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Soccer Poet

A World Cup Story

A World Cup Story

I had coached at small, NAIA schools before joining Ole Miss in 2007. I had never pined for a Division I job. I enjoyed my existence, and in hindsight, a fraction of that could be chalked up to ‘ignorance is bliss.’ I had never looked at my career in terms of what soccer could give me. It was always about the people I got to co-exist with – the ones I got to coach, and I couldn’t imagine that the people playing Division I soccer were any better than the people I’d coached in the NAIA. And they weren’t. Yes, they were just as wonderful, but no more so.

So anyway, I join Ole Miss and my first road trip is via charter jet to Knoxville. (Re-read that last sentence if you’ve ever played/coached at the small college level.) We land and go to our really sweet hotel, and then to dinner at pretty nice restaurant. The team sits down at five or six tables. I kept waiting for my boss to announce a dollar limit on the meals like I had done a zillion times as an NAIA coach. “Seven dollars. Pass it on.” But the announcement never came. Neither did the dollar limit. Eat as much as you want. You’re in the SEC.

I can’t tell you how alien this was to me… the plane, the hotel, the limitless meal. And almost immediately I had this foreboding that something so good couldn’t possibly last forever. I felt like I was in a garage band that had topped the charts with its first single, and now I was paranoid about being a one-hit wonder. When my moment in the sun had passed, what would I have to show for it? I wanted something to keep these memories alive… some type of documentation.

I don’t remember being a collector of anything since I’d stopped my baseball card habit in fifth grade. While I was going the traditional route of saving a quarter, buying a pack of trading cards, eating the gum and then sorting out the players I’d already had and celebrating the new additions, the parents of my friend Anthony just ordered the entire year’s collection. Just like that – Anthony had the Topps’ playing card of every player in Major League Baseball for the year. It didn’t seem right. Where’s the excitement in that? Anyway, that experience sapped the magic out of collecting trading cards and my hobby soon evaporated.

So I don’t know what inspired me, but to commemorate my time as a Division I coach, I started collecting a different kind of card – key cards – the things you use to open the door to your hotel room. I started walking off with my room ‘key’ from every hotel I stayed at, and when the weekend was over, I would usually Sharpie something about the trip right on the card. It might be the result of the game, or the name of the recruiting event I attended. Stuff like that.

I kept up my habit through five years at Georgia and as you might expect, by the end I had a mighty large collection of room keys. I was recruiting in Melbourne, FL in Novemeber of 2014 when I got the call to come home because I was no longer employed at UGA. I have that key too. It was a crappy way to close out my collection, but it was part of the journey.

I kept that collection of keys after leaving Georgia, but I haven’t pocketed another key since then – at last not intentionally. They now rest in a Ziploc bag tucked away in a Rubbermaid bin under a table in the basement. We’ll come back to this a little while later.

My girlfriend, Alaina, doesn’t have a soccer background. Never saw a game in her life. Not one. When she was over a few months back, I was watching the USWNT playing one of its World Cup warm-ups. She wasn’t interested. She had work of her own to do so that kept her occupied. But when something notable happened, I would point it out and you could see there was a spark. Sure, the spark was buried way deep down inside, but there was definitely a trace of interest.

The next time she was over and a game was on, she was in the kitchen prepping dinner. When she heard some bit of excitement in the announcer‘s voice, she would pop into the living room, check for the replay and ask what happened. Occasionally I would tell her about the players I’d crossed paths with… the ones I’d recruited; the ones I coached against; the one who had the really cool twin sister I got to coach; how Christen Press broke my heart when we were up 1-0 on Stanford with twelve minutes left in regulation. That sorta stuff. Stuff that would bring the players to life a little bit. The spark was burning slightly brighter. Like a lot of soccer newbies, Alaina was particularly fascinated when someone scored with her head.

Then the World Cup began. We caught the first game at JoJos – a little pizza joint by my house. It was the first time she’d ever been around a group of US supporters. The place wasn’t mobbed with fans, but there were enough to notice. The real turning point came when we went to a different pizza joint for the next game against Chile. This place was packed – and I mean standing room only (and tight at that), full of fans in their US national team gear. The room ooohed and ahhhed at every close call and near miss, and exploded with every US goal. Until that moment, Alaina had no idea the amount of excitement this team generates. At that point, the hook was set. I was officially dating a soccer fan.

In late June we headed for a vacation in Croatia. We watched the US-England semifinal in an Irish pub in the town of Dubrovnik (furthering my theory that there is an Irish pub in every city in the world). Again the place was packed and the crowd was split between us-and-them supporters. By this time Alaina knew most of the players by name, and even had a favorite in Carli Lloyd. The atmosphere was fantastic, the US got the result, and at the final whistle, the clever young bartender who grew up on American 80s music immediately blasted Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ to the delight of all us yanks.

Alaina enjoyed the experience so much that she suggested we go back to that same pub a night later for the other semifinal, which we did.

July 6th, the day before the final, was moving day for us. We were leaving Dubrovnik and taking a ferry to our next AirBNB in the town of Split. (At this point I should mention that Croatia is just freaking awesome and if you’re thinking about going, do it!) So we’re about an hour into a four-hour ferry ride when she says we should go to the game tomorrow... you know, the final. The once in France. SWEET! I'm in!

