My memories of World Cup soccer extend back to 1994, when as an 11-year-old who discovered the event by accident (nobody was around to tell me to watch soccer back then) I rooted for the Dutch because of their bright orange uniforms. I didn't know anything about the sport back then—as a classic Normal American, I grew up playing baseball, basketball, football—and I still don't. I'm extremely dumb about soccer, even after spending a college semester abroad among people who loved it and tried their best to teach me. By now, it's clear that I'll never be enlightened.
In fact, I was probably more insightful on my maiden World Cup voyage in '94, because I knew it was a disgrace that American TV coverage would cut away for commercials during the actual match. When they returned, the score would often be different, and the announcer would have to say, "well, Brazil scored their second goal while we were away." I recognized this as idiotic, and that was the last smart soccer thought I ever had.
But despite my doltish nature, I have always watched the World Cup. Always, always, always. I don't want to wax romantic about the event, because I don't know enough and I'd sound stupid, but there's always been something about the outsized passion and hype surrounding the event that made it irresistible—even if, on a fundamental level, I never really liked soccer enough to tune in more than once every four years (with the very occasional dabbling in a Euro Cup or a Champions League final). The original memory of those Dutch orange jerseys still resonated at the molecular level, and the chance for international glory and/or shame drew me like a moth to the flame.
Today, however, I am of a certain age. I have passed the point in my life where I am compulsively seeking out new and exotic experiences, my native energy has hardened into something less accessible over time, and despite my token efforts, I can't find it in myself to enjoy a World Cup without America. Which is ironic, because in 2018 I spend about half of my waking hours being pissed off at my country. Doesn't matter—I still need that patriotic frisson, and without it, soccer is nothing but a deadly dull experience. I can't even fake it.
The bulk of the pain comes from the knowledge that I won't be adding to the list of good memories Team USA has gifted me. Despite the fact that we Americans live in an objectively terrible soccer nation, especially when you consider our sheer size, our national team has produced a disproportionate amount of classic moments through the years. There was the crazy win over Colombia in 1994, which spawned the best 30-for-30 film ever (and possibly a murder). There was 1998, when...oh wait, we were terrible in '98. But then came 2002, when we stunned Portugal in the group stages, somehow beat Mexico in the round of 16, and then came damn close to clipping Germany in the quarters. And then 2006, when I could finally watch the games where they were meant to be watched, in a crowded drunken bar, and we managed to fight Italy to a draw before spiraling out. Then 2010, when we hilariously tied with England and then got the best moment in American soccer history (thank you, Landon, thank you Ian Darke, and thank you to everyone who threw beer on me in that New York City bar). And then 2014, when we finally beat Ghana, and nearly pulled off a miracle against Belgium.
That's some pretty good stuff for a nation without a prayer. But this year, as you know by now, we flamed out against Trinidad & Tobago in qualifying and stayed home in favor of a team that just got waxed 6-1 by England. The general U.S. soccer situation was already dire, but now we're a team that can't even qualify in what is an incredibly weak region of the world against an island nation with roughly 1/300th of our population. (Thank God we're not in Europe.) Even a German genius couldn't save us...and in fact, Jurgen Klinsmann seems to have made things worse.
For me, the lack of an American presence in 2018 has ruined the rest of the tournament. I was forced to admit to myself last week that I just don't like this particular World Cup, and part of that comes down to the quality of the matches. Aside from a fun 3-3 Spain-Portugal draw and Mexico's win over Germany, it was dud central for a very long time. That changed over the past couple days with some thrillers, but I still couldn't get fired up. The quality didn't even really matter. See, my normal World Cup rhythm is to go over-the-top cheering for the U.S. during the group stages, insist to friends who know better that they can win it all, get super pissed when they get knocked out by a way better team, and then enjoy the rest of the matches. That experience was robbed from me this year.
A lot of American fans tried to pick another team, and there was a whole booming blog industry devoted to aiding that endeavor, but it didn't work for me. I tried the hipster route (Peru and Iceland and Egypt seem to be the cool alternative teams), the troll route (it's hilarious to pull for Mexico), the ultra-troll route (Iran & Russia), and the colonial route (England). Nothing worked, because really, who cares about any of them? Each of those teams consists of players I have never heard of playing a sport I don't care about. The experience of watching them felt hollow, frustrating, boring. By the 30th minute of any given match, I'd find myself internally bitching about the lack of goals, and the endless diving, and the stultifying pace of play. Meanwhile, people with actual knowledge have said that this is a good World Cup, which proves that I'm the nightmarish American soccer idiot personified.
Oh well. I'll own that title. I've left my experimental youth behind, I like what I like, and Team USA flaming out of qualifying really put a harpoon in the slick blubbery flesh of my rooting interest. In short, the 2018 World Cup revealed everything that sucks about American soccer, everything that sucks about me as a sports fan, and everything that sucks about me as a person. None of which, by the way, will stop me from jumping with both feet on the U.S. bandwagon in 2022, unwarranted optimism and all. I've got a gut feeling that we're going to take home whatever trophy they hand out for winning this thing, and the fact that I can't name more than two players on our roster doesn't dissuade me at all. History awaits.