I realize that I never really let myself feel like it would happen before last night.
I think I was so convinced that it would happen last time around that I never even considered that the US might not qualify for the world cup. Hell, it wasn’t until relatively deep into the 2018 qualifying cycle (after Klinsmann got fired in late 2016) that I was really aware that teams had an entire qualifying process for the World Cup. I blame American sports media for my ignorance at the time more than I blame myself at 21 for it. Truthfully I didn’t understand the real details of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying until my friend Mike told me to listen to an episode of the Total Soccer Show the weekend of October 7th, 2017 that went in-depth on the upcoming final game of the Hexagonal we’d be playing in Trinidad against Trinidad and Tobago, one we were likely to relatively easily win or at least draw because Trinidad had nothing to play for and our team was better.
I can remember where I was and how I found out that we weren’t going to qualify. For some reason, I think (I was in college at this point) we were hanging out with friends who weren’t old enough to get into the one soccer bar in town, so we decided early in the evening of October 10th, 2017, not to go down there to watch the USMNT qualify for the World Cup. I have no memory of what we actually did that night, but I remember being in the living room of my old apartment in West Lawrence when my roommate at the time looked at his phone and said “Huh. Trinidad is up 2-nil.” Some time passed and he said “Looks like that Pulisic kid scored, so it’s 2-1 now,” and then more time passed, he got another update on his phone, and he said “And the US is officially out of the World Cup.”
Again, this was something I barely understood could happen at the time. I was 22. I had only seriously begun following either US National Team in 2015, really. I was 15 working all the time at a boy scout camp during the 2010 World Cup and only learned we’d won against Algeria when one of the scout leaders announced it at lunch. I only saw we had lost to Ghana when I went to the bathroom midway during a screening of Toy Story 3 at an AMC. I only watched the 2011 World Cup final against Japan because I had a staph infection and was sent home from my job at the summer camp for two weeks during the World Cup. I was working at a shopping mall during the 2014 World Cup, and the only match I saw that whole tournament was the first one against Ghana because I was working like 40 hours a week at the Mall and my manager wouldn’t let us do anything, like not even look at our phones, at this tiny little sporting memorabilia shop that never had any customers because everything was overpriced and he never put anything on sale. I learned we’d lost to Belgium because one of my coworkers got a text about it on her phone.
The idea of the United States Men’s National Team not qualifying for a World Cup at the time would have been like if you’d come up to me and said the Royals did too poorly at Spring Training and didn’t qualify for the Major League Baseball season because of it. I didn’t know there was a qualification process outside of the World Cup. I’d figured winning the Gold Cup was enough! (I really did!)
And I don’t fully blame myself for that. I knew at that time precisely what Bird Rights and a Max Deal and the Draft Lottery process was in the NBA by that point because it took up half an episode of a late-July SportsCenter. I knew when the NFL Draft Combine was because the NFL Network and ESPN would constantly talk about their NFL Draft Combine coverage every February. Sports media didn’t really talk about qualifying, though. I don’t even know what channel those qualifiers were on, but I knew it wasn’t one our cable package had (which is not necessarily the fault of anybody, our cable package was notoriously poor, though it was free with the apartment. We didn’t get ESPN2 or either Fox Sports channel, so if it was anywhere deeper than regular ESPN, we were out of luck.) because I know we weren’t watching the game. Maybe if they’d gone in on the details about qualifying on any of the sports channels I watched, or any of the sports websites I read at the time, I would’ve known, but they didn’t, so I didn’t.
Anyway, from that point on, I became very aware of the fact that you had to qualify for the World Cup. I became very aware of the weird bounce a ball took off of Omar Gonzalez’s boot, I became very aware of Taylor Twellman going “What are we doing? What are we doing?”, and I actually buckled down and started watching the USMNT with intent.
I knew that was the lowest moment. I could recognize that was the lowest moment. And I am a sucker for buying in at the lowest moment. My favorite sports team of all of them (The Beloved Kansas Jayhawks of Football) has been in a state of perpetual lowest moment basically since I hit adolescence and I’ve been dedicated to them intensely ever since.
And so, basically that week, I told myself that I was going to be as dedicated as possible to supporting the United States Men’s National Team. No longer would I be surprised by some new American player fresh into the German Bundesliga getting minutes over the veterans – No, I would not only know that player, but I’d know the five or six other Americans coming up in the Austrian second division as well. I’d know the guys who were just on MLS teams that got big transfers to major European clubs. I’d know the guys who were currently on MLS teams and breaking through. I would watch the Friendlies, I would watch the Gold Cup games, I would watch all the qualifiers when they came up, I would listen to the podcast and follow the Twitter personalities and everything. I had the idea to write it all down starting after the 2018 World Cup finished, and I really wish I had, if I’d put it on a blog instead of a single word document on a laptop that stopped turning on in 2019 I might’ve kept up with it.
