastructure to develop talented players. It still does, actually: in December, Coach Jurgen Klinsmann became the technical director of U.S. Soccer, empowering him to overhaul player development and the youth national teams.
But while the U.S. lacks the culture or infrastructure to create a reliable pipeline of world-class footballers, there’s no shortage of phenomenal athletes in America. So while other teams are more talented with the ball at their feet, the Americans get by on strength and physical fitness. As noted in Men’s Fitness, USMNT players ran a combined 73.6 miles per game at the 2010 World Cup, more than any other nation in the 32-team field. This isn’t necessarily a good thing — less talented teams spend more time chasing the team with possession — but team-wide fitness was the foundation of the jailbreak counterattack in stoppage time that led to Landon Donovan’s famous goal and propelled the USMNT to the top of its group for the first time in history. When the U.S. gets results on the pitch, it’s because they had a better plan and worked harder than the opposition.
This is another reason we love underdogs: transference. As individuals, we see ourselves as fighting the odds in life, overcoming obstacles with sweat and cunning. We look for the same traits in the teams we support, and if the USMNT's traits -- what Noah Davis called "a near psychopathic intensity and threshold for pain" -- just happen to reflect national ideals of an American work ethic, all the better.
Even as football styles bleed across international boundaries, we still assign stereotypical characteristics to national sides. The Italians are capable of beauty but often despicable; the English are a fallen empire; the Brazilians' samba highlights their individual flair; the French are sexy but have delicate egos. As Americans, especially ones who watched the nine men gut out a result against the world's best side in '06, we'd like to believe our team is imbued with more tenacity and courage than other sides. The USMNT: representing the Home of the Brave.
I think that's unfair to the other sides, which all seem tenacious enough in their own way. Instead, I'd argue that what makes the U.S. team truly American is its unrivaled diversity. Striker Jozy Altidore is the son of Haitian immigrants; goalkeeper Tim Howard has a black father and a Hungarian mother. Another goalkeeper, Nick Rimando, is half Mexican and half Filipino. Omar Gonzalez, who provided defensive stability through World Cup qualifying, has Mexican parents who raised him in Texas. Starting midfielder Alejandro Bedoya has a Colombian father. Chris Wondolowski is half Native American and a member of the Kiowa tribe (one of very few, I'd guess, with a Polish last name). DeAndre Yedlin is a mishmash of Native American, African American, and Latvian.
And we haven't even gotten to the dual-nationals -- most the sons of American servicemen -- who chose the Stars and Stripes over a European side. Mix Diskerud is Norwegian-American, and Aron Johansson was born in Alabama to Icelandic parents. The other five are German-Americans who have, at times, drawn the ire of fans who believe they've unfairly earned the favor of coach Jurgen Klinsmann, himself a German drawn to America.
Klinsmann met his wife, Debbie, an Asian-American model, while playing for Inter Milan. At the end of his playing career in 1998, they settled in southern California, where they have two children. Klinsmann has favored the States ever since (while coaching the German national team, he infamously telecommuted unless the team was in camp or had a game).
The mix of dual-nationals and a foreign-born coach has created some hand-wringing in the media and certain insiders in the U.S. soccer community, most notably former USMNT coach Bruce Arena. Is the team American enough? Is it too German? Questions, musings, think pieces: a collection of twaddle that ignores the reality that this is a nation of immigrants.
Other nations, though, step far beyond the contrarian outlook of some American media outlets. Last month, Italian fans chanted racist slurs at Mario Balotelli, the team's immensely talented striker who was born to Ghanaian immigrants but raised by Italian foster parents. (This happened while Balotelli was in camp with the Italian team). Meanwhile, Leo Messi, the best player in the world -- perhaps the best ever -- was born and raised in Argentina, but is widely considered "not Argentine enough" (he moved to Spain at age 13 because his family couldn't afford the hormone treatment he needed).
France, a nation that won the 1998 World Cup with a diverse "black-blanc-beur" (black-white-Arab) team, was rocked by scandal in 2011 when the French Football Federation discussed implementing quotas that would cap non-white players in the national system at 30 percent. Spain and Japan have horrid reputations for racism at the club level that hasn't affected their monochromatic national sides.
Belgium, impressively, lacks a unified identity to reject its new diversity. With the nation forever divided between Flemings and Walloons, the children of its African immigrants are the first people to actually identify as Belgian. As Sam Knight wrote in his excellent profile of Belgium:
The country’s newest citizens might be the first to truly accept Belgium on its own eccentric terms. [Anthropologist Johan] Leman believes that theory has come true. "How to explain?" he said. "Our national discussions are internal discussions, and very domestic, and these guys coming from outside look at Belgium and they say, ‘Why destroy this country? With its nice system?’"
For all of America's problems with race -- and the wounds run deep and continue to this day -- the United States remains fundamentally more adaptive to demographic change than any other nation at the World Cup, at least on the small scale of its soccer team.
The defining characteristic of an American isn't bravery or individualism or an indomitable drive to succeed. It's the hard choice to leave the home you know for a better opportunity. For more freedom. So your children don't suffer your struggles. America doesn't always deliver on those opportunities, but it's never been the American Promise.
It's the American Dream.
We can argue about the United States' greatness, or lack thereof. We will argue about it, inevitably in the comments of this very article: America’s political climate is irreparably divisive; its gun culture causes senseless deaths; it has ceded democratic governance to corporations; it has failed to protect its daughters from sexual assault; it has failed its veterans; it has failed its children and, possibly, its very future.
We will also argue about racism in the United States: how the "Land of the Free" kept innocent people in chains and then freed them into systemic disadvantage; how racism is worse in other countries; how that doesn't excuse our continued shortcomings; how you're racist / no YOU are / you're the REAL the racist / c'mon guys, we can all agree Spain is the real racist.
We all carry this, the effects of American history. It manifests in our culture, and we wear it as anger, resentment, and guilt. It rages online and bleeds into the media and continues to harm citizens and immigrants in real and permanent ways.
But when the U.S. Men's National Team takes the field and lines up shoulder-to-shoulder -- black, white, Latino, biracial, children of immigrants and hyphenates of every color, more representative of America's diversity than any team in the nation's history -- when they stand there with their hands on their hearts and mouth the lyrics of a song about a battle in 1814, lyrics of a history they've adopted as their own, my heart swells to bursting with love for the country that could make such a goddamn beautiful team.
I want you to love this team the way that I do. I want you to be inspired by Clint Dempsey's swagger. I want you to marvel at Michael Bradley: Soccer Terminator. I want you to have the comfort of knowing that Tim Howard will make the impossible save. I want you to see a picture of DeAndre Yedlin and three sons of Army servicemen in Times Square and find it endearing that a black Latvian-Native American is gleefully calling his friends "ze Germans."
I want to share my love of the the U.S. team with you, but it’s not mine to share. It already belongs to all of us, each of us the same.
This is America: we've been bad, but we're getting better.