Finding the Beauty in the Beautiful Game Again

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The next generation is going to grow up having pretended to be Alex Morgan or Christen Press or Amy Rodriguez in their backyards.

They will be Hope Solo in goal when the sandbox is in and the monkey bars are out. It’s going to be Tobin Health they try to match trick for trick after watching her moves over and over on YouTube.

If they get bloody it will be Kelley O’Hara against China that springs to mind.

When they save a ball off the line it ill be Meghan Klingenberg’s name tossed around like a badge of honor. Julie Johnston is going to be their hero with a lion’s roar and fiery tackles. It’s going to be Carli Lloyd’s hat tick and Lauren Holiday’s perfect volley they try to imitate after each practice.

It will be Becky Sauerbrunn’s ability to do her job better than anyone else they remember. It will be Ali Krieger’s ability to move fluidly between defense and office that sets the bar. It will be Morgan Brian getting up from getting hit and never losing a step. It will be Megan Rapinoe’s celebrations that will be copied and built on and remembered.

Each generation looks to the one that came before it for inspiration. The 15ers put on one hell of a show, didn’t they?

I wrote those words–or something very close to them, because I can’t deny I did a little self editing–in the shadow of the World Cup win back in 2015.

Back then everything felt new. I was just some nobody on Tumblr, reblogging photos, and looking up stats, and talking about soccer late into the night with my friends. While I had followed on and off since 2004, it was all felt so different. It felt new and rejuvenated and, honestly, like nothing could hamper WoSo’s rising glory.

Fast forward to about two months ago and I felt lost. Numb really might be the better world. The off-season was coming to a close and the prep for the (historic) fifth season of the NWSL was in full swing here at Backline Soccer.

And yet, in general, all soccer was making me feel at the time was annoyed. Whether it was the unfortunate early exit of the USWNT from the Rio Olympics, the loss or retirement of longtime players at the international level, the long and seemingly never-ending grind of the CBA negotiations, or even just the way women’s soccer continued to be overshadowed in every corner by men’s teams and men’s leagues, I found myself burnt out on soccer.

While I love my job, while I love each and every day I get to work with the talented people here at Backline, I really didn’t feel any love for soccer at the time. I had to make sure we had 10 previews ready to go in short order on top of 10 preview TSR episodes. I was working 40+ hours a week on top of another 25 to 30 for the site.

Soccer was everywhere, all around me, and I couldn’t find the joy in it anymore.

And then I saw those words.

I saw the words I wrote back when I was just basking in the warmth of the World Cup on a long-deleted Tumblr. And for a moment I felt the numbness slip away and I let the magnitude of what happened in the summer of 2015 in Canada hit me again.

I turned on the Germany game that night. And I watched as the drama unfolded all over again. The feeling of that game, maybe one of my all time favorites, took away the numbness and brought back the beauty that I feel so deeply for.

Witnessing the moment between Solo and Sauerbrunn and Johnston after the “red card that should have been,” still caused my breath to hitch, my pulse to rise, my chest to tighten with the excitement and the wonder at what was happening on the field in front of me. Watching as the midfield worked together in a way we haven’t seen in well over a year was both delightful and a little painful. Seeing Morgan Brian stand after bashing her head into Popp’s still made me nervous for her as she went back in. Seeing Solo take an hour to get into goal for the PK all for Germany to have their first miss on this highest of stages is still hard to fathom. Watching as jack-of-all-trades Kelley O’Hara scored her game very first USWNT goal and sealed Germany’s fate made me cheer again, and I remembered how much I loved the beautiful game, the shock and the surprise of it. The way the entire world could turn upside down in less than a minute, a perfectly timed cut into the box and an extended foot just nudging the ball into the goal, and I could get caught up in it as if everything was happening again for the very first time.

When the game was over I put on the last few minutes of the final. Not the hat-trick, not Holiday’s perfect volley, not Tobin’s it-looks-so-easy goal, but the last few minutes. When everyone on that pitch knew they were about to finally reclaim a trophy the program spent 16 years fighting to take back.

Watching Ali Krieger fall to her knees on the same field that took her Olympic dreams away will never fail to bring a lump to my throat. Watching Carli Lloyd sink to hers, knowing she’d just written the opening line to every biography, interview, and introduction of the rest of her life, will never fail to make me smile. Watching Hope Solo finally summit the mountain she had never before quite been able to claim was satisfying.

And seeing Christie Pearce and Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston together brings me all the joy that someone who loves defense as much as I do can possibly feel.

After the game ended I put on the medal ceremony and just watched the joy of the women who’d just achieved one of their oldest and biggest dreams. Watched as players seasoned and rookie alike were awarded what was due, as all 23 women stood surrounded their captain, witnessing her lift it high and proud and so, so happy.

There’s a bittersweet hue to the images now, knowing how the next two years have shaken out. The cuts would soon happen, the new players who would come in and be added to the starting rotation while others would retire and fade into the pantheon where they belong. Rio was on my mind as I watched medals be placed around the necks of players who had not yet fought for and been denied their chance to become 2016 Olympic champions.

But as I sat there, screen black and cheers silent, I felt the numbness fade. I felt the worry about the season ease a little. And instead, I began to remember how much I loved all of this, the deadlines and the reporting and the podcasting, all of it. How much joy it brought to my life.

How much joy it brings so many.

My life was forever changed that day. My drive to become part of those who cover this sport grew out of that win. This seed of the idea of a site like Backline was planted that day even if I had no idea at the time. No idea how many friends I’d make and pieces I’d have a hand in creating and work I’d put in, none of that was real then. But it was all born that 5th of July.

There are a lot of dramatic things that happen in the NWSL and the USWNT. A lot of things I get mad online about, and mad on podcasts about,  and mad in writing about.  A lot of us do. Sometimes we need to step away from the trade rumors and the hot-takes and remember the beauty.

Sometimes we need to remember the moments that made us devote so much time and energy and passion into and remember the beauty. It only ever takes a few hours and a few replays of the moments that changed everything to remind myself just how beautiful it can be.

Soccer is a beautiful game, sometimes I forget that.