Monday, July 11, 2011

My Personal Journey With the USWNT - From Lust to Love


Editor's Note: This is probably one of the only personal bits you'll see on this site. The Free Beer Movement isn't about me, but about, you, the collective American soccer fans that help build this sport one beer at a time. Yesterday's USWNT win, though, moved me to put into words the "love story" I've had with the Lady Nats. It's not crazy to say that without the Women's National Team there wouldn't be the FBM. They're that important to me. Of course there's plenty the men's game has done for me as well, but this focuses on what women's soccer has done for me. I hope you enjoy it.

By Dan Wiersema / Founder, Free Beer Movement

My journey as a fan of American soccer is probably as convoluted as this piece is going to be. You've been warned.

At age 12 I started playing soccer when most American children give it up. While most of my friends were quickly abandoning the sport to play football, and continue on their upward arch to travelling basketball and baseball teams, I had discovered that I was just mediocre at all three traditionally American sports (and atrocious at golf) and that soccer would be my last chance at sporting success. I was lost and, something I will regret to this day, had no idea that the World Cup was happening in my backyard the same summer I began my long, love-fueled journey with soccer.

Fast forward four years and to France 98 where I was living abroad as a part of a high school trip in Hungary. My on-field contribution to the sport of soccer was barely a tick above my participation as a fan in the United States. I hadn't attended a single Major League Soccer match even though the Chicago Fire were within driving distance (although I did watch ESPN's "Match of the Week" and had a sweet MLS poster!) and I couldn't name more than a half dozen players on the U.S. Men's National Team roster.

But there I was sitting in a Hungarian bar, belting out the National Anthem, in the naive patriotism that comes with being a 15-year old kid living in a foreign country; you know... the kind that roots because it's the USA and well, dammit... I'm American. We could also drink beer with no questions asked so going and watching games was easy. Actually that's a lot like being an American Outlaws today!

As most of us recall, the American odyssey in France was an unmitigated disaster. Steve Sampson and 3-6-1 formations will forever go down as a part of the dark ages of US Soccer history. Last place, one goal to our name (from Brian McBride), and an embarrassing geo-political loss to Iran.

My Hungarians friends made me pay for being an American soccer fan that summer. My interest in the team waned severely towards disinterest. I had stuck my neck out for them, put what little built up faith I had in American soccer, and lost my investment.

I returned home to the U.S. and bought a Holland jersey after being dazzled by Dennis Berkamps wondergoal against Argentina and embracing my Dutch heritage instead of my American one. (Long-time readers will know how wrong I was back then). I spilled paint on my USMNT t-shirt jersey in the fall of that school year and it would never see the light of day again.

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One could say that my interest with professional soccer, at that point, was at its low-point. I continue to play club soccer and for my high school with mixed results, but had no real upward connection to encourage my enthusiasm for the sport. I went to practice and games, played, and then I was done.

Then the next summer, 1999, the Women's National Team made their incredible and inspirational run to capture the Women's World Cup on home soil. From the outset of the tournament I was intrigued. Keep in mind, that at 16 years-old, seeing that many beautiful women in one place was about all I could handle. Crushing hardcore on players like Danielle Fotopoulos, Lorrie Fair, yes, Julie Foudy, and, of course, Mia Hamm my interest level in American soccer was heavily tilting towards "lust".

When they won the USWNT was everywhere. I collected Sports Illustrated articles, newspaper clippings, even a few of mom's "Good Housekeeping" magazines. That Brandi Chastain image? Whew....

But it was clear that the "Girls of Summer" had done something more than inspire a generation of young girls to play soccer; it had pulled my American soccer fandom from the ashes. I went into the 1999 Women's World Cup  thinking about at the USWNT with the wrong body part, but came out with fire in my head and heart.

From there it was, much like any high school romance, a whirlwind of emotions and swings of intensity. From lust to puppy love.... I had it for American soccer.

From there everything becomes a blur. I played soccer every moment I could. I watched every game that graced the television. I took back the Men's National Team shortly thereafter and during Korea/Japan 2002 quietly jumped up and down in the basement of my best friend's house as we downed Portugal in the first round and later Mexico in the knock-out stages, before "the world person in the world" killed our Cup dreams. Fueled by EA Sports' FIFA series and a never ending supply of pick up games in college I was all in.

