I became a full-fledged FC Dallas and soccer fan in a not too unfamiliar route from other fans, no doubt.
It started with Landon Donovan.
Growing up in the dusty plains of southwest Oklahoma, American football was king. We played it on Friday nights, during recess in elementary school, at church youth group, during the halftime show of the Superbowl, on 16-bit video game screens, and in our heads. We kept playing it on fields with dips and holes that twisted our ankles every other play or after our bells got rung. And sometimes, even after we lost interest in doing the real thing, it was the sport that got us daydreaming about being the hero, making a great catch, scheming a trick play, or outrunning an opponent.
I still respect American football for the way it blends the individual one-on-one matches and the necessary teamwork.
As kids we all grew up playing soccer, but except for the occasional game or international match that showed up on broadcast TV, our exposure to the professional reality of the sport was nil, especially in rural Oklahoma.
It was stuff like World Cups though that could perk our interest, glimpses that this game was bigger and bolder and faster and more interesting than we could imagine.
Those glimpses also helped us understand that this game had the same possibility of breaking our hearts and captivating our imaginations as any other sport, coming down to one kick, one individual battle, and one moment of brilliance as well as the impressive resolve of a team of hardworking underdogs with a vision.
While I had caught a little of the 2006 men’s World Cup with classmates in graduate school, the chance to root for the USA again in 2010 with a bit more time on my hands was exciting. I had moved to Dallas and flirted with the idea of becoming a soccer fan, but where the heck do you start? The World Cup was as good as any other place, but damn, the World Cup knows how to break your heart.
Against Algeria in 2010, the USA men’s team needed a win to advance out of the group stage, and I managed to watch on a grainy feed from my office computer, trying to get other things done and pretend I wasn’t hanging on every pass. As extra time began, I closed my browser in frustration, resigned to never caring about soccer again. When I relaunched and checked ESPN for a final score, I saw that the unbelievable had happened - Landon Donovan with a rebound goal at the end of a hectic fastbreak sequence begun by a veteran Tim Howard throw.
I watched that goal probably 50 times that day on whatever low quality replay I could find.
I was hooked.
Despite moving on into the tournament, the USMNT would run out of steam, and I made the deliberate choice to continue to follow Landon Donovan and become a Galaxy fan, supporting the sport and dreaming about the US someday hoisting a men’s World Cup trophy. But as luck would have it, when LA played FC Dallas, the feed live on channel 52 in the DFW area, it was the young, dynamic, better playing local team that showed me other possibilities. Dazzled by the likes of David Ferreira, Dax McCarty, Brek Shea, Eric Avila, Zach Loyd, and Marvin Chavez among a stacked roster that took them all the way to the MLS Cup, Dallas became my team and my first ever season ticket purchase.
Today, nearly 10 years later, I’ve come to cherish this global sport in new ways - a game that picks up on those captivating moments of individual brilliance and brilliant teamwork, a game that requires mental acuity and reflexive instincts, a game that can’t be taught and yet must be taught, a game that is culturally specific and culturally diverse, a game that is huge and yet can still grow. I love the sport as a youth coach with a local soccer association, encouraging kids of every skin color and background and class to try something beautiful and have a good time. I love soccer for its embrace of freedom and structure and creativity in an always tense unresolved dance. I enjoy that this sport is for anyone, girls and boys and transgender kids and immigrants and former quarterbacks and more.
And when Reggie Cannon, an FC Dallas homegrown defender, crosses in a ball that ends up at the feet of Weston McKennie, another FC Dallas academy product, for an opening goal with the US Men’s National Team to take the squad a step closer to another Gold Cup final, I feel like I was a part of that sequence - with those season tickets, concession purchases, t-shirt and scarves at the FCD store, every irreverent and silly blog post, every game watched in person, on a big screen, or a grainy feed on my iPhone. I wonder if I, along with so many other fans, am a tiny part of contributing to a growth of a sport that this country needs in a time of xenophobia and fear.
All I know is that when I coach those kids on Mondays and Wednesdays, I see an America that looks darn beautiful because of who we already are and who we are becoming.
So, yeah, soccer is America’s game. Our US Women’s National Team continue to show us that it’s true. And I’m here for it every step of the way. Celebrate freedom, sip some tea, and then get out on that pitch today. Let’s see where the next ten years takes us.