So we are on the ferry booking plane tickets and sorting through hotels. We look at match tickets on StubHub, which are running $500 and up. I suggest we take a gamble. I say that if I put something out on social media, someone will come through with two tickets. It’s a heckuva gamble, considering we already have non-refundable plane tickets to France, but I’m confident in our soccer nation. She’s not nearly as confident.

We get to our new pad around nine. Exhausted. I lock down on social media trying to scramble up some tickets. It’s now 11 PM and I badly need sleep. There’s been no movement on my Hail Mary. It's looking like it's gonna be a StubHub kinda thing.

The next morning I wake up and check Facebook. Plenty of well wishes, but nothing that gets us into the stadium. Twitter – same thing. Then I open my email… I’m copied on an email to US Soccer. An angel of a man named Scott Silberfein is instructing US Soccer to change over his tickets and put them in my name. BAM! A man I’ve never met has just gifted me two tickets to the World Cup Final! Are you kidding me!!! How great is this life! How great is this guy! There just aren’t words to express our gratitude.

Then it was a quick Uber to the airport. Flight delayed an hour, which means when we land in Lyon and misfire on connecting with two Uber drivers, it’s a cab directly to the stadium. Pick up the tickets at Will Call, and minutes later, that gorgeous pitch spreads out in front of us. The stadium looks 90% pro-US. Lots of star-spangled colors. Everyone else is dressed in orange. Three big, bright orange blocks of flag-waving, drum-banging, singing Dutch fans are there to see their David slay our Goliath.

The game was intense; spirited, invested fans hanging on every kick of the ball. The Dutch goalkeeper… heroic! The officiating… let’s not dwell on that. The first half starts out slowly. The US is trying to open up a very compact Dutch defensive block with long driven balls – back to front and side to side. The Dutch are well-organized and up for the fight. They haven’t really attacked yet, but we haven’t been dangerous either.

Midway into the half there’s a flurry of shots at the Dutch goal, but that ‘keeper is standing on her head! She turns away quality efforts from Ertz, Mewis and Morgan in quick succession. We head into the intermission level at zeroes. I can imagine Alexi Lalas telling the TV audience that the half was a win for the Dutch, solely for keeping the Americans off the board. I’d have to agree. It’s a moral victory for the underdog, but we’ve created chances – good ones. We got stronger as the half went on. Rapinoe, who seemed disinterested early, is now running roughshod down the left flank. The Dutch have relied heavily on their goalkeeper, but can they survive another forty-five minutes of this – maybe more?

My optimism is tempered by experience. In the world of sports, there is no greater purveyor of miscarried justice than the beautiful game. The beautiful game… what a crock. The carve your heart out with a spoon game is more like it. More than any other sport, in soccer, the better team loses. Territorial dominance means nothing. How many times has a team outshot its opponent 18-1 only to end up on the wrong end of a 1-0 score-line? This game has that feel. Happens all the time in soccer. But not to this team. Not to the USWNT. It’s part of their magic. They’re the better team and they win. They always find a way. Always. Please, for the love of everything, don’t let this be the exception.

With an assist to VAR, midway through the second half, Morgan draws the PK when a French defender drop kicks her in the shoulder. Pinoe, cool as you like, sends the keeper left while sliding the ball right. Strike a pose. I tell Alaina the game is about to change.

The goal forces the Dutch side to come out of its shell and the game is suddenly wide open – like Talladega wide open. This is great news for the US. Minutes later, Lavelle makes an immortalizing run for glory, drills a left-footer low to the far post to ice the thing, and next thing you know, in the first soccer game she has ever attended in her whole freaking life, my girlfriend is cheering her head off, watching the US hoist the World Cup. Not a bad day. Not at all.

Sixty thousand people are queuing up for busses, cabs and Ubers, but just outside the stadium and beside the promenade that leads to the transportation hub, there’s a hotel with an outdoor bar that is filling up with red, white and blue. We break away from the queue, dip into the bar and spend the next three hours partying with happy Americans, many of them Outlaws, basking in the afterglow of our world championship.

We check in to our own hotel just after 11 PM and join two more Americans having a quiet nightcap in the lobby. The clerk is also the bartender. The bar is closed, but she likes us, so she let’s us buy one round. Then another. And maybe one more.

One of the men is a member of the LAPD and youth coach from California. He tells me that his daughter is a rising college freshman and that her college coach has every incoming freshman read my book Rookie. She’s up in her room reading it as we speak. He calls up and asks if she wants to come to the lobby and have me sign it. She says no.

Ha! That was awesome!

We finally get to our room around 1 AM. A few hours of sleep – more like a nap really – and we are back at the airport by five o’clock for a 7 AM return flight to Croatia. It was a helluva trip. For the rest of my life I’ll sleep well knowing that I was there when the US won a World Cup in France. All thanks to the kindness of a stranger.

We didn’t buy any souvenirs at the match… one reason being that the lines were longer than the stadium itself, so save for some pictures, we don’t really have any physical thing to commemorate our excursion. So I figured one, final key-card would make an imporved bookend to my collection.