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Between the triumph of 1999 and today the rest of the world caught up to the USWNT. Germany took the 2003 and 2007 Women's World Cup titles, but by then I had moved beyond crushing on the Lady Nats to serious feelings about our relationship. That point where you've been with someone where you start asking yourself "maybe this is the one?" The women had given back everything I had given them. We had a mutual appreciation for each other. 

Add to the fact in all this time I new front had opened up in my dedication to women's soccer. Being the oldest of three children I witnessed both my younger sisters' inspiration by the USWNT's 1999 victory. One would later move on to a very successful life with the French Horn, but the other played through high school. While I was mostly a difficult older brother playing soccer with these two in the backyard, using a power box for one post and a tree for another, sits in my brain as some of the most favorite memories I have with them.

As the Lady Nats continued to win everything but the World Cup (including Olympics gold in 2004 and 2008, loads of Algarve Cups and Four National Tournaments) I became a teacher (yes, shock... my secret identity revealed) and began to coach women's soccer. First, varsity soccer at an inner-city Milwaukee high school and today, every Friday, I run a morning soccer club for girls at the middle school in Texas I teach at.

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This summer has brought back a flurry of the same emotions from that first summer I "lusted" after the USWNT. Many things have changed, though.

Certainly this edition of the Lady Nats is full of lookers. From Hope Solo to Heather Mitts to Alex Morgan plenty has been written about the physical beauty of this squad (I'm partial to Megan Rapinoe myself.. dunno why...). For a long time I haven't looked at the women's national team like I once had. Perhaps it's because I'm older (28) or married or that I've coached ladies now, but watching the USWNT is an exercise in deep appreciation and analysis of their game about everything but their looks.

I'm not blind to it, but I'd like to think that the love I have of these women has matured. I've settled down with them. I think they are beautiful, each and every one of them, but everything matters now.

Yesterday I watched the match against Brazil with my wife. We were on vacation, celebrating three years of marriage, but we had to watch this game. My wife was not a soccer fan when we met. In fact, she knew nothing of the sport, but from the day we met seven years earlier she has been my greatest FBM experiment. Last summer the men's World Cup locked her in and she also took her first USWNT match in in Omaha, Nebraska. My love had become her love.

With tears in her eyes, she was slowly being crushed by each second that ticked away on the scoreboard in Dresden. Then amazing happened:



Two people have probably never made so much noise in their lives.

Hope Solo's penalty kick save and the five U.S. sharp-shooters finished off Brazil while Mrs. FBM placed her order for a black "Wambach" jersey.

My love has become her love. Someday our loves, each other and U.S. soccer, will collide when we have to name our children. Boy or girl we've got it settled.

Dempsey and Abby.

The greatest love is NOT the love in spite of... it is the love because of. Because I'm American, these are my American women, and, through all the years, they have done so much to make me the American soccer fan I am today.

I love them.

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1 comment:

  1. Well done sir. You and I have more parallels in our lives than I realized. It's no wonder I gravitate towards your work seamlessly.

    I too am the eldest of three, my younger siblings are a sister and a brother.

    My sister and I, only three years apart, can't remember a time without soccer. We always played. Always. But it was for fun, we never considered going to college to play or playing professionally. Now, the three of us play pickup every week and play on a coed team. There really isn't a better form of bonding. Alone, none of us is a standout, but when we play together you can tell we've been passing it to each other since we could walk.

    Funny, that '99' cup did special things for us also, the three of us. My brother, as a much younger kid, when asked who his idol was would say "Mia Hamm." At first, I started to make fun of him for idolizing a girl (boys are idiots), knowing that I'd seen Hamm do things that defied logic. I crushed on her as well.

    My mother and sister, the eternal feminists, pounced on me in an instant and chastised me to no end until I conceded, yeah, Mia Hamm was a pretty good idol to have.

    I saw my mom tear up at the thought of her son idolizing a woman for her prowess at sports.

    When I was in Europe, I never shied away from a soccer debate. And it was pretty much a consensus that there were our girls, and then everyone else's when it came to soccer.

    Our USWNT has always been a source of pride for me and my family, and we do just as much analysis of tactics and technical ability as with the USMNT. And I'm just as hoarse after watching the Lady Yankees.

    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete

"Anyone who tells me soccer is boring, I'm going to punch them in the face."
- Former Dallas Burn (aka FC Dallas) coach Dave Dir

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