When I was 10 I showed up to Harrison Hudson’s house to watch the United States play Brazil in the round of 16. We had eked through to that stage by the grace of God and the unfortunate feet of a good man, Andres Escobar. It was 1994. I had chili-bowl haircut (unrelinquished until 1999), and maybe the sweetest collection of radical Umbro graphic tees you could imagine.
My entire youth soccer team, the Rangers, were there as well. None of us witnessed anything like it before. The Hudsons had a giant Sony rear-projection big screen. There were soccer ball cupcakes. A few of us exchanged McDonald’s Monopoly pieces to complete sets. Times were tough.
Everything else about it was euphoric. It was seeing men we had only begun to idolize take on the best. Ask me how many times the name “Reyna” had come up in conversation at the dinner table before that day.
A couple of weeks before I had been in Los Angeles with my family on an obligatory (but still wonderful, Mom and Dad) trek to Disneyland. OJ’s Bronco had wreaked havoc on the 91 and 405 in LA. It was roughly mid-June. I bought a USA World Cup 1994 duffel bag in the gift shop of our Holiday Inn an hour after we shut off the news and walked to a restaurant for dinner. Later, I saw highlights from Diana Ross’ unforgivable penalty miss during the opening ceremonies. Local LA television news ran a preview of the World Cup in less than two minutes, highlighting Maradona’s absence.
The US had no Maradona. But Harkes, Balboa, Meola, Reyna, and Wynalda were staples of conversation from that point forward. I came across a John Harkes (in his Sheffield Wednesday era) PRO SET trading card at a soccer tournament in San Antonio, Texas, two months later and kept in a small shoebox alongside the likes of Ryne Sandberg and John Elway.
We, by that point - that being the green, naive, optimistic American soccer youth - finally had players we could remotely identify with. They could take on the best of the world and make a game of it. The Brazil-USA knockout match turned out to be a snoozer. But for 71 minutes we hanged with the champions-elect.
If nothing else, that game provided a ten-year-old boy in Midland, Texas, a sense of achievability. I had no idea where Harkes, Wynalda, Meola, or Balboa hailed from. They weren’t from West Texas. We made America’s best high school football players, oil, and little else. But they were American and good at the sport we loved and that was enough.
Nothing about yesterday’s defeat at the hands of Trinidad and Tobago (that took a solid 15 minutes to fully type out) changes any of that for me. But I’m 33. No scholarships on the horizon for me. No professional hopes and dreams to keep me awake at night.
American 10 year olds, this time around, will have to live vicariously through Messi, Lewandowski, Hazard, Kane, and somehow Blas Perez. They are all brilliant. By “all” I do mean everyone except Blas. But they will not do it via an American player who grew up in conditions not unlike their own. I disdain the onward rush of nationalism into American politics, but when it comes to soccer I am prepared to sacrifice my first and second-born children for an American quarterfinal appearance at a World Cup. And it never seems to change.
At least Pulisic is on television week in, week out. Out of the many things he has over Dempsey or Donovan in their early careers, Wonderboy certainly has exposure. At least American youth soccer can cling to that during the chasm of mid-June through July 2018.
And at least the kids will still have the spectacle and anticipation of the World Cup come next year. But it will cheapened without the US in it (not that we deserved to attend). That is weird to accept, even for a 33 year-old who cannot remember the US not being active every fourth June. The ‘86 World Cup was never memory. I was two.
But the 1994 World Cup had an indelible impact on my life. I still scour eBay for the denim kit and have a mental limit of how much I will bid if a medium ever surfaces. I, for some reason, still remember trying to talk my dad into buying me an Alexi Lalas album through Eurosport.
And that long-lasting connection to the team, the tournament, and to the greater American soccer community is what I wish for yet another wave of American kids that love the sport. They won’t get it this time around. Hopefully down the line, after France hoists the Cup and Messi wins Golden Boot, we’ll have a clear direction for 2022 as a country. And hopefully, that void makes American youths hungrier than we were 23 years ago.