On Not Playing in the World Cup

A professional’s take on being a fan

I’m a goalkeeper. I play for the Colorado Rapids in Major League Soccer. I am not on the U.S. national team, never have been, and I won’t be traveling to Brazil to watch the U.S. play. Unlike most American fans, who have already penciled in the dates of our games against Ghana, Portugal, and Germany, I’m not sure if I’ll even have a chance to watch live. I want to, of course, but there are no guarantees that practice, travel, or my team’s matches won’t interfere. Like most people with a day job, I’d like to support my co-workers, but you know how it is—sometimes your own meetings get in the way.

This is the reality for most American professional soccer players. For us, Clint Dempsey and Graham Zusi aren’t Deuce and San Zusi, masters of the American soccer universe, as they exist in the public imagination. When we match up against them on the field, Clint and Graham are our opponents. In a more prosaic sense, they’re merely employees of the same company. And in order to give yourself a chance to compete, you’ve got to believe that you are their equal.

This doesn’t mean that the rest of us think we deserve to be on the roster. Like any professional, American soccer players want to be recognized as the best in their field. I’m certainly a little jealous that I’m not going to Brazil. It would be pretty cool if Ian Darke were attuned to the smallest details of my well-being—or even knew of my existence. But in the back of our minds, we all know there’s a reason that a guy like Dempsey has been a national team mainstays for years. They’re the best American players, which means they have our unequivocal support. It’s just a little more complicated than it used to be.

I still remember where I was when Landon Donovan scored the goal against Algeria to send the United States through to the group stage at the 2010 World Cup. I was 21 and coaching a soccer camp at Elon University, taking a break from the suffocating North Carolina heat. I’m fairly certain that my fellow coaches and I stomped on a few 10-year-old campers in the celebration.

I spent the years between 2010 and 2013 playing in the lower divisions of American soccer, where the national team seemed as far away as it did when I was a kid. Dempsey and Landon Donovan were still guys I watched on television, not out of the corner of my eye from my spot in the six-yard box. But when I entered MLS last year, that changed. Those guys are now my peers. It no longer feels cool to be a flag-waving, kit-wearing fan who jumps around wildly when we score a goal and then posts a video of it to YouTube. That was me after Donovan’s famous goal, but I can’t see myself doing that now. American soccer’s watershed moment was also a watershed moment in how I watched the U.S. team. I now find myself detached from those emotions. I’m more analytical, more interested in how my peers perform. I don’t worry and hope as I used to. I commiserate with their problems on the pitch and wonder what I might do differently.

Maybe I’m afraid of being viewed as a fan, as though there ought to be a hard line between me and the people who watch our games, and even the national team’s games. Being a fan is, in part, an exercise in fantasy: What if I could step onto the field and be as good as Clint Dempsey? How do you maintain the wonder when you get to—have to—live out the fantasy on a weekly basis?

I’ll be supporting the squad in Brazil. I want the U.S. to do well. But when the Yanks go marching in, just don’t expect me to be leading the cheers.