Bruce Arena went for it.
This Gold Cup roster… is fun.
Early last year, almost as soon as he was legally eligible to do so, McKinze Gaines signed on the dotted line for Wolfsburg.
It represented a significant closed circle for the Austin, Texas native, who’d first lassoed the attention of the country at the 2013 DA Winter Showcase and eventually found himself as one of the key contributors on that U17 MNT cycle. Untethered by an MLS academy and bristling to try his hand overseas, Gaines’ move to Wolfsburg was a hugely significant milestone.
A little more than a year later, and Gaines is moving on.
Manny Schellscheidt was never a man given over to delirious spasms of hyperbole when it came to young prospects. He’d been doing this too long, had seen too many young players fall victim to a development process that can be hard to understand at best and viciously duplicitous at worst. Freddy Adu had once passed through his U.S. U14 ID camps, after all.
So when Schellscheidt first saw the young, diminutive kid embarrassing defenders one afternoon on a small field in Pennsylvania in 2011, there was little broader fanfare about it. Nobody knew who the kid was yet on any substantive level, and Schellscheidt had his reservations, although he knew the kid was special. The old coach stuck around a few days, noted the kid’s name in his notepad, talked to the club coaches on hand and then left assured of at least one thing in the absence of all else.
He would see Christian Pulisic play again. And this time he’d be running the camp.
Forty three years ago today, in the stadium now known as Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund, Johan Cruyff showed 53,700 people something they’d never seen before.
The Netherlands arrived at the 1974 World Cup on the heels of an impossibly successful qualification campaign. Bolstered by what was at the time their best ever team, the Dutch ripped through their qualifying group with four wins from six games and a plus-22 goal differential. At the time, Ajax’s Total Football was seeping into the international consciousness as the Dutch team switched positions like some sort of supercharged ballet. With the legendary Johan Cruyff leading the charge, defenses didn’t seem quite certain what to make of it. It wasn’t until they met West Germany in the final that a team managed to pull the curtain across the show.
Muscle memory is the bedrock of modern soccer. As a global family, we’ve been playing the game now in some form for centuries, and in our current iteration the oldest fully professional side is more than 150 years old. With so much time elapsed, gently tottering off under the bridge of time for decades and decades, the game’s flag standard is firmly planted in the ground, more or less unmoving.
At least in terms of FIFA rules, which the vast majority of the world recognizes in its leagues stretching down to the elite youth level, understanding the importance of muscle memory in this is to understand the game itself. Soccer is largely soccer because both collectives and individuals can click into a sort of athletic autopilot, allowing the game’s flow to dictate their fluid decisions on an almost subconscious intellectual level.
By the time the news circulated that Cristiano Ronaldo’s perfumed caravan was ready to leave Spain, the hounds were out. Mostly on Twitter.
Sporting, Cristiano Ronaldo’s first professional club in his home country of Portugal, inscribed a passionate tongue-in-cheek-but-not-really plea to its native son to come home. Bolton, for some reason, told us they would not under any circumstances open contract negotiations with CR7. Salisbury FC did a thing too.
The complications surrounding why exactly Ronald opted to move on not only from Real Madrid but from Spain entirely are complicated if you care enough to dig and extremely uncomplicated if you want the Cliff’s Notes. In essence, Spain is alleging the preening Portuguese hasn’t paid a significant chunk of his taxes – more than $14 million, to be exact - and is attempting to shake it out of him. Cristiano Ronaldo, in response, has apparently opted to pick up his ball and head home in furious protest.
Perhaps the most culturally important facet of Christian Pulisic’s breakout as a bonafide USMNT star is the suddenly blossoming reality that he’s a legitimate crossover personality. For a significant portion of the professional sports-watching populace on these here shores, soccer is a dormant sport, only to be poked awake every so often for major events and happenings.
The unearthing of an International Star certainly qualifies. And Pulisic is as close to one as we’ve had… perhaps ever.
