The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet….
—William Butler Yeats
I’m writing this in a circuitous way to explore the reasons I follow the U.S. Men’s National team. The simple reasons: I played soccer in high school, make time to watch a variety of leagues today, and have lived most of my life in the U.S. But I have a feeling there’s deeper cause, a stronger pull, for my infatuation with this team. Less than a week before the World Cup kicks off, I begin.
I have dreams about soccer. In these dreams, I practice resolutely, run end line to end line again and again, sweating and gasping for air on an unrecognizable practice field. An important game looms in the near future. My teammates in these dreams, usually either former players from my high school team or men with blurred faces, do not laugh or flub passes as was common back then; we are not talking about girls or screaming lines from The Simpsons; this game is important. I am exactly where I need to be.
But then, the game never happens. Was it played without my knowing? Or is it now farther off in the distance, a retreating animal? Everything is suddenly nothing.
I haven’t played organized soccer since high school, but now, ten years later, I long for the impossible chance, maybe like anyone, to play those games again. I am now older, of course; I guess more intelligent (or more willing to think rather than act); and I have become something of a soccer snob—refusing even to watch the MLS; I never sat down to watch a game on T.V. in high school. But I should also mention that today I’m less fit, far less athletically inclined. Would any of these 29-year-old “attributes” make a difference if I were to play all those games again today?
I would like to believe they would, but that is probably not the case.
In my soccer dreams I am stronger and faster than anyone I practice with. It’s as if my teammates are all running on deep, loose sand while each step I take is on grass. In scrimmages I am fiery and aggressive and I fight and win the ball. I play defensively, rarely score, but that is okay because I take people down hard. I am something short of a monster.
I don’t have to go back and look at game tape to see the reality of myself as a 150-pound outside middie, occasional left back for a handful-of-wins varsity squad in upstate New York. I don’t have to look at pictures to remember that I was gawky and awkward, that I dribbled with my head down, that I shied away from offense. I was good enough to play nearly every minute of my junior and senior year—I was reliable, a hard worker, something appreciated in my blue-collar town in the Adirondack Mountains. But the most appropriate word I can provide to describe my game, my skill level, is: fair. Aptly simple.
I was always a better practice player than game performer. In practice, I recall not thinking, just doing, as they say—a pass, shot, tackle, whatever. I was confident, bordering on cocky. But in games, I’d fret. I’d make the tackle, then flub the pass. I’d forgo an open shot. While my expression might have been one of determination I remember myself fretting about flubbing a crossing pass, about which girls—who I inevitably shied from talking to—were watching from the sidelines, about college and that future life.
Was this worried, indecisive me the real me? Or was it the cocksure practice player? How could I be both?
But the one thing common between my dreams and my actual playing is my anger. Like in my dreams, on the field something would click—a collision with the guy I was marking, a cleats-up tackle, a late shove behind the ref’s back—and my mind would clear, all these distractions flooding away, and I’d begin simply to scream and yell at my opponents, at a teammate dogging it off the field, at myself for inevitably botching a cross. Off the soccer field, I was calm, docile, sort of boring. I laughed with my nerdy friends, and laughed loud, but I was rarely angry. I had a surfer’s laid-back persona, or maybe a stoner’s. I was all: who cares, shrug, move on.
But on the field I usually managed to find a way to hate the kid lined up across from me. I never planned on despising the kid I was marking, usually a too-skinny or too-tubby thing (upstate NY isn’t exactly a hot-bed for athletes). Unlike the great Detroit Lions middle linebacker Chris Spielman, who would prepare for games by convincing himself that his opponent—the center, running back, quarterback—were all trying to rape his wife and murder his child, I never premeditated my hate. It was simple. I would fret, acting out the motions of the game, and then I was an oil well in flames.
I played engulfed in this hot rage; scoring a goal, something I rarely did, was no release; a fancy pass did little for me. I sought release through the takedown of my opponent, from stopping his progress. It was all quite primal: if I couldn’t score, neither could he.
I recall in a sectional playoff game, our center midfielder, Ryan D., blanketing the league MVP—tackling hard and chipping—a large, cocky kid, who had a scholarship to play at some DIII school in the fall. The halftime whistle blew and the big kid, this dark-haired prick, flat out punched Ryan in the back, somewhere around the kidney. Ryan didn’t fall; he just turned and looked up at the kid and smiled as if asking for another as they walked off the field. I saw the whole thing from a few yards away and shouted, screaming that the kid was a real tough fucker, a true man. I’m not sure anyone else had witnessed this punch, but I know most of the players on the field had heard my yelling. I was suddenly the blitzed alcoholic father slamming open the door.
