Falling in Love with Soccer 5 Years Late
It was August 23, 2004. I was trying to find beach volleyball or basketball or something else but I know I wasn’t looking for soccer when I flipped on the TV that day.
When I did flip the TV on I saw the United States taking on Germany. I had no way of knowing what I was watching. No way of knowing the Germans were the World Cup champs at the time or that the greatest players of their generation were taking one last bow.
Where I am from, Upstate New York nearly to Vermont, is not what you’d call a soccer hot bed. My own high school didn’t even have a women’s soccer program and I never played growing up. Until I turned the TV on for this match I hadn’t watched more than 20 minutes of soccer combined. And yet something kept me from turning the channel once it was there. Well, more like someone. Heather O’Reilly. She was about 19 at the time. A college player who looked more like my teenage self than what I pictured someone who would be competing at that level would. And yet she was there. And then she scored. And that was it.
I had fallen in love with it all because Heather O’Reilly scored in the 99th minute. Without understanding much about soccer at the time something about it hooked me. There was such joy, such passion, that I had to know more.
And to my surprise I found out that I missed a pretty big moment in women’s soccer by about 5 years. I would have been 10 when the USWNT won the World Cup at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. I would have been at just the right age to fall in love with Hamm and Akers and Overbeck. But the roar of the '99ers didn’t reach me. I didn’t know about any of this until 2004 when I started using the early days of the internet to do my research. And for those used to the internet in 2020, boy were things different back then.
There were almost no sites out there that had real historical information that I was looking for. No real chat rooms at the time. Nothing like you could find if you had watched the 2016 Olympics or the 2019 World Cup and decided to become a fan. A lot of it was clips of goals and reading about how good Mia Hamm was. A name I knew only because I was a Boston Red Sox fan and Nomar Garciaparra was one of my favorite players.
I think a lot of my desire to write backwards, to go into the history of the USWNT or the NWSL, comes from that moment in 2004 when I realized that the 1999 World Cup passed me by without me knowing it had. I don’t want others to look around and not have a way to find out the history of the team. I want to be loud, to give others the chance to figure out the team is here now and they are great and you should watch them - because I missed that 1999 team. There are so many moments I’ve dug up and histories I’ve read to try to make up for not having been there for that 1999 team.
It’s also why as reverent as I am of the 1999 World Cup champs, they aren’t my team the way they are for so many. When I think of my earliest soccer memories it’s Mia Ham and Julie Foudy for sure; but it’s a lot more of Shannon Boxx and Christie Pearce and Abby Wambach. It is a lot more of the lean years when the team would win the Olympics but could never quite get there for the World Cup. It makes me constantly worry that the other shoe will drop as a spectator, and causes me to dive deep into the backup plans as a commentator. Because the other shoe dropped a lot between 2004 and 2015 for the USWNT. Even as they beat just about everyone unless it was a World Cup semi or final.
I fell in love with soccer and the United States women’s national team as they played in front of 5,165 people on the island of Crete five years after they played in front of 90,185 in Pasadena, California because Heather O’Reilly scored a 99th minute goal and I couldn’t look away. It’s not the typical falling in love with sports story. But I like that it isn't. That game will always be the origin story of my love of this beautiful game. For that it will always be the best game I've ever watched.