In my family, Father’s Day 1994 might be remembered as the day seven year old Danny McGowan realized it was okay to like sports more than anything else in life. Eating. People. My children. There we were, a Scottish family crammed inside an Italian restaurant, mispronouncing manicotti and asking if they sold mashed potatoes, laughing and drinking (I assume), in honor of my grandpa. And there was my grandpa, looking so bitter you’d have thought the bar ran out of booze.
Norway was playing Mexico in the World Cup and he was missing it for dinner in an Italian restaurant.
Now it’s quite possible my papa hated Norwegians and Mexicans (and Italians for that matter) all the same, but this was soccer on national television and he was missing it. I remember not really understanding his hostility toward us, but also being amazed by it. To that point, I had never known anyone that passionate about anything. Hell, I’d have burnt my baseball card collection for a trip to the Discovery Zone. He loved soccer. And he was my best friend. So I decided to love soccer.
It started with the Cup that summer. I felt that it was my patriotic duty to root for the Americans (he hated them too) and was crushed when Brazil eliminated us. That’s when I made it my goal in life to lead the United States to the top of the soccer world.
My career began that autumn.
My career ended that autumn.
I swear I gave it an honest effort. One Saturday morning, I even skipped a fall ball game in favor of a match. But I couldn’t help it. Soccer, put simply, was stupid. There were no rules, the coach’s son always got to play goalie and practice involved too much running. And even at my young age, I was bright enough to recognize that that much running should serve only as a punishment.
That was almost 16 years ago and while soccer clearly wasn’t for me, it seems obvious that hosting the 1994 World Cup led many children to take up or become more serious about the sport. Of the 23 Team USA players who dressed for a recent friendly against Denmark, 18 hadn’t reached high school by 1994 and 12 were younger ten, meaning they were probably still balancing soccer, Little League and the Power Rangers at the time.
What does that mean? For the first time in American history, the national team can select from a talent pool larger than your average swimming pool. The guys competing for spots on the World Cup roster didn’t settle for soccer because they couldn’t hit a baseball or make a jump shot. They chose it as their sport and they received more and better instruction at a younger age than anyone before them.
With that comes real expectations and if my grandpa were still alive, he’d probably offer the following advice:
“Don’t fuck this up.”
It’s that simple. Public opinion has changed on soccer. It’s trendy to like the game. The sophisticated sports fan now spells color with a “u” and says things like, “I love to watch soccer played at its highest level,” which is both a way of fitting in and an excuse for having never watched an MLS game in their lives.
Of course, luck often plays the biggest role in determining the outcome of the World Cup, and team USA appears to have received plenty of it in last week’s draw. Aside from what everyone considers a favorable opening group with England, Slovenia, and Algeria, the team would also be guaranteed not to play the defending champion (Italy) or any of the top three ranked teams in the world (Brazil, Spain, and Holland) until the semifinals if it were to advance to the second stage.
Have all the stars aligned for the US National Team? It might be too early to tell. But the ingredients are all there. The fortunate draw, the fan base that has never been so excited, and most importantly, the most talented group of players the team has ever had.
This has been 16 years in the making and if the Americans are looking for inspiration, they needn’t look far. Recently, a much more prominent national team faced about a ten year stretch of international struggles, much like Team USA in this decade.
But Italy went to Germany and won the whole thing in 2006.
Of course they did. They hosted the Cup in 1990.