My Dad is a Boston Red Sox fan. He grew in South Boston during the 1950s when gangsters ran the city (The movie The Town is inspired by that community). The Red Sox were an outlet for him and his siblings, something positive in the city. His entire life as a fan they had never won the World Series, but he hung on to hope. The Sox had several close calls with the Ted Williams and Yaz years, but as other cities and teams won championships the Red Sox climbed the all-time loser list with 0 victories in 86 years. I repeat the Red Sox NEVER won in his life, but he continued to follow and cheer. He continued to watch his rival’s success as Yankees piled up historic World Series numbers. I didn’t love baseball, but I loved the Red Sox because it was one of the things my Dad, who often traveled for work, and I could bond over. We always looked at our two favorite teams in the box scores – the Red Sox and whoever was playing the Yankees.
In 2004, I was a student at James Madison University and one of my professors was a Yankees fan. He had talked trash all series, and when the Yankees led the series 3-0 he asked all of the Red Sox fans to raise their hands. I, of course, stubborn as many of you know, raised my hand. He offered his respect for those who were willing to actually raise their hands then invited the rest of the class to laugh at us. If you haven’t seen it, as a US soccer fan, I highly encourage you to watch the 30 for 30 series 4 days in October. It tells the story of the Yankees needing just 3 outs in the bottom of the 9th inning with one of the greatest closers in the history of the game, unable to finish off THESE Red Sox. The Red Sox went onto to win that series and to my professor’s credit, he allowed Red Sox fans to laugh at him and our Yankee fan classmates. He even wore a Red Sox jersey to class that day. More important the Red Sox went on to win the World Series that year.
I don’t remember the World Series at all, to be honest, I’m pretty sure they beat the St. Louis Cardinals? After they came back and exercised the Yankee’s demon it was inevitable that they were going to win the World Series that year. I felt bad for any opponent after they got over that hump. Last night’s USMNT victory over Mexico felt very much like those four days in October. It felt very much the US Soccer’s programs winds had changed course and they are on a collision course with more trophies ahead.
On October 19, 2017, I wrote for the first time after 9 grueling days of processing that the US Men’s National Team was not going to the World Cup. It was almost exactly one year after I had hopefully launched chasingacup.com, a site I had begun because I was so excited about the US youth movement. I wrote then as painful as that cycle was, as embarrassing as losing to Trinidad & Tobago under the circumstances, I still held on to a seed of hope. The young crop of players that were emerging.
The US fan base oddly grew during this time. Matty Knips started the Underdog Soccer Podcast, Adam Belz launched Scuffed Podcast and USMNT super fans like Scott Jorek and so many others came around to the team in the midst of this brutal loss. They wanted an outlet for their frustration, they too felt as Taylor Twellman so aptly put and now legendary tagline “What are We Doing?”. Yet somehow even in the closing remarks he gathered hope, as too did the podcasters, fans and pundits. Perhaps this loss would be what the program needed, maybe one day US could put something together and win a World Cup. US Soccer Twitter was growing momentum over the last few years and the #USMNT crowd gathered numbers, expectations, and angst.
Christian Pulisic was the ringleader of an up and coming group of Americans playing in Europe, but there were so many more including a young goalkeeper I named in my very first article on Chasingacup.com a young keeper named Ethan Horvath, who might one day fight for a spot against Brad Guzan to replace Tim Howard. There were so many young players who were appearing in the European ranks, the Development Academy and Major League Soccer were producing some really quality youth in their ranks (Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent, Luca de la Torre, Eric Palmer-Brown, Ayo Akinola, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Brooks Lennon, Emerson Hyndman and so many more scratching and clawing away).
There was so much potential in this pool, how can we screw this up?
Then the 2018 USSF election happened and we didn’t get a new face, questions about the organization behind closed doors, lawsuits piling up, we took over a year of critical learning time to select a coach and it’s the COO’s brother, Gregg Berhalter, with very few candidates interviewed. There was so much to be discouraged about and an angry #BerhalterOut murmur grew. Berhalter was an inexperienced and unproven mediocre success in MLS coach with wild ideas for how to run the team. These continue to struggle seemingly reaching peak velocity in benching Pulisic in the 60th minute of a Nations League game against Canada. A game we would go on to lose, playing an MLS-heavy roster that continued to cause tension and doubt. The pandemic hits and a long lull of infrequent friendlies with no competitive matches. All this time a growing player club momentum and an incredible run of dual nationals expressing interest in being a part of the American talent movement, and a mountain of expectation. 2021 was filled with European trophies for young American players who helped contribute to the collection of those trophies.
All of that expectation and tension leading up to the first competitive match in 562 days. Who would Berhalter have in the lineup, what formation, what tactical changes? The United States wins 1-0 in the 88th minute with tension flaring. The fans who only cared about victory and moving on, and the many who wanted to see a different lineup, our best talent, and concern about how lucky we were to escape with a victory. That only led to increased pressure on the final which in fairytale fashion had us against our rivals to the South, who themselves had survived via a 5-4 penalty victory against Costa Rica.
