Confession: Once the final whistle echoed in that almost empty stadium in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night and Bruce Arena’s men fell to the ground in defeat, my first impulse was to celebrate. That’s what genuine sport rivalries are for. It’s only natural. After all, a Yankees fan will cheer just as loudly for the failure of the Red Sox as he will for his team’s success. On the soccer pitch, Mexico and the United States have a deep-rooted rivalry. For a long time, the Mexican team dominated the amateurish Americans. Things began to change in the early 1990s and took a turn for the worse (or for the best, if you savor this kind of sporting antagonism) when the United States accomplished the unthinkable and kicked Mexico out of the World Cup in 2002, arguably the most painful defeat in Mexican soccer history.
So, yes: We are rivals, and rivals do not root for each other, hence my initial reaction after the astounding result in Couva.
I no longer feel that way, and the fault lies with my 9-year-old son. He had watched the game at home, you see, and he was fuming. He showed me a YouTube video of Panama’s now infamous “ghost goal” — the one that sealed the U.S. team’s fate on Tuesday — and demanded a rematch that might allow the Americans one last chance. When I asked why exactly he was so sad to see the United States eliminated, he immediately responded, somewhat annoyed: “It’s my country too, dad!”
When we first emigrated to the United States from Mexico in 2011, the kid was about to turn 4, and he desperately wanted to belong. He found his way through that lingua franca that is soccer. He asked to be enrolled in the local American Youth Soccer Organization team and began playing every weekend, running joyfully up and down the field, asking for the ball in English, celebrating in Spanish. As parents do in the United States, I got involved in the league as well. I did some assistant coaching and studied to earn certification as a referee. I was soon surprised by the level of commitment and intensity of every family involved. It was not only their cheering: They knew about the game, talking formations and transitions even if we were just watching a bunch of 5-year-olds kick the ball around.
My son plays club soccer now, and my admiration for America’s youth system has only grown. It is far from perfect: pay-for-play leaves out a vast pool of talent, and some leagues can be chaotic at best. Yet, every weekend, I see grounds filled to the brim with families, united by the love of a game that, not that long ago, seemed far removed from the American catalogue of sporting passions. Parents set up goals, help coaches — the real ones, not us parents trying our luck at formations and rotations — with cones and lines and shirts and enthusiastically advise their kids on the best way to cross the ball or cover the center-back when he decides to make a run. They try not to coach from the sidelines — but they can’t help but yell “possession!” when one of the kids gets rid of the ball too quickly. No one is naive about the game: They talk tactics with the same knowledge you would expect from a rabid Italian fan or a Brazilian connoisseur. (Argentines are another matter: No one lives and breathes soccer with quite that level of dementia.)
Youth soccer in the United States — or at least, in Southern California — is also a refutation of nativism. Over the past year, my son has shared the field with, among many others, a talented half-Iranian, half-Indian midfielder; a gracious winger with a Japanese American father and a Swiss mother (the kid plays taiko when he’s not training, for God’s sake!); and a devilish striker whose Uruguayan father is now mulling what to do to help his kid become the next Luis Suárez. This sense of exhilarating diversity extends to the rest of the community that gathers on the Southland fields where our kids play. Every weekend, I listen to coaches shout and harangue in Spanish, Armenian, even Greek. The boys and girls they train are all playing on American soil and will grow up to reinvigorate American soccer.
As a Mexican fan, I both relish and fear the time when these kids come of age, with their genuine love and knowledge of soccer, their adoration of both Alex Morgan and Lionel Messi and their Nike cleats all polished and battle-ready. I am sure it will happen sooner rather than later. It will not be automatic, of course. The dynamic diversity in youth soccer tends to dissipate as kids move on to higher education, and America’s soccer league has to compete better and learn how to export talent rather than attract it. But those flaws pale in comparison with soccer’s growing appeal in the United States. What happened in Trinidad and Tobago was but a bump in the road — albeit a painful one. The future now belongs to the kids that will take the field this very weekend, dreaming their own World Cup dreams.
My son, for one, will be there on Saturday, wearing his No. 7, owning defensive-midfield duties. And I’ll be there with him, running along the sidelines, cheering both in English and Spanish. That, after all, is the American way.