Mourn today, carry that flag tomorrow: Fans can't lose faith in U.S. men's soccer team
My dad, my sister and I have been attending U.S. men's national team matches since before it was cool.
Countless times growing up, we'd sport our red, white and blue, pack the trunk with a cooler of turkey Subway sandwiches and a soccer ball and make the drive from Connecticut to what was then Foxboro Stadium for a match. We'd caravan with a cadre of parents and kids from the local soccer club and make a tailgating day of it.
We bought face paint, flag tattoos, hats and shirts. We got rained on, sunburned and dehydrated during matches on the hottest of New England days. One particularly frosty, damp afternoon, we huddled together under blankets in Foxboro's frozen upper deck before sneaking into the never-filled lower bowl for the second half and for relief from the wind.
And each time, we U.S. fans were outnumbered on our own turf. We banged our feet on the stands in competition with Honduras supporters' drums, we batted smoke out of our faces when Trinidad and Tobago fans set something on fire, and we used our own meager cries in a feeble attempt to overwhelm formulated and formidable Mexican chants.
When we couldn't attend in person, we'd watch on TV -- waking up in the middle of the night to catch the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan, finding any establishment that would air qualifiers, or heading to the bar at 7 a.m. to watch the World Cup during a family vacation to Arizona.
And as time passed, we paid more and more attention to that small group of fans congregated in the stands behind one of the goals during matches. They were then known as Uncle Sam's Army, and they'd bring their own drums and horns and chant for the full 90. Finally, my dad decided to sneak us into the back row of that assembly.
They jumped in unison and led us in cheers. My younger brother was with us, and he played his vuvuzela in time with the group's drummer for the entire match. We had found our people. We vowed to never again attend a game without sitting with those fans -- now the American Outlaws -- our brothers in U.S. men's national team arms. We learned all the songs, entered early sign-ups for tickets and marched into the stadium as one.
Don't let this disappointment douse our fire. ... We've made the 'I Believe' chant a sacred hymn.
Since then, we've watched U.S. soccer fandom flourish around us, picking up steam with each passing World Cup. Three years ago, I watched the United States play Portugal in the 2014 World Cup from the second floor of a New York City bar, with a rowdy clan of American Outlaws. I thought for sure the floor would collapse.
When tuning into matches, I well with emotion. The pregame U-S-A clap chant is no longer relegated to those crazies behind the net -- it's done stadium-wide (and the lower bowl is often full, by the way).
These days, my stars-and-stripes headband, flag face bandana, scarf and jersey are met with high-fives instead of sideways glances.
So it goes without saying that Wednesday is a terrible, sad day. The U.S. men were eliminated Tuesday from World Cup qualifying in an embarrassing and frustrating confluence of events, and for the first time in my life, we're staring down a U.S.-less World Cup. Even though, in the past, we rarely made it much past the group stage, we were there.
The timing is unfortunate, given fandom behind the team has finally gained momentum. But this inopportune stumble doesn't have to spell the end of what we've built.
To my fellow U.S. men's national team patriots, outlaws and warriors: Don't let this disappointment douse our fire. We've come a long way. We've been outnumbered, outcheered, beaten on our home fields. We've endlessly argued against football snobs for our rightful place on the world stage. We've made the "I Believe" chant a sacred hymn.
We've idolized John Harkes, Cobi Jones, Kasey Keller, Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard. And we've ushered in the newest generation of American heroes, led by Christian Pulisic. They've walked across the field to us after matches, arms over head, clapping a thank you for our support.
We are the ones who need to carry the flag until 2022.
Let's have a collective cry today. But then we have to keep the American spirit strong. The heart of the U.S. men's national team lives in you. Don't let it die.