I have to wonder: in my dreams or in my past, if I had a knife on me, in that split second, would I have cut this kid? That’s a stupid hypothetical. The point is, in my body, a senior in high school, I witnessed this—an action beyond the game—and didn’t do a thing. I was furious, yes, already angry and swearing at the freckled middie, an Irish cliché, I had been marking; we had clawed at each other the whole first half as we had collided early in his eighteen yard box. I needed no further impetus. He ran like someone’s hand was up his ass; he spit incessantly as he had probably seen some athlete on T.V. do, so he did this ten-fold. For all I knew he could have been the nicest guy in Plattsburgh but I found it remarkably easy to hate him. And then I saw this dirty punch at halftime, this league MVP who would extend his soccer career, this world as a game, a few more years, punching my teammate who had 45 minutes of soccer left in his life.
But I did nothing other than yell, the extent of my rage. I was all talk, light like dreams. This would also be my last soccer game.
The World Cup is less than a week away. I follow the USMNT team rabidly, imagining, if you pressed me, lurking beneath the cheers and screams, the post-game email analysis with a few close friends, that I am the holding middie, Michael Bradley or Edu or Rico Clark, in control, tackling hard. I am Bradley’s screams over a flubbed call. I am Edu’s lanky field coverage. I am Rico’s yellow-card tackles.
My favorite US soccer moment was spent at 4 am with my father at the beginning of the 2002 World Cup, the summer before my senior year of college. I lived at home that summer, worked at a hardware store with gruff guys who made fun of this game and the World Cup—gay, gay, gay—walked all over Landon Donovan’s slight frame, and consequently, me. Doug, the manager, a burly, red-bearded guy who claimed he used to trade exotic animals, pumas and such, in New York City, gushed cars and video games so I pretended to as well, asked rapid questions about specific games that I no longer remember. We did okay talking over killing aliens and Nazis. But this is all just to get to my favorite soccer moment, and probably many Americans’: ’02 WC opening round: USA 3, Portugal—beautiful—defeated, 2. I danced around our TV room as the workmanlike (and eventually bloody) Brian McBride headed in that third goal. My father threw his back out.
Or this: Landon Donovan streaking down field, first half versus Brazil, Confederations Cup 2009, final match, keeping the ball a few yards ahead of him, his head raised, attacking. He will not mess up, I think. He is lethal on transitional runs, I think. He is deadly. The opponent is scared, I think. (A win over Spain could make one believe anything.) That hot feeling from my dreams returns, a clenching, warm feeling, as I lean forward, closer to the screen. I am alone at these moments or I am with my girlfriend.
These moments are offensive ones, highlight reel material, the stuff I was never made of.
I have come to appreciate beautiful offensive football (though habitually accompanied by defensive unconcern), the games of Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, and to a lesser extent, the Netherlands, Cote d’Ivoire. But as if it were, say, a dainty Impressionist work, I have little interest in more intimately understanding it, never will. I can hang my hat on a lack of ball skills compensated by the accurate clichés: hustle and heart, which I think really means athleticism, stamina, speed, and, dare I say it, brooding anger. This U.S. team, especially those middies—Bradley, Edu, Rico, maybe Donovan—play angry; they run down balls and tackle hard, drawing yellows. They flail and block shots, dummies tossed in the way, execute rare and wild counter-attacks. It is a relentless, restless game, a desperate one. A game played along a cliff. This game is not a ballet of threaded passes, scissor fakes; this is a team of hastily trained animals, cheetahs or leopards, or something less graceful than that.
This team is everything I dream about, all this loosely termed anger and aggression, but also this: unrealistic expectations and eventual disappointment
I’ve probably never looked aggressive on or off a field in my life, but the feeling of this lingering hate rarely wavered when I played. Ten years removed I no longer jump into pick-up games; I rarely even kick a ball around. I don’t own cleats. The last few years, living in D.C. before moving to Vienna, Austria, my roommate occasionally asked me to fill in for his league games, but I always found an excuse not to. I was in grad school writing and teaching and physically wasting away, and if I wasn’t going to do something full-tilt I wasn’t going to do it at all, or that was the excuse. Maybe I didn’t want to acknowledge the player I had regressed to, considering the already average, merely fair player I once was. I was, again: who cares.
