With the recent passing of the