I suppose it’s not surprising, but more and more I realize that my sports memories are old-guy memories.
For example, I always liked how the NHL named its conferences and divisions. It was fun and different, and it made me feel like part of a club to know who was in the Adams and Patrick and Smythe and Norris divisions, and which divisions were Campbell and which were Prince of Wales.
It’s been 29 years since they changed those names.
It’s been 28 years since the Minnesota Twins were in the American League West. It’s been the same amount of time since the Green Bay Packers stopped playing games at Milwaukee County Stadium, where the two sidelines were separated by a piece of tape at the 50-yard line. The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t played at Maple Leaf Gardens for 22 seasons.
These things have passed on from the way things are, to the way things used to be, to distant memories of the past. They are the sounds of a modem, or dial tones on phones, or the giant book of maps that was your only navigational aid on cross-country road trips.
As the World Cup approaches, it’s become more and more clear to me that my history with the U.S. Men’s National Team is similarly ancient.
My first World Cup was 1990, in the sense that it’s the first one I remember knowing about. About all I knew was the names of a few of the players; I remember assuming that Paul Caligiuri was the team’s star, since he was the one that scored the goal to beat Trinidad and Tobago, sending the USA to the World Cup.
The games were on TNT, but I don’t remember watching any of them. I don’t remember watching any soccer games at all until 1994, when – thanks to the godless communists at Sports Illustrated and SI for Kids, the first news organizations I can remember treating soccer like a real thing – I was heatedly excited for the World Cup.
I remember watching the 1-1 draw with Switzerland in the overheated Silverdome. I remember the 2-1 win against Colombia, watching on the TV in the kitchen at my grandparents’ house, and understanding that the USA had done something impossible, while not really knowing what. I remember watching the knockout-round loss to Brazil at my other grandparents’ house, and being really unhappy, and not understanding even a little bit how little chance the USA was supposed to have against Brazil.
I suspect today’s preteens are more informed about the World Cup than I was, in 1994. They know Neymar and Mbappè but, more than that, they know about PSG; I had absolutely no concept of club soccer. It was not information that was readily available.
Again, this is an old-guy story, but I can’t really describe what little information about soccer I had, in 1994, in western Minnesota. Apart from the World Cup, the one time I can remember soccer being mentioned in SI for Kids was a profile of Tatu, who starred for the Dallas Sidekicks of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
Soccer barely got a mention in Sports Illustrated. On the rare occasion it was mentioned in the newspaper, it was mostly for a columnist to kick sand in its face. It rarely appeared on SportsCenter, and never in the four-minute sports block on CNN Headline News, and never in the sports block on local news. And that was pretty much it for sports news sources.
I think there were about eight soccer balls in the whole town. We owned one, and school owned six, and there must have been one other weirdo in town that owned one.
The soccer revolution hadn’t reached small-town Minnesota in the 1990s, at least not my small town. We didn’t have camps or teams or rec leagues. We hardly ever played it in gym class. I remember when a friend moved from Maine to our small town, he knew how to pass the ball and how to stop it and how to put his foot on the top of the ball and make it dance away from people; we looked at him like he was an alien from another planet.
This is how I experienced soccer before I went to college. The 1998 World Cup was covered more, and yet almost entirely escaped me; I don’t remember watching a single game or reading a single story about it, though to be fair, I was too busy with adolescent drama to notice much that wasn’t actually taking place in my own brain.
So the 1990 World Cup was my first World Cup, and the 1994 World Cup was also my first World Cup, but the 2002 World Cup – now that was really, truly, my World Cup.
I happened to be working nights that summer, so the fact that the games from Korea and Japan were on in the middle of the night didn’t really bother me, certainly not when the USA played Mexico, in a game that – if I recall correctly – started at 1:30 a.m. I watched, in my living room, with the sound off so as not to wake my roommates, on a TV that required us to use a hockey stick to change channels.
All I remember was Brian McBride scoring early, and Landon Donovan doubling the lead in the second half, and each time, finding myself out of my spot on the couch, sprinting around the apartment, screaming silently into the sky, and what I remember from those moments was thinking about how I really could use more of that sort of thing.
It was then, 20 years ago, that my soccer fandom was finally a workable thing. By then I had the internet and the ability to purchase Fox Sports World on cable, and I was off and running.
And so now I have a whole other collection of old-guy sports memories. I realized this week that the absolute youngest people who remember the 1994 World Cup, like me, are about 35 years old now. Anybody who is old enough to remember 2002, and also is old enough to have stayed up for 1a.m. matches, is about the same age.
That next season, 2002-2003, was the first season I watched the Premier League; it was so long ago that it was called the Premiership then. It was just the 11th year of the Premier League. The lower divisions in England were still called the First, Second, and Third Divisions; I remember watching their playoff finals over Memorial Day Weekend.
Want an old-guy memory? I had to tape the FA Cup Final that year. With a VCR.
From there, my memories of the USMNT get less and less ancient. After 2002, we could do things like watch CONCACAF qualifying matches on TV. We could be supremely disappointed when the 2006 team looked completely lost. In 2010, when the U.S. beat Algeria, we could rush to YouTube and watch this video, over and over and over again.
And 2014’s memories seem like yesterday. John Brooks against Ghana. Nearly beating Portugal again, just like 2002. Belgium and Tim Howard and Wondo (oh, Wondo) and, of all people, Julian Green scoring.
Every four years becomes every eight years, sometimes, so I’m not taking this one for granted. I may be an old guy now, but I’m still excited for the next chapter, which begins next week.