The United States would be playing their rival Mexico in the CONACAF Nations League final. Our record stands painfully at 11-10-27 against them.
#ConcacafChampionsLeague #CCLFEVER– battles begin at the club level tonight.
A little appetizer before #concacaf Nations League, WCQ & Gold Cup coming up. This rivalry… #USMNT #ElTri #USAvMEX pic.twitter.com/9eh2Nn40og— Marcus O'Malley (@Chasingacup) May 5, 2021
This was a critical final match for us against a superior roster and 11th ranked national team in the world. A team that had beaten us 1-0 in the 2019 Gold Cup final and 3-0 in a friendly shortly after. This was also our last match with our first team before World Cup Qualifying begins and a final chance to see some of our top talents on the pitch together in red, white and blue. It was an important game for this young squad, for Coach Gregg Berhalter, and for US fans.
The roster dropped and tensions immediately flared. A new untested formation, “slow Tim Ream”, Tyler Adams who’s hopes of playing had flashed that morning, not in the lineup. The return of much doubted DeAndre Yedlin and Kellyn Acosta in the lineup. More anxiety, but lingering hope. They can do this, they can win. 1’ minute, a mental error of a sleepy pass from our former YNT Captain, a stoic solid player in Mark McKenzie and we’re down. It is something we have seen SO many times as US soccer fans, but it’s early in the game – there’s still hope.
Jesus Corona scores just 1 minute into the game:
VAR to the rescue as 2-0 really could have put this one out of reach:
The 26th minute and Reyna ties it, a goal US fans badly needed to bring belief:
& what a special moment for Dad:
Diego Lainez for Mexico enters the game and immediately scores on Ream, the fears that many US fans had seeing him in the lineup:
McKennie answers! Scoring a header 80th minute, the equalizer
Zack Steffen is injured and Ethan Horvath has to come into the game. Gio Reyna as a sub is hit in the head by fans. The tension continues to rise, with plenty of chances for both sides. The game heads to extra time tied 2-2.
It looks like it could be headed to penalties, but VAR comes into play once again. Pulisic was taken down and will not give up the ball, this penalty is his. In dramatic fashion, our Captain is given a chance to win the game.
Captain America wants it, the way we’ve always wanted him to want it. Pulisic scores a textbook penalty in the 113th. The opportunity and finish that only the greatest of athletes dream of:
124th minute, a handball in the box. Penalty – could Mexico send the game to penalties? Legendary Andres Guardado against Ethan Horvath with a massive save:
After a painful 20 minutes of injury time, the final whistle provides sweet relief. USMNT is CONCACAF Nations League champions, they’ve vanquished their rivals. They have come back and shown that resilient American spirit so many of us were hungry to see again. The new fans since Cuova now have a memory of their own to light their passion, to tell their friends. That this team, this American soccer team belongs. This team can play and they have some legitimate global football super stars.
There is plenty to not like about how the game went, VAR could be argued to have been the MVP of the game. The lineup and formation changed, there were long stretched where Dest, Pulisic and others were nearly invisible and uninvolved, but winning a trophy throws much of that away. McKenzie, Yedlin, others had some sloppy play and battled back into the match. Many of these players won’t and shouldn’t remember that, except to build off of it for their futures. Defeating Mexico is a building block, an important one for this young core.
They needed this victory, Gregg needed the victory and we, the US fans, needed the victory. Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, and Christian Pulisic to be the scorers were so important and to win in such dramatic fashion only builds their individual and collective legacies. That young core which will continue to fill in around them bring a fantastic skillset and the world’s eyes to US soccer. They’re important for the growth of the game, but most importantly they are important to continue to build belief in the next group of young Americans who want to challenge themselves and they will serve as the core for a run at World Cup 2022 and likely 2026. This victory cannot be understated as a critical one to developing this team’s chemistry and belief in themselves and each other.
How great is it for Mark McKenzie to stay in that game and fight back making some key plays down the stretch to help his team complete the victory. DeAndre Yedlin oft-criticized to battle and be a leader with experience. Ethan Horvath coming up with a huge save after a huge save off of the bench. Horvath’s contract up this summer, he should be well soft-after and land in a solid Bundesliga or better club after that performance. Tim Weah long few years recovering from injury and fighting for minutes and impact on his club, performing as an impact high energy sub. There are so many incredible subplot stories to join the three core goal scorers.
After 120 minutes in June, we have vanquished our demon. This is my favorite match we have ever played against our rivals Mexico. We will have many matches ahead against them and superior talent, but I can’t help but remember that day in October 2004. The Red Sox defeated the Yankees and it didn’t matter who they were going to face in the future, they were a team. They had tasted victory and didn’t look like a team anyone from anywhere wants anything to do within a tournament. There’s a long way to go and many bigger, deeper and challenges ahead. This group has shown fight. This group has shown resilience. This group has shown me and the fans that they are not the same and that seed of hope that was planted after the Trinidad and Tobago game is growing.
I wrote these words in October 2017 about the US national team. They stand true today.