It’s 12:13 AM on Saturday night. Today, I questioned Caleb Porter’s choice of scarf in an early season matchup with the Chicago Fire. And I realized: I’m in love with a game. No sane man would rewatch Chicago’s entire season during the World Cup and comment on the manager’s wardrobe with no remorse. Inspired partly by Sarah Spence and half a bottle of Jim Beam, I felt the need to document my journey to this moment of clarity:
I haven’t always been a soccer fan. In fact, I’ve hated soccer for the majority of my 24 years on Earth. I grew up in a pretty typical middle class suburban environment and attended Catholic grade school, where football was king. The kids that chose soccer over football were endlessly ridiculed for picking the pussy sport. Given the circumstances, my playing days ended at the age of six when I tired of directionless AYSO practices and post game snacks. By fifth grade, all of my friends had given up on the sport in favor of football, social currency not the least of the reasons. Soccer had died. No ball kicked, no video game purchased. The game didn’t even exist. I chose my sports and life moved on. I started at quarterback for the next six years before puberty got in the way and the high school coaches left me out of the mix (As a consolation, I grew two inches in college). And in a strange turn of events, I got cut from the baseball team in the spring, despite being good enough to make the team. Football and baseball were all I had. At 16, they were taken away from me without choice. I cried that day.
With nothing to do after school, I started volunteering at a soup kitchen, putting in hours and gaining more responsibility along the way. Some of the adults at the place liked me enough to offer the opportunity of a lifetime. In the summer of 2007, I traveled to Europe for the first time on a kind of religious pilgrimage/service trip/drinking escapade. The kicker was that I didn’t know a soul. They had been preparing for nearly a year. A kid dropped out last minute, which opened the spot for me. I had the better part of a day to get to know these people. Seven hours in a plane separated from the group didn’t help, but there was still a ten hour bus ride to our destination in France. The kid next to me was dizzy with excitement. In two weeks, our group would be stationed in Barcelona, where he would get to see Camp Nou. Obviously, the name did not register, so we sat in silence for a few more hours. He flipped through the pages of a magazine for a while before I finally mustered up the courage to ask him why he was so excited to see the stadium. Mes que un club...Thierry Henry.
Before long, the group was in Barcelona. Little concrete pitches took the place of basketball courts in public parks. Kids kicked soccer balls throughout the city. That was all expected, but something shocked me: Thierry Henry’s name was everywhere. Stores, posters, jerseys. At that point, I asked the most obvious, yet most important question of my life: who the fuck is Thierry Henry?
The answer would have to wait until I got to a computer back in the States. After answering the requisite questions about my European experience, I went straight to Wikipedia. I started at Thierry Henry. Then Arsenal. Then the English Premier League. Wait, they show games in the United States? Tomorrow? Soccer had returned to my life on Matchday 1 of the 2007-2008 Barclays Premier League. I didn’t know much. Hell, the only player on my radar was Thierry Henry, but he was in La Liga. Tactics? Good luck. But I watched, drawn in by the history and the fact that it was the world’s game. I spent my final year of high school watching games on Fox Soccer Channel every couple weeks. I learned about Champions League and turned my attention to America’s version of the game. I didn’t get into MLS until much later, but I had a basic knowledge of the top league in the United States by the end of year. I became fascinated with promotion and relegation. The base was there. All I needed was a kick in the right direction before I truly became a junkie.
College was the catalyst. All of the sudden, it was cool to know about soccer. I lived down the hall from two enthusiasts. One enjoyed club, while the other preferred international. I talked to both and learned as much as I possibly could. Beer for breakfast didn't hurt during the European season. When Andrés Iniesta’s goal hit the back of the net against Chelsea, we stood screaming and I was hooked as a freshman. Soccer became my outlet. The sport was a way to celebrate the good in life and get out of the bad. I watched Landon Donovan send the United States to the Round of 16 in London. Frank Klopas struggled to be the manager my club needed. Dos a cero. Life was punctuated by moments of glory and despair. And it was beautiful.
Today, Jason Davis is a staple of my morning routine. I watch the USMNT with the American Outlaws. MLS Live is a yearly purchase. Soccer can be the answer for someone down on their luck, so discuss the game. Let them know about Thierry Henry. A future ambassador only needs a push in the right direction.
Soccer is my game. The United States is my country. Chicago is my club. Til I die!