What a difference eight years makes.
In 2010, I was living in Kansas City. I know exactly where I was – The 810 Zone on the Plaza, if you must know – on the morning of December 2 when Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup at the United States’ expense. I can still feel the pit in my stomach and the mouthful of proverbial sand that rendered me speechless when Sepp Blatter triumphantly raised the card aloft.
This Wednesday, eight years later, I was in lying in bed when United 2026 brought the world’s biggest sporting event back to North America. My 7-month-old son lay next to me, alternating between jamming the leg of his stuffed giraffe down his gullet, attempting to yank out handfuls of his dad’s hair and bee-lining for the edge of the bed whenever my attention was elsewhere.
I checked my phone and let out a whoop. He looked up, gave me a no-teeth grin and went back to baby business, too young to grasp what Wednesday morning meant, for him and millions of others in Canada, the US and Mexico. I knew then that my own World Cup experience had come full circle.
When the US national team failed in Couva and missed the tournament that will captivate us all for the next month, I mourned the immediate loss, the World Cup that would go on without us, but it was the long-term repercussions stuck with me.
Gone was the opportunity to expose hundreds of millions of prospective fans to the best American soccer could offer. Gone was the opportunity to bring our soccer community, our soccer culture to the forefront of the mainstream conversation. Gone was a golden opportunity to see the game we love make the sort of every-four-years leap that the U.S. had grown accustomed to and took for granted.
Two of those momentous leaps, more than 20 years apart, changed the trajectory of my life.
I remember 1994 in snippets. Sitting alone on my grandparents' couch as the US played Colombia on a tiny television with aluminum-foil wrapped rabbit ears. Alexi Lalas’ beard. Cobi Jones’ dreadlocks. The way Roberto Baggio’s head fell after he skied his penalty kick in the final.
I’d played soccer since I was 4 years old, first with foam balls on a gym floor at the YMCA then on AYSO teams, complete with halftime orange slices and a can of pop after the game. I went to Wichita Wings games at the Kansas Coliseum with my aunt and grandmother; it was the only professional soccer I knew. The nachos, people watching and postgame autographs stand out more than anything that happened on the field.
After 1994, I knew there was something much bigger that I was missing. There were players and leagues and tournaments happening that simply didn’t penetrate the sports pages and magazines I pored over obsessively.
I begged my parents for Baggio’s signature shoe, indoors so I could wear them to school, and wore the soles off them in a matter of months. Through an Italian youth coach, I learned about Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and their signature moves. Until plantar fasciitis wrecked my heels in middle school, soccer was my game of choice.
I remember 2006 more vividly. It was the summer after my freshman year of college. The U.S. didn’t make it out of their group, but the games were still thrilling. I woke up each morning to catch the action, and each afternoon the Internet sent me down rabbit hole after rabbit hole while I was supposed to be working at an internship.
Who was Clint Dempsey? Tomas Rosicky and Jan Koller? Jimmy Conrad? Michael Essien? Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi? Where did these all these players come from? What had I missed in my Midwestern bubble when I decided baseball and soccer couldn’t co-exist? By the time I went back to college, I was spending hours each day reading transfer rumors on Eurosport and watching techno-laden highlight reels. My thirst for information was voracious.
I threw myself into Major League Soccer, too. I paid for FOX Soccer Channel with the little disposable income I earned from the campus bookstore. I bought a pair of crappy cleats, started playing in pickup games and signed up for men’s league. I changed my major from business to journalism and sold the sports editor of The University Daily Kansan on a soccer column.
I stuck with it, got a few big breaks and, a decade later, the game consumes my life, which brings us back to United 2026.
What will the World Cup mean to my son? To the millions of kids who play the game in North America or will in the years to come? To coaches, referees and administrators who spend their weeknights and weekends at the field? To our professional leagues? What will the world’s biggest sporting event do to our soccer culture?
We don’t yet know, but we have the opportunity of a lifetime, a beacon to guide us as we attempt to right the ship after the failure of the past four years.
Right this second, there’s a 12-year-old somewhere trying to replicate Cristiano Ronaldo’s free kick against Spain. He or she could be the next Christian Pulisic or Mallory Pugh.
Right this second, there’s a youth coach working on tomorrow’s training session. He or she could help develop a player who takes the world by storm.
Right this second, there’s a young professional working on his game when nobody is looking. He’ll be in his prime when the World Cup comes to American soil.
For eight years we will work, so that eight years from now, lives, like mine, will be changed. Our sport will take over the continent, the entire world for that matter, for a month. We will make our own way, build on what’s already been accomplished while rooting out the inefficiencies that hold us back.
What a difference eight years will make.