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Soccer

Even At Its Worst, Soccer Is Still The Fucking Best

A shirtless Christian Pulisic celebrates his badass, game-winning penalty goal with his USMNT teammates.
Screen shot via CBS Sports

It’s a little bit hard to talk about a match like the one on Sunday night between the United States and Mexico, since it lacked many of the grounding aspects usually present in the game.

The match was a “tournament final,” but not really. The Nations League is weird and confusing and brand new, so the prospect of proudly, joyously lifting its trophy high above one’s head is something precisely zero fans or players have ever dreamed about. In contradiction of De La Soul, the stakes wasn’t particularly high.

And the match itself was for long stretches not even a “game of soccer” at all—not in the sense of two groups of 11 athletes moving in concert to use their skills and savvy, within an overarching tactical structure, to progress the ball and score while preventing the other team from doing so. Sometime between Diego Lainez’s go-ahead goal in the 79th minute and Weston McKennie’s equalizer in the 82nd, any semblance of “concerted movement” or “skills and savvy” or “an overarching system” completely broke down.

What came next was a bunch of individuals qua individuals racing after the ball, racing after the referee, and racing after each other (and fans racing onto the pitch, and cups filled with water and beer and also probably other, less-potable fluids racing toward the American players’ bodies). The game became more of a clash of emotions and wills and hands-into-chests than a contest of talents. The last 10 minutes of regulation through to the final whistle felt like one big non-stop scrum that, in the rare moments when the ball was in play for more than 10 seconds at a time, only occasionally featured the odd paroxysm of actual, intentional soccer. This wasn’t exactly “the beautiful game,” at least not as the term is usually understood, referring to balletic movements and awe-inspiring little flicks and interplays. This was something a lot more visceral, tangible, felt more in the hindbrain than the prefrontal cortex.

And yet still, in spite of the difficulty of assessing the play on the merits, the lack of much on-the-ball brilliance, and the non-existent inherent value of whatever the Nations League trophy is supposed to represent, everyone on the pitch and in the stadium was desperate to win this thing, it was fucking TIGHT as SHIT watching watching the Americans come away with it.

I don’t know if any American (other than Weston McKennie) played particularly well in the game. I don’t know whether manager Gregg Berhalter’s new formation worked or didn’t work, or whether he bears enough responsibility for the result to earn himself a reprieve from the hate zone. I do know that Lainez was pure electricity every time he touched the ball, and that he and Chucky Lozano were about the only two players on the pitch composed enough to consistently pull off cool soccer moves when the match entered scrum mode, and that Christian Pulisic’s performance wasn’t as dazzling as his talent, which outstripped everyone else’s on that pitch, has made us expect.

I also know that none of that mattered a lick to me when watching the game, and that seeing our guys trying to will rather than play their way to victory was as enthralling and energizing as any tactical masterclass could be, and that the game not really mattering didn’t stop me from doing approximately 12,000 chest-press motions in the air and whisper-shouting (so as not to get evicted from my apartment building or banished to the couch by my partner, who was asleep in bed) my head off once Pulisic, that motherfucking KING of a man, CRUSHED his penalty and ran to the corner with a combination of poise and violent jubilation that sent my own celebrations to the next level, and that if this is what soccer that isn’t “good” or “meaningful” or “beautiful” can be, then this sport really is the best of them all.

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