The first time I’d seen the nearly invincible Catarina Macario play, she was already a more or less established club star by the loose definition of the term. Stars don’t exist, or at least as we know them to exist, at the youth level. But within the parameters of elite club soccer, Macario’s light was as bright as anyone’s.
By the time the ECNL playoffs rolled around under a loose overhanging shelf of cloud in Seattle during the summer of 2014, Macario was in the process of polishing one of the most prolific individual seasons in ECNL history. The ECNL playoffs are a mere runway for U15, U16 and U17 teams in advance of the ECNL Finals later each summer, and that particular year Macario’s San Diego Surf U15 team was in the process of qualifying. As the pool where the country’s best girls players ultimately congregate, Macario’s Surf had their work ahead of them.
Syria has never qualified for the World Cup. So we start there. They flew closest to the tournament’s sun in 1986 before burning up on reentry in a playoff with Iraq. After a scoreless draw in the first leg of their final AFC qualifying round, Iraq took the second 3-1 and sent Syria home on the final doorstep to the tournament. They have not been all that close to qualifying since.
It is perhaps the cruelest of bitter twists that the Syria side to draw nearest to breaking that 30-year hex is being forced to do it in the most unimaginable circumstances possible.
Syria, of course, is currently embroiled in a civil war that’s claimed the lives of countless innocents over a grisly six-year period. In the midst of one of the worst humanitarian crises of the present generation, Syria’s Assad regime more or less separated out the soccer team as a point of national concern (amid accusations of more deaths and claims that Assad’s been using the nation’s soccer stadiums as bases of military operation). The soccer team’s run in AFC’s World Cup qualification battery has been among the war-torn country’s lone singular joys, and Syria is certainly flirting with soccer history in the midst of everything else.
Entering Tuesday’s match against Marcello Lippi’s China, Syria’s World Cup qualification hopes hung by perilously threadbare cloth. AFC splits its final qualification phase into two groups, with the top two in each gaining direct World Cup qualification and the third entered into an internal playoff for the right to advance to another playoff, this one against CONCACAF’s fourth-place team out of the Hex. Syria needed at least a point on China to stay within three of third-place Uzbekistan with just two qualifiers left to play. And with time winding down on the match and Syria trailing 2-1, it looked as though they wouldn’t find it.
And then Ahmad Al Salih did this. Equalizer. Tie game. 90th minute. Point gained.
This game, like every game Syria’s played over the course of 2018 World Cup qualification, was not played in Syria. For obvious reasons, Syria’s played every one of its 16 qualifiers away from home. It’s “home” matches were centered in Oman for the opening phase and Malaysia in the current one, a cool 4,717 miles from Damascus. That Syria has powered through the turmoil back home to get even this close to qualification is truest to the definition of amazing as I can conjure.
But there is still work to be done.
Syria’s final two games, against Qatar on Aug. 31 and Iran on Sept. 5, will determine whether Syria takes another step toward Russia. And make no mistake, it’s an outside shot. Uzbekistan is stout, and they have a winnable game against eliminated China before facing down South Korea in an anything-can-happen matchup. Syria essentially has to have two results, and the only thing likely to get them into the World Cup considering Uzbekistan’s slate is two wins combined with an Uzbekistan loss to South Korea. That’ll be enough to swing the goal difference tiebreaker after they finish level on 15 points. With Qatar eliminated and Iran already qualified, Syria has a puncher’s chance in both.
It’s still an outside shot at this point with time dwindling. But in either case, qualify or not, Syria has the world behind it.
As you’ve no doubt been appraised by now, the US snatched a point from the Mordorian maw of Estadio Azteca on Sunday night. As is the case with every one of these games, it was something else.
Watching on the TV box is one thing, but actually being in attendance dodging thrown beers and bags of… substances… is another matter entirely. One enterprising traveler in star-spangled gear was kind enough to document the trip, from the pre-game festivities in drunken conga lines to banter with Mexico fans outside the stadium to the game itself, we’ve got a bit of everything to digest in this pared-down recounting of events.
One of the world’s best rivalries? You betcha.