By Neil W. Blackmon
It finally ended today. Not a five year era—no—that was Thursday’s news. No—it ended. The summer that wouldn’t end. The summer that reminded us how great we can be; how fleeting success is; how far we have to go. The summer of everything ended this afternoon at what can only fairly be called the most celebrated/anticipated press conference in the history of US Soccer- men or women. Jurgen Klinsmann officially met the American (and global, to an extent) soccer media as the new leader of the US Men’s National Team. And as he stood at the podium, wearing a slick SoCal suit and sneakers, one could only take a deep breath or two and think “It’s finally ended, this most torturous, most Dickensian of summers.
It was a summer with enough narrative to fill a whole World Cup cycle—and to think—it all happened in three months. To tell you the truth, we should have sensed the football gods weren’t smiling on us from the get-go. They weren’t, as many of us hoped, done treating us like an emotional tether bag after ripping our collective soul out late last June in South Africa. No—the Ghana defeat, while ample preamble, was just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. And we should have seen it coming. We should have sensed it when Stu Holden met Jonny Evans in a most unfortunate tackle late this spring and got the worst of it, ensuring he’d miss the Gold Cup. We should have sensed it when Benny Feilhaber suffered a leg injury a week before the Spain match, eliminating Bob Bradley’s most proven offensive option off the bench. We should have sensed it when our ladies lost a match this past April to England—a warning salvo to the psyche that made you wonder if they were quite good enough to finish the job. We should have seen so much of what transpired this summer coming. But how do you predict that type of raw, emotional rollercoaster? Sure, past can often be prologue—but for it to occur at that level and that scale is nothing short of shocking.
There were the highest of highs and the dark, worn, tear-stained love letter lowest of lows. The summer (spring, really) began, of course, with unmitigated disaster- the failure of Thomas Rongen and his seemingly destined for brilliance U-20 side failing to qualify for the U-20 World Cup. How that happens in a country that overemphasizes results at the youth level was mind-blowing, and while some, like your writer, and more importantly, the President of US Soccer, blamed the coach—others blamed happenstance, an unfortunate draw, or player availability. Either way—it was an ominous beginning. But, as written above, it wasn’t as if we weren’t warned.
That late spring disaster bled into early summer and we were given a steady dose of abject panic– a miserable, ill-fated scheduling snafu and subsequent 4-0 drubbing at the hands of World Champion Spain coupled with a humbling, terrifying 2-1 defeat to Panama on home soil in Tampa during the Gold Cup group stages. Surely, things had to get better, one thought. One was right, at least for a week or two.
Out of the doldrums of despair the rollercoaster weaved into a the shaky terrain of false hope—a “complete” performance against a dangerous Jamaica side in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, a fine pass from a forlorn superstar to best Panama in the semis, a “there’s that score again” dos a cero beginning to the Gold Cup Final. Fate was leveling the playing field, and our hearts, it seemed, were headed for a soft landing after a turbulent flight. How wrong we were. And how many twists remained!
First, of course—there was the matter of dos a cero, buttressed by the return of a prodigal son named Adu (of course– what great story lacks such a compelling character actor?) lasting all of about ten minutes. Mexico scored. Then it scored again. And again. And again. There would be no Confederations Cup reprise, no reason to skip out early on long summer afternoons in 2013—unless one fancies seeing El Tri excel in an international tournament (they will, quote me). Second, there was the aftermath. What would become of the longtime men’s coach? Would nearly thirteen years of blueblood UVA and Princeton Arena-Bradley rule over US Soccer finally give way to something new? For a while, it didn’t appear so, and in a normal summer, we’d have been left to wonder what would become of our patriots while we pondered the significance of a resurgent Mexico. But not this summer. Not in the summer of everything.