I went through it all – I turned the TV in the liquor store where I worked to the friendly against France in June 2018, I watched Julian Green score against the eventual World Champion. I drove from my new place in San Diego to Phoenix to watch the first game of the Gregg Berhalter era, a January friendly against Panama that featured players like Corey Baird and Christian Ramirez. In my apartment in San Diego, I suffered through the mixed emotions of July 7th of 2019, when the Women won the World Cup final over the Netherlands in the morning and the Men lost the Gold Cup final to Mexico in the evening. I snuck away and watched part of the loss to Canada on October 15th of 2019 on my 30 minute break at work.
There was something about this that kept me going in 2020. I can remember so many times watching that “Top 50 USMNT Goals” compilation video on YouTube in the dregs of early-COVID, telling myself I’d see this team again. I opened a savings account with my bank to save up for tickets to the 2026 World Cup because I wanted something in the future to keep going for. I started a job at a sports bar the day of that first friendly against Wales in November 2020 and thankfully the guy who trained me was just as excited for it as I was. I watched intently, from an apartment in Olathe, the matches played at our Austrian second home with the water slide in the background. I cried after that Nations League final ended, again alone, by myself, in my apartment in Olathe. They were happy tears, I think, but mostly just cathartic, like there they were winning again.
There was really something special about the two Gold Cup matches I went to in Kansas City with my friends, the first, a mid-week match against Martinique, an easy romp for the US in front of a relatively sparse crowd, hit something perfectly CONCACAF for me. The lights went out in the stadium briefly before our match started, a bunch of Americans scored, it was one of Gianluca Busio’s last matches in Kansas City before he went to Venezia, it was just fun, and it was my first national team match with other people in years. That last group stage match against Canada was just as good but in another direction, a match fully sold-out that we won 1-0. I remember walking around the concourse before the match started, seeing all the USMNT fans around me thinking like “We are back, we are back!” And then we won the Gold Cup!
I had a choice between staying home and moving to Canada in the fall of 2021 that I hemmed and hawed over all summer. I remember saying to somebody before that game “I am going to live in the country that wins this match,” and I should’ve listened to myself! I was listening to Jason Davis’ radio show on SiriusXM FC previewing our first match of the Octagonal in El Salvador as I tried and failed to get into Canada the first time due to my stupid misunderstanding of the Canadian border COVID testing rules at the time (which in my defense had just changed but not in the way that I thought they had). I watched the disappointing draw against Canada from my single dorm room in Waterloo. I watched the comeback on the road in Honduras from my single dorm room in Waterloo. I watched the win over Jamaica in Austin from a TV screen on the back of the seat in front of me on my United Airlines connecting flight from Denver to Kansas City during reading week, and throughout that week back in Kansas City, I confided honestly in friends about how badly I was doing. I did so while watching the Costa Rica game in Cincinnati from my parents’ living room with a friend. This team has been one of the few constants in my life in these past few years, which have been so transient and unconstant, and generally more down than up. That game against Honduras in Minnesota I watched from my childhood bedroom, thankful to have a place to be after another false start but miserable about the failure, the poor decisions, that had put me back there.
I wouldn’t say it’s ‘hard’ to be proud of being American. It must not be that hard, I see people doing it with much less struggle than I take to it everyday. But I am not proud, innately, of being American. I feel no innate desire to be proud of where I am from. The United States is simply where I am from. But I care about the results of our national sports teams, and I feel closer to the struggles this team has gone through than almost any other American national team. Our teams are always expected to dominate, to sit atop the medal race at the Olympics and dominate while getting there. American teams are supposed to always win.
But I don’t! I lose sometimes! That’s just as much a part of the losing as the winning is, and I’d rather honestly accept that than pretend I’m never down, or I never lose. Sometimes I lose, sometimes I cry in the shower and have to look at myself and say “What are we doing? What are we doing?” and make changes to get back on track too. I’ve probably had more of those experiences than I’ve had the sort of dominating blowout wins that you get from other American teams. So in that way, I do feel a closer connection to this US team, which does struggle, and has setbacks from time to time, the team I want to win but that I recognize doesn’t always.
Even after I watched all of that 5-1 win over Panama, every second, and I understood that it was highly unlikely for the United States to lose by the necessary six goals, I didn’t really let myself feel like we were going to the World Cup until there were… maybe five minutes left to go in the game in Costa Rica on Wednesday. It wasn’t that I was traumatized by Couva. I barely understood that it happened in the moment. I think I just never had an honest sense of what it was going to look like, or feel like, where I’d be, what I’d be doing in my life, when this moment finally came again. I couldn’t have told you I’d be back in the same city I was in during October 2017, living by myself now, working at the institution I was attending as a student back then, three cities, two schools, nine jobs, and four living situations ago. I believed today would happen, I had to, I just didn’t know what to think it would look like.
This moment was always there in the future. This day was coming. I didn’t know what it would look like, or what it would feel like, and it wasn’t perfect how we got here, but we are here. We qualified.