The Tournament of Nations and I have crossed paths.
The United States Women’s National Team came to my town this week! I got to see them play!
I say that with the zeal of a child upon finding out that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Comin’ Out of Our Shells tour was coming to my town. The United States National Soccer Teams flourish a child-like sort of invigoration deeply within me. As someone routinely squicked out by nationalism, I find a lot of room in my heart for the national teams, who seem like an embodiment of everything I should rightfully identify as the best of my home country. At its best, the team wearing the colors of my country and giving as much as they possibly can for that country feels genuine. I feel something exhilarating for the national soccer teams that I don’t feel for the overwhelmingly pervasive cynical sort of cash-grabby nationalism I’m used to here.
That being said… The Tournament of Nations is absolutely a cynical cash-grab tournament, and I ate that shit right up. The Tournament of Nations, which sounds like a generic name that a soccer video game has to use because it didn’t get the World Cup license, was founded in 2017 by the USSF and features women’s national teams from the United States, Brazil, Australia, and Japan. Each team plays three matches across different venues within the US. This is not to be confused with the SheBelieves Cup, which is precisely the same thing except with three European teams and the trophy you get for winning is cup shaped.
I don’t like the word “meaningless” when it comes to sports. The mere presence of these four national teams in our vicinity imbues these matches with meaning. While I didn’t find the intense, heart-racing action that forced me into love with the USWNT originally, I found… something out of this, and that’s most of what I could ask for.
The summer air in Kansas City gets heavy. Particularly on a day like Thursday, where rainshowers drowned us in the morning and the resulting humidity pushed what would’ve been a moderate afternoon into a sticky mess, Kansas City can feel like a sort of wet hell. You sweat and it goes nowhere, it just stays on the skin. Had it not been for my ticket, I would’ve stayed inside that afternoon.
And, actually, had it not been for my specific ticket, I wouldn’t have shown up at this point in the afternoon at all. The game I came to see started at 6:00 PM, but the Tournament of Nations ticket applies to both the home team’s match and the match between the two foreign squads not taking on the US on that day. On this day, the honor of playing the early afternoon game went to Australia and Brazil.
The atmosphere surrounding this match feels peculiar but strangely familiar. In a quiet stadium speckled with spectators under that weighty midwestern air, I’m reminded of the Kansas City Wizards games I attended in Arrowhead Stadium on weekends nearly a decade ago. A few yellow shirts stand out in the crowd, some for Brazil, some for Australia. Most of the sparse crowd wore USWNT colors. I didn’t notice when the first goal was scored – an own goal off of a misdirected header by Brazilian defender Poliana – because I was buying beer, and the cheers were so quiet that they didn’t get my attention.
Once I sat down I was relatively surprised by the competition on the field. I came in assuming these two teams had little to play for and would resemble that in performance, but I was proven wrong. Both teams really fought for this. After a Brazilian defensive error gave Australian forward Tameka Butt an easy goal in the 38th, I halfway expected the Brazilian team to roll over, but they had several excellent chances right before half that could’ve made the deficit more palatable.
The neutral fans clapped at the right moments and recognized good plays when they saw them. This was high-caliber soccer between the eighth and ninth best teams in the world if the FIFA rankings are to be believed, and excellent class came from where I expected it. Brazil’s Marta, who may well lay claim to being the best ever player in women’s soccer history, had a great run on goal in the 42nd minute and assisted Debinha for their lone score in the 79th. Australia’s Sam Kerr, who won the NWSL MVP award in 2017 and should be in the conversation as one of the best players in the world this year, scored right after halftime with an excellent run and strike of her own. Both of these teams will play at the World Cup in France next year.
For most of us, it meant little more than an exhibition between two excellent teams. For the Australian kids a few rows in front of me and the Brazilian man who stood to my left, it meant something. As Brazil fell behind 3-0 thanks to Kerr, the man sighed. The kids cheered.
Australia finished the match with a 3-1 win.
