Holding the Center


January friendlies are pretty low on the soccer totem pole anyway, but it’s hard to imagine a match feeling less important than Sunday’s USMNT/Serbia tune-up (we might find out in a few months when United States/Panama gets played under a mushroom cloud, but I digress). Where Bruce Arena experiments with playing Darlington Nagbe just can’t hold up, priority-wise, when American democracy seems to be melting away, after all.

The two realms of course ran face-first into each other, though, after Michael Bradley’s interview/post-interview comments on this weekend’s executive order, in which he tepidly dodges then dives head-first into the matter:

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Bradley himself says he wasn’t expecting the spotlight, at least not this spotlight, which, fine, but it makes sense for the captain of the U.S. National team to have some opinion on the thing plunging his nation into chaos, right?

Which begs a question: what do we expect our national teams to be? Can we reasonably expect a national team to in some way reflect something about the nation they represent, other than the fact the players happen to hold passports? Totally, right? Certainly, national teams play with variations of style based on national tradition (the Brazilians play this way, the Dutch that way, etc. etc.), but I wonder if that’s actually reflective of a national identity, or an ad hoc construction to fit vague concepts of nationhood. I’m partial to both Sam Fayyaz’s examination of style as national ideology, as well as Jan Kotowski’s discussion of a “style of play-national identity-nexus”, not as as arguments to pick apart, but just two examples in a sea of think pieces and articles tangling with ideas of nationalism and soccer.

I’m curious, however, how conceptions of nationhood vis-á-vis soccer are transmuted or otherwise played out away from the pitch. Perhaps this is a fundamentally different question for the United States, a nation with a soccer history, sure, but one essentially different from European and South American soccer histories, and really, Central American, African, and Asian soccer histories as well. I’m reminded of another Run of Play article, in which Conor Williams roots American soccer culture in a look at de Tocqueville:

In a certain sense, this is the fundamental wager at the heart of American life. We keep our public life segmented away from eternal questions. Those stay at home. And that’s how we get from the disenchanted world to soccer. Hyper-hyped beer commercials notwithstanding, we make the same wager with our athletic rivalries as with our politics. Sports are segmented away from eternal concerns—like ethnic identities or defining community causes—and this keeps them from getting too explosive.

This, I think, is an impulse behind angry “stick to sports” rage tweets that sprout up anytime a sports figure (particularly those in the media) comment on anything other than, you know, sports. It’s comfortable to keep these things compartmentalized, to think about sports only within its own context as a cultural activity. I don’t think I’m dipping too much of a toe into preachiness by going to the obvious point that sports don’t and can’t exist within this kind of vacuum, that society and politics and culture and all of those vague signifiers of human-ness of course impact the hows and whys of soccer specifically, but any sport generally.

Bradley’s comments throw this idea into sharp focus, and gives us a bit of cognitive dissonance. If we want our national team to have some factor of national identity, how do we respond when the captain of that team plants a flag (sure, not at first, but he did seem to realize how problematic his original lukewarm statement was and corrected course) on the hottest of hot buttons?

Perhaps then, as much as it makes the “we already have football, it’s called FOOTBALL” section cringe, the U.S. National Teams are more reflective of our current ahem, situation (existential Armageddon, bipartisan chasm of despair, whatever, insert your preferred phraseology here) than we would readily like to admit. I mean that as in Bradley, understanding his stance on a (semi) tall podium, declaring a political stance as much as I mean Tim Howard and Abby Wambach blundering their way through xenophobic remarks as much as I mean the USWNT as a pretty convincing symbol for the American woman today – under appreciated, under paid, and politically engaged. Each of these feel like three of the ideological stances attempting to shout each other into oblivion 140 characters at a time. 

An obvious point, maybe, and certainly not very daring (three Americans hold views held by millions of Americans), but maybe we’re encountering an unexpected landmark of the development of soccer in America; we’ve reached the point where our soccer players have become as important for how they function within our national discourse as for how they perform on the field.