Instead, the American soccer collective turned its weary and worn-out hearts to a group of women, and the women delivered redemption in spades. Almost. That would have been too simple. Instead, with every victory, and in particular on one magical night in Dresden, an American soccer collective consisting of the growing few turned into a nation enthralled. More heroics from TYAC turned American darling Abby Wambach and emo Zooey Deschanel eat your heart out sweetheart Megan Rapinoe followed days later against France, and it seemed the summer of everything would end with the summer of winning everything. It seemed they were simply too resilient, too tough, too well-coached, and oh by the way, too good, to fall short in the biggest moment. There was a palpable sense, is a palpable sense, that despite what happened in the Women’s World Cup Final– those women were “our girls”, in the most affectionate and heartfelt sense of the phrase. And maybe that’s why we shared in the gut-wrenching and total despair. But it wouldn’t have been the summer of everything if they had won, now would it? Instead, these incredible women—“our girls”—lost in penalty kicks—the soccer gods deciding that one last bit of pain inflicted on us seemed a bit more fair than any pain inflicted on a nation that had suffered so much on such a grander, more bare-knuckle human scale.
And so we were left with no choice but to move forward. But would the summer of everything ever end? Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t a complete nightmare. Great stories are rarely binary affairs. What it was, however, was just due south of bittersweet. For every “Hope Solo, Will you marry me?” moment, for every new fan won in the course of two tournaments, there was a not-so-gentle, stark reminder that part of being an American soccer fan for the past year—indeed, largely since Torsten Frings wasn’t called for handball in 2002— is learning to deal with the attendant heartbreak. And there were more than teaspoons of heartbreak to pass around in the summer of everything.
If you the reader will afford me a bit of latitude—I’ll indulge you in a not-quite apropos analogy. As a Georgian /Floridian, hurricanes are a part of life—a four month reality of existence whose very possibility hovers around our life choices like a specter may or may not haunt an antebellum mansion. If a hurricane does hit, one of the most important things to do, and this happens well after you prepare the best you can and help as many people as you can help and ride the thing out—is to return home and take inventory of what’s been lost, what can be restored, and what to do next. And then you get to the rebuilding. That requires patience, it requires character and it requires resolve. And that’s when the hard part starts: THE DOING. The character, patience and resolve of the human spirit are remarkable when they’re tested. It’s the doing–that’s the tricky stuff.
The summer after Hurricane Katrina I was fortunate enough to make the trip down to New Orleans with a wonderful friend to help build a school and to assist in setting up a summer soccer league on a field that had been cleaned of debris and replanted with some help from the New Orleans Saints. We spent a week and a half in one of my favorite cities on the planet meeting kids and parents and learning what it is they were doing to get on with their lives. During one of the soccer “tryouts” (really just team placement—there were no cuts)—I met a grandfather from the Lower Ninth Ward who was now charged with raising his only grandson whose parents had died during the storm. I’ll never forget what he told me, and it bears sharing with our readers: “The most important thing to do to move forward?,” he said, responding to my inquiry. “Wake up in the morning. Work hard. Decide to move forward. And find a reason, any reason, to hope.”
Hope. Perhaps that’s the key ingredient to doing. And think of it this way—if it works for an old man and his grandson, trying to recover from the most devastating hurricane in the history of this country—surely it can work in the far more trivial but not altogether unimportant world that is our collective passion for US Soccer. After the summer that had everything—perhaps what we needed was a little hope. Something just a bit less due south of bittersweet. Something to bite into as we all get on with the hard part—the doing. And yeah—I know there are a host of questions surrounding the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as the new leader of the US Men’s National Team. There are the well-publicized struggles (though possibly overstated) at Bayern Munich. There’s the notion that he’s a supreme motivator and zen-master but not a particularly savvy x’s and o’s guy. There’s the (unanswered, as of today) question of who, outside of technical director Claudio Reyna, Klinsmann will surround himself with to ensure his training regimens are adequate and the Americans aren’t tactically outgunned again as they were at critical times this summer. But pardon me if I don’t dwell too long on those questions—at least for a little while. Today, I saw a man with more answers to offer than questions to engender. Today, I saw a reason for hope. Now let’s let Jurgen get down to the doing.