The in-between of these two matches swayed from nerve-wracking to fine back to nerve-wracking back to fine for me. I think I was actually most intensely affected by anything this evening during the intermission. This is entirely thanks to my Good Old Anxiety™. I had a general admission ticket, which was my first problem. It struck me midway through the first match that if I don’t want to be anxious in the entire leadup to a sporting event, I should just buy a ticket for an assigned seat which seems like the most obvious thing in the world but hear me out:
My in-stadium anxieties come from a pretty standard set of circumstances.
- If it’s a general admission ticket, I want to get as good of a seat as possible. Ergo, I show up like two hours before I need to just to be certain. This wastes two hours because I end up not wanting to sit in the front anyway most of the time.
- I also worry about if I’m going to get a good enough spot for most of the day ahead of the event. This is a nonsensical thing to do but I’d chalk that up to my Good Old Anxiety™ as well
- I also worry if people think it’s weird that I’m there by myself. I find no issue being at sporting events by myself, but…
y’know what? this is all anxiety’s fault
I came in wearing a too-large FC Kansas City t-shirt (RIP) and I don’t own anything with the new USA soccer crest on it. I don’t own anything with the old crest on it, either. I couldn’t find anything even generically patriotic, either. The only USA soccer apparel I own is a 2013 Centennial jersey with Michael Bradley’s name and number on the back, which I think I could still get heckled for wearing after The Incident last fall.
Unfortunately, they ran out of the normal t-shirts so I’m now the proud owner of one of them Moisture Wicking t-shirts that smell bad and you wear to the gym. But at the very least I looked like I belonged there. After seeing a tweet that lightly ridiculed men who wear bandannas, I’ve gone shamefully bandanna-less for the past month and a half. I humbly attempted to bring it back for this match, and I also worried that I looked like a dipshit wearing that for the entire match.
This is the issue with the intermission, I apparently need to be stimulated at all times or else I spend my time overthinking everything possible. This also led me from the back row, from where I left after the Australia game, to incredibly close within the supporters behind the goal. I had to muster up as much possible person-to-person courage as possible to ask one person whether or not an open bleacher space was actually an open bleacher space and as it turned out it was indeed an open bleacher space, and I stood there for the next three hours, singing, clapping, making friends, the whole shebang.
There’s something strange about actually seeing a team you’ve followed for years but with whom you’ve never shared the same physical vicinity. It’s kind of a shock, to finally see the USWNT come out of the tunnel for warmups in those uniforms… I don’t know, there’s something special about it.
I’m hardly a nationalist. I’ve seen national pride justify some of the most heartless, heinous, self-detrimental, and in the majority of cases just fucking weird things. I grew up post 9/11, I grew up drenched in pseduo-propagandized Transformers movies and special camo-print baseball jerseys and that weird red/white/blue Mountain Dew they had that one year. The flag’s so oversaturated that it might as well be basic set-dressing, I probably pass as many American flags on the way to work as I do gas stations.
Yet, still… Seeing the USWNT in the colors of the country in which I grew up made me feel something. The National Teams have, to me, represented the best of what this country can be, the best of what sports can be, and despite or perhaps because of everything I said in that last graf, that means something to me.
I haven’t been able to honestly stand with pride for the anthem for probably four years now. I feel like a fraud putting a hand over my heart and fully singing the song. But I did it for them. They’re out there for all of us.
Now that last graf could’ve gone much differently had Jaelene Hinkle, the North Carolina Courage right back, made the cut for this match. Hinkle’s shared anti-LGBT viewpoints and actually turned down a call-up earlier this year because she disagreed with the pride/rainbow theme on the jersey’s for that upcoming game. I’m grateful for her not playing because “I did it for them. Many of them are out there for all of us, yet one of them is decidedly not out there for a segment of us” doesn’t parse as easily.
But she wasn’t there and I got to ignore that critical part of my brain much more easily than I would’ve had she been out there.
Granted… I’m no stranger to iffy morality issues in sports. The best moment of my USWNT fandom came at the 2015 World Cup, during a period of time when the USWNT’s players didn’t feel they were receiving fair pay for their performance. Even with that issue partially resolved, the bulk of the players from the American domestic league receive fewer than $40,000 per season. The NWSL team I supported back when they were here had people in management roles making sexually harassing comments about their own players.