But where did that hate go? Did it idle away along with any foot skills I once possessed? Or does it linger somewhere deep within, a small explosion under sand?
Maybe I just remember my relentless nature this way. Maybe I simply think I played hard, ruthlessly; maybe I just want to believe I despised my opponent, his curly red hair, his incessant spitting (my reaction now seems particularly prudish), when really I hardly noticed him, a dude just kind of in the way.
Maybe I remember myself being more than I ever was, sort of like my dreams.
I was working in the hardware store when the U.S. lost 1-0 to Germany in 02’s quarterfinals. I tried to block out the morning news updates that aired over speakers throughout the store every twenty minutes and I had been successful until I found myself with a customer who was contemplating rope. He was an older guy, denim work shirt, standing near all the spools, talking about building a rope swing for some kids or rope for a little boat on some lake or rope for tying up his wife, for all I knew. He really studied that rope, a Carver man, pulling a length of this or that from one of the spools, running it through his dry hands. So I was thinking about that when I heard the team had lost. The report was quick; CBS radio, or whatever, didn’t care. We were supposed to lose anyway, so in a way, this wasn’t news to the general public. News would have been an unexpected win; even this rope guy, or any non-fan American, might talk about a snatched victory from a soccer power, but turn swiftly from a narrow defeat. As the man fingered one of the plastic coils, I excused myself.
Doug, the manager, laughed loud, apparently having heard the score as well, reminding me that “Soccer sucks!” on my way to the back. I kicked around in the gravel parking lot, kicking rocks like a little boy out by the propane station, kicked one too hard and it thudded against the building. I stopped kicking rocks then; I was just this still-skinny guy a few years past his high school soccer years, a bookish college kid now, nothing close to an athlete. This ’02 team had just completed its game in South Korea (or was it Japan? Gah, I can’t remember), an improbable quarterfinal run, and here I was in upstate New York standing next to a humming propane filling machine. A woman pulled up in a mini-van, probably assuming I was waiting for her, and motioned me to fill her propane tank.
I have little power over these soccer dreams, although these dreams are certainly mine. Are they as true as that surfacing hate I once played with? As I age I anger more easily: in stilted D.C. traffic, at my students who don’t read the assigned material and then try to bullshit me. I am more tired, more often. Sometimes it takes me longer to find that “who cares” guy. Maybe recalled truthfully or not, the anger lingers today because of the knowledge that there’s no such thing as that endless game; my hot rage years ago was simple, precise; it centered on the kid in the uniform, that red-haired cliché, lined up across from me. He was trying to take something from me. Now that rage surfaces because that instance—the actual thing, whatever it stands for—is long gone.
I have no power over the U.S. team melding versus Australia or power over who starts paired with Altidore—if his ankle will allow—versus England (or in that case, Findley’s speed versus his first touch ability), or power over Gooch’s leaping ability (or lack there of), or power over 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, or power over how these guys, a pedestrian bunch, will fare in South Africa. But I especially have no power over the team’s eventual ascension; seventeen of our twenty-three chosen for the Cup team play in respected world leagues. Our game is certainly not beautiful, but it is veering from dink and dunk to something better. Enter the touch passing of Torres, who I first saw play a few years ago at RFK. Altidore, Holden, Donovan at Everton, Dempsey’s floater versus Juventus. This calm(er) possession game is a good thing, yes, as I’ve longed for this team to succeed, but the game is leaving me behind.
At home, in Vienna this time, alone or with my girlfriend, I’ll blow up at our inevitable red cards and defensive lapses; I’ll root vehemently against Italy (for ’02) and Mexico (it’s obvious), find it easily within myself to despise these teams, but this time I’ll be yelling at the hated Other from a very average living room, far from anything resembling game action. Will I hate futilely? Those nights, win or lose, I will dream my dreams or I will not, and I will look back and I will see myself as more than I am.
Prior to posing as a writer Casey Wiley interned for the Miami Dolphins during the 2003 season. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria, and is working on a book about Social Humor, Stand-up Comedy and why he’s not very funny.
by Casey Wiley · June 5, 2010