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The American Ascendancy

PRETORIA, South Africa -- The guy standing near me was crying, too. It was my new best friend, Ian Ainslie of the fan group American Outlaws, and after the fourth Foer brother -- tell me that Landon and this blog’s editor aren’t separated at birth -- scored the most important goal in American soccer history (later, Paul Caligiuri), tears were streaming down his face. Streaming, I tell you. Ainslie borrowed my notebook and wrote, “I don’t even have words.” I really think he couldn’t speak.

Inside Loftus Versfeld Stadium, the 90 minutes before bedlam were an anxious and frustrating referendum on US soccer. We had seen this movie before: the sloppy defending, the missed sitters. Jonathan Bornstein? Seriously? Here were my worries: a three-draw exit, capped by a nil-nil result, would rearm the wingnuts and the Reillys. More important, it would buzzkill what I gather is genuine hype and excitement -- and good ratings -- back home. Sunil Gulati told me before the Slovenia game that, while he doesn’t believe in tipping points, this likable team, this seriously ESPNed tournament and a bid-in-progress to host a World Cup presented a rare opportunity for the sport. I’m in the bag for Sunil, whom I’ve known for a long time. Backdated to 1984, he talked about a 50-year plan for American soccer; I’ve been yapping about a 20- to 30-year one for a while now. Fucking Jozy, I said. How do you not just tap that ball in?

And then it happened. Sunil cried, too. And he woke up this morning to escort Bill Clinton and shake the trees for votes from FIFA’s 24-member Politburo for that 2022 World Cup bid. (Clinton is the bid’s honorary chairman; he got a big cheer when his face appeared on the video board last night.) ESPN was assured another weekend of USA-fired ratings. And given that we’ve landed for the first two knockout rounds in the best group since the Beatles, the possibility for advancing further than any modern US men’s national team is real. Project 2010, anyone?

Personally, last night’s victory was sweet for reasons I’ve articulated here earlier. This could all change starting Saturday, but my momentary glee at England’s second-place failure exceeds rational bounds. Mind if I repeat a line? Suck it, Fiver. Call me thin-skinned, but enough of the “soccerball” condescension. We finished first, you finished second. Nyah nyah nyuh nyah nyah. 

This is where soccer fearmongers on the right and worrywarts on the left are wrong. The  apparent concern among certain conservatives is that soccer equals socialism and our personal bogeyman, immigration. Lock your doors, suburban U8 players of America! Over at The Nation, meanwhile, Dave Zirin frets that the comments of a couple of unlisten-to-able D.C. sports-talk radio soccer troglodytes reflect a “nasty undercurrent” embedded in all US victories in all international sports. So let me see if I have it straight: The right thinks soccer is un-American and the left thinks the right will use a soccer victory as cause for American triumphalism. Drop ball, people.

Anyone with a dust speck of knowledge of US soccer’s place in the world understands that the euphoria surrounding Donovan’s goal and the prospect for the US in this World Cup have nothing whatsoever to do with reinforcing American cultural might and everything to do with celebrating a long-time-coming (and still-not-there) American ascendancy in the rare place it hasn’t existed. Those chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” aren’t an expression of American superiority. They’re a foam finger in the world’s eyeball from a historically and justifiably overlooked, disrespected, disregarded second-rate soccer country. It’s all about redemption on the field, not politics off of it.