You have to suspect on some level that Manchester City’s season is starting to dissolve away, or at least slip into some awkward phase between competing for the Premiere League title and angrily crashing out of European contention. It doesn’t help when your manager declares the  gap between you and first-place Chelsea (currently ten points) is “a lot of points” and too great to overcome after a 4-0 drubbing by Everton in which Man City held the ball for 71% of the time and conceded on the first shot of the game for the fourth time in seven matches. (They also led in shots 13-6 and had twice as many corners as Everton – time to self-immolate the stat sheet.)

Guardiola’s posturing during and after the game felt like a little piece of dramatic martyrdom: he’s acting as if he’s trapped in a circle of Hell, but one of the lesser ones, where demons don’t tear at your skin but you constantly run into high school classmates at the supermarket, your Ferrari’s stereo only tunes to morality sermons and theremin music, and you suddenly and deeply become aware of your own nose. Pep spent most of the game staring into the oblivion, more or less not reacting when his team gave up a second goal only 90 seconds after the half, or when the midfield devolved into a jujitsu match – Man City stopped channelling their frustration/desperation goalward and instead spent their half sliding and elbowing and generally attempting to cause havoc, to little avail. It’s usually pretty obvious when a team simply isn’t feeling it, and perhaps the spark was smothered after an early penalty no-call went against them, but the ball seemed to be rolling downhill away from Man City all evening.

Everton, for their part, managed to solidify their upper-mid-table position by countering effectively, precise shots and a general joie de vivre compared to their opponents, especially after a dazzling 79th minute goal by 18-year-old Tom Davies, who split two defenders on the wing, hit a deft pass, was knocked down only to recover, dust himself off and calmly chip the ball past Claudio Bravo. (Lukaku tried – and failed – to bump the shot in at the last second, but barely and thankfully whiffed.) Ademola Lookman, who looks as if he’s too young to remember flip phones, man (sorry), finished off both the day’s youth movement and Manchester City by going five-hole on Bravo in the 93rd minute. A goal in his debut! A rout! Two goals by teenagers! A descent into Nike neon dread!

Guardiola came to England as a conquering tactical genius, but instead seems like a lonely wizard in exile – the press is starting to churn into attack mode, and unless Pep can find some points (and reorganize/reenergize his defense) it might not be long before they’re baying for his blood (or, ahem, his resignation).


If left up to NBC, today’s Manchester United/Liverpool match at Old Trafford would have been a highlight reel affair – floods of confetti and soaring chants and pastel-branded goosebumps. You know, a real sense of importance. Instead, we got an inevitable-feeling 1-1 draw sprinkled with sloppy giveaways and Arlo White and Graeme Le Saux reminding us of NBC’s new Spidercam and coming up with different adjectives to describe the iron-grey (lead-grey, steely, etc. etc.) sky over Manchester.

The last meeting between the clubs was a slog, but this – this was a zesty slog. Really a nervous, jittery game all around, especially for Paul Pogba, who peppered up a clumsy first half with a particularly egregious handball that gifted Liverpool a penalty (which Milner converted, 1-0) in the 26th minute. He then proceeded to play the rest of the match with the manic disorganization of a man trying to rectify his mistake (have to image that feeling is magnified exponentially after $116 million transfer fee), overelaborating on every touch and losing the ball quickly.

Rooney came on as a halftime replacement in the media-narrative-shadow of passing Sir Bobby Charlton on Man U’s all-time scoring charts, but other than some ineffective waddles straight at defenders, Wazza didn’t make much of a difference until his tangential involvement in Ibrahimović’s 83rd minute equalizer. A goal which, felt right – the match was played under a fog of…not quite the feeling that the gods preordained a draw, but more like the feeling that everyone would be dissatisfied at the final whistle. If that’s a little shapeless for you, consider this was a match that featured a WWE-style headlock, a maybe-possibly-totally offisde on the tying goal, and an almost manager brawl – a Firmino/Hererra scuffle at the very end sent Klopp into a very un-Klopplike (or maybe very Klopplike) shouting and bouncing fit at José Mourinho. Perhaps some of the general angsty milieu from Goodison seeped into this Manchester/Liverpool derby as well.