May 2010

Growing Up Soccer

If you weren’t aware, readers (Okay, Dan, Neil, and my mom), I’m 21 years old. I was born on April 16, 1989, the day after the Hillsborough disaster. Coincidentally, 1989 is the year to which a lot of people trace back the modern history of American Soccer. In November of that year, Paul Caligiuri scored his “shot heard round the world” against Trinidad and Tobago to put the US in the World Cup for the first time in forty years. It was a seminal moment for American soccer, and in a way, we’ve grown up together. American soccer and I, that is. Not Paul Caliguiri and I. Though if he wants to hang out sometime and talk soccer, that’d be cool.

I don’t remember much of the 1994 World Cup. I was only five. For me, soccer was Saturday mornings, forgotten shinguards, oranges at halftime, Cheetos and Capri Sun after the game. But I remember Alexi Lalas, if only for his appearance. I can’t recall anything substantive of the 1998 tournament, either. I was nine, and soccer was just the foremost of the many sports I played. I remember watching at least one of the games with my youth soccer club, but I couldn’t tell you which game it was if my life depended on it. I was vaguely aware of MLS through my subscription to Sports Illustrated for Kids. Soccer articles were buried somewhere in between non-Olympic swimming and professional rollerblading.

2002 was a different proposition, though. I had dropped most of the other sports I had played as a kid, and focused almost exclusively on soccer. I’d also discovered the English Premiership and subsequently, Arsenal, thanks to Fox Sports World on digital cable. I was almost in High School now, and unlike previous tournaments (and school itself), I’d done my homework. I knew who the main players were, the history of the opposition, the significance of the competition. I was obsessed, a mental state that has waxed and waned somewhat over the intervening years, but is still an ever-present fixture. I woke up early to watch the US games. I bugged my teachers to let me follow text updates on the ESPN website (It was late June, and they were about as interested in teaching as we were in learning). I still haven’t forgiven Torsten Frings. The poster of not-yet-fat Ronaldo I tacked up is still on my wall, just beneath my autographs from Clarence Weatherspoon and Dana Barros.

By the time 2006 rolled around, the World Cup was no longer the domain of soccer geeks and fresh off the boat immigrants. I was in High School at the time, and plenty of my classmates (All dudes. Thanks, Archdiocese of Philadelphia) were at least familiar with the headline names. Some of them seemed downright eager to learn about the game. As someone who legitimately knew the history of the game, I was like a missionary, spreading my religion among the heathens. Suddenly, being a huge soccer fan wasn’t an oddball thing, but in a way, almost cool.

My point, in a very roundabout and possibly needlessly autobiographical fashion, is to illustrate just how far we’ve come in my relatively short lifetime. Twenty-one years ago, our national teams were made up of college kids, semi-professionals, and indoor soccer players. If you had told one of the few hardy American soccer fans that the European Cup final would be shown on network TV and that the most powerful sports media entity in the country would be putting the entirety of its considerable influence behind the World Cup, they’d have talked you down until the nice men with the padded van arrived.

Even as recently as 2002, trying to start a conversation about soccer outside of a specifically soccer-oriented situation (and sometimes even then) was met with a depressively patronizing reaction, like you were a delusional mental patient babbling about 1960s bus stations. I can remember the thrill of excitement when I casually overheard two people in the local dog park talking about the Ivory Coast World Cup commercial (Speaking of which, why does Bono need to be involved with anything even tangentially related to Africa? I like U2, but at some point, just shut up and play “Bullet The Blue Sky,” okay?). It was to me, at least, a sign that some tiny bit of soccer was entering the wider American consciousness.

The World Cup is, as it always has been, the best advertisement for the sport of soccer, just as the USMNT has been the best advertisement for the American game. I’m excited about what a successful World Cup run can do for American soccer.

Oh, and beat England!

Keith Hickey is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at

Keith Hickey