It’s frustrating, but damn is a lot of shit is frustrating upon those same lines. On similar lines, I felt a number of positive social aspects come through this event as well. The number of young girls I saw react in joy when their favorite players were announced felt inspiring, and I’m grateful that these women can set really successful examples for the young girls who might not have had the same sorts of role models in decades prior. One person a few rows behind me had a queer pride flag and an American flag waving together on one pole. Given the history of anti-LGBT legislature in the state in which this game was played, I’m grateful that this team can provide a space where queer people can feel outwardly proud of themselves and proud of their country at the same time. And though they were outnumbered, there were several Japanese WNT fans in the crowd, and I’m glad they got to see their team play in Kansas City, something that might not have been possible were it not for this tournament.
I feel like there’s a net good with this team, or at least, personally, I can acknowledge the bad and still support the players and what the team means to us. If you’re not about that, then… Well, shit, yeah, I understand that too.
This game was all fun. With the skepticism I had coming in, I kind of expected to be put off by the lack of intensity or scrappin’ that comes from a friendly match. Intensity is what I enjoy about most any sport, that’s why I like soccer so much. That emotion comes out and affects games, pushes teams to higher planes. Paradoxically, though, despite the couple of dull moments, the lack of aggression to the point where only two cards were given through the whole game, and the kind of lackadaisical defense on both ends… I had a damn good time watching it.
This game presented a US team that was loving the opportunity to show off for a very partisan crowd, and a Japan team that played with great skill and finesse against that. Both teams played with a sort of mutual freedom you don’t normally get out of soccer, and the rivalry between the two of them, spawned by three matches in global-stage finals at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups and 2012 Olympics, seems to have cooled into a sort of mutual respect between the two of them. As a result, I watched a fully satisfying, high-caliber, low-stakes match of soccer, a sort of match I don’t think I’ve seen many times before.
Alex Morgan scored three goals, all of which came from excellent team play leading up to her perfectly placing the shots past the keeper. Alex’s celebrations were both joyful and confident, after her first goal she threw her arms out beside her, like she was appreciating us who support her. Shortly after the first Morgan goal, Mina Tanaka of Japan deked out three American defenders at the top of the box and chipped Alyssa Naeher for Japan’s first. In the second half, Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe picked through Japan’s defense in two passes to increase the American lead to four. Finally, in the 76th minute, Japan’s Moeno Sakaguchi completely worked Tobin Heath and curled in a perfect shot from the corner of the box.
These were some of the best goals that I’ve ever seen in person. Both of Japan’s goals and Rapinoe’s goal would easily make my top ten I’ve seen at Children’s Mercy Park. For what it lacked in, like, people crying on the pitch as the final whistle blew and my heart swelling with country pride, it made up for with a display of soccer excellence unmatched by much else. As it turns out, getting the best soccer players in the world all together on a field produces a solid product, and I’m lucky to say I’ve now seen that product live, in-person.
I know I wrote that last thing about Children’s Mercy Park last month, and truth-be-told, I kind of didn’t think I’d be in town to see this match at the time of writing. Otherwise, I probably would’ve put that off to now, but at the very least I got to spare myself the difficulty of tying SKC memories into this game. As I walked out of that stadium for what was, in all likelihood, actually the final time for a long while, I felt little sorrow. It reminded me of how I felt on my second senior night in the KU Band. I’d already expended that energy towards the first goodbye, so most of that unexpected second goodbye energy was positive.
I might not ever really reconcile my frustrations with the country I live in, and I’m kind of happy about that. It’s wrong to ignore the bounds and bounds of issues the establishment of this country thrushes on its people, and unconditional love of one’s country is counter-intuitive anyway. But I also think it’s worthwhile to support those who represent the best aspects of the country while still acknowledging and fighting against the real issues at hand.
This means something to me. Even if it’s a meaningless exhibition, I’m still more than happy that I went, and I’m grateful that I’ll be able to say I’ve seen some of America’s best ever play live in person. I hope to be able to see a US National Team sometime in the future, too, even if it’s outside of Kansas City, even if it’s away from home. They’ll always be out there for us, regardless of where home is.