Friday, June 25, 2010

Landon' on our Feet...

I have enjoyed watching the World Cup this year far more than I have in the past. While watching incredible stars like Messi, Maicon and Ronaldo is always fascinating, and the implosion of the French is easy to enjoy - it is the US Soccer team that I am here to talk about. As I watched that match on Wednesday with my head in my hands for the first 91 minutes and 15 seconds, I felt extreme frustration - much like most US viewers around the world. Only a bit different.

Let me share a little insight. My parents enrolled me in the YMCA Soccer league when I was four. Think my first team was the Wildcats, then it was the Tigers and so on. Our t-shirts had a big Pepsi logo on the back, and that's when you knew you had arrived as a soccer player in Wilmington, DE. Our games were played on Saturday mornings - and the soccer fields were always the place to be! My biggest fear was that the studs on the bottom of my cleats would fall off when I touched the ball. Inquisitively I would ask, "Mom and Dad are you sure these things won't fall off when I kick the ball?" Looking back, I'm not really sure why this thought gave me panic, but many things I thought as a kid didn't make sense. Anyway, in Wilmington every kid played soccer. Two of my oldest and best friends - Eric Conner and Eric Levin played - and we would take turns sleeping over each others' houses, then go out and play against each other. After the game we would go to McDonalds after and talk about how great we were. Who could we ever forget those incredible Saturday's?

From there I continued playing soccer in leagues and for club teams in Delaware (except for a short stint from 11-14 when I burned out on soccer and wanted to focus on my "baseball career"). After this hiatus I regained my passion for the sport in a big way. In fact, I still get that same childhood excitement now when I play in my adult league games, that I had as a 4-5 year old. Of course, my old Saturday mornings have turned into Tuesday and Wednesday nights and there is no more McDonalds, which is DEFINITELY addition through subtraction but that love for the game is still the same.

From the time I had the Pepsi logo on my back until a few days ago - soccer has always struggled to gain any kind of major acceptance in the US. While it is the most popular sport for young kids, once they get older most tend to lose interest. I headed down that path, but quickly recognized how much I loved the sport. Why do I love soccer? It's a cerebral game. It's a patient game. It humbles you. It's much more physical than it looks. It's about the team. It requires you to be in phenomenal shape. It's the most simply, complex game around. It's played with your feet, and your legs, and your head, and your chest, and once in a while with your hands - but always with your mind. When you break it down, scoring a goal is really an incredible accomplishment, yet it's the expectation. Every possession is wrapped with a bow of hope. And really (along with football) its the only sport where a good team consistently beats a great individual performance. It is the ultimate team sport. A good team that knows how to play together will always be a great team of individuals.

So this my friends is why Wednesday's incredible 1-0 win over Algeria meant so much to me. As a kid there was no MLS, the US had NO international presence in the World Cup, no olympic soccer team, and there was nothing for young kids to dream about. On Wednesday, June 24 all of that changed - if only for a moment. Soccer was the lead story. Bars, restaurants, offices were jammed with people hovered around TV sets to watch the end. I was fortunate enough to be working from home that day as many other people were.

Could we really have had a second goal taken away by a ref who completely blew a call and subsequently cost us a chance to advance in the World Cup? Would it be another World Cup of unmet expectations, disappointments and irrelevance? It looked that way until Landon Donovan scored in extra time (91st minute) to propel the US team into the round of 16 at the World Cup. Not for one minute do I take for granted what Landon's goal meant or how that felt. To have the sport I love, the sport many love, get the headlines not just in the sports section but the lead story - was an amazing feeling. Soccer's day had arrived. Will it pass? Yeah, it probably will. However, for one day soccer was the sport people in this country most wanted to talk about. That game will go down as one of my greatest sports memories of all-time.

So, where will you be on Saturday at 2:00 PM when my sport fights to stay relevant against Ghana? Hopefully close to a TV. Because as excited as you might be for this game, I assure it feels bigger than just another Saturday to me.

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