Here in the United States, we like football, not football. In fact, most of us call the latter soccer, which used to annoy pedants at parties back before social distancing became the rage. We prefer football so much that I’m guessing most of us didn’t realize the United States was competing against Mexico for the CONCACAF Nations League soccer championship on Sunday night.
CONCACAF, world champion of absurdly long initialisms, stands for Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football. (Association footballer is also where the word “soccer” comes from, although don’t bother explaining that to any pedants at your next gathering, not least of which because it doesn’t make a ton of sense as a contraction to begin with.)
Sunday was the inaugural championship match for the CONCACAF Nations League. On the way to the championship, the United States defeated Honduras, with Mexico defeating Costa Rica in the semifinals. (Honduras went on to come in third and Costa Rica fourth in the third-place playoff match, so it would seem the system works.)
Despite trailing in possession time and only equaling, not surpassing, Mexico’s shots on goal, the United States prevailed where it matters — points on the board — winning 3-2 in a high scoring game. For a look at how the match went, here’s a clip from an episode of “The Simpsons” that first aired in 1997.
I kid, I kid. I actually love soccer, predominantly when played by little girls, so please don’t stop inviting me to the team get-togethers, fellow soccer moms and dads.
When it comes to the age and professional level of the soccer I tend to watch, I suspect most Americans are similar. There are a lot of parents at games, practices, and tournaments. Sometimes, on the sidelines, we discuss other sports, namely football and basketball. In the roughly seven years I’ve been a soccer dad, I can recall matches like Sunday’s CONCACAF being discussed two, maybe even three times.
It’s just not a sport America cares about on the professional level, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy its (rare) moments of excitement. On Sunday, one of those moments happened early, when the United States’ Mark McKenzie sent a lazy pass toward the sidelines, which was promptly intercepted by Mexico’s Jesús Corona (no relation to the virus), who drilled it past keeper Zack Steffen. That happened around a minute into the match, which is impressive.
From there, the two teams very occasionally traded goals, with Gio Reyna scoring for the United States around 26:30 into the match, which clocked in at more than 120 minutes by the end.
Then there were lots more passes and a few opportunities before Diego Lainez drilled a left-footer in to take Mexico back into the lead with roughly 10 minutes left in the regulation portion of the match. This, surprisingly, lasted only a few minutes, as U.S. player Weston McKennie scored on a header off a corner kick just past the 81-minute mark.
From there, it was into extra time, which is time added at the end of a match for injuries and the like, as there are no timeouts in soccer. Were it not for the extra time, this would be a convention other sports should consider adopting.
At 113 minutes, the match was effectively over after the referee called a questionable foul against Mexico, resulting in a penalty kick for Christian Pulisic, who nailed it into the back right corner of the net. After scoring, Pulisic proceeded to celebrate excessively, which isn’t a problem in soccer, although the announcer for CBS was not a fan. (Skip ahead to the 3:49 mark for that portion, or just watch the first five minutes to see the entire 124-minute match distilled.)
Mexico almost rallied in the final minutes, getting their own penalty kick on another questionable call, this time of the handball variety. Here, the United States asserted its dominance with a diving save from keeper Ethan Horvath, thus ending the match and preventing even more penalty kicks. See, at some point, even soccer players give up and let the outcome be decided by whichever keeper makes more mistakes. Cricket could learn something.
In terms of soccer, it was a pretty resounding victory. In terms of national pride, don’t let the fact that you not only didn’t watch, but didn’t even know there was a match going on, distract you from celebrating.
Over the past year, lots of scolds have spent a lot of time lecturing us about how America is hegemonic, imperial, doesn’t use the metric system, has its own form of football, etc. Well, Sunday night proved them correct. Only a country like the United States can melting pot its way into dominance over a sport it doesn’t even care about.
So, while you may not care about soccer or even be aware that CONCACAF exists, that’s no reason for you to not follow Pulisic’s example, rip off your shirt, and scream “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A!” while thumbing your nose at the rest of the world. Because we’re that great of a country, and that’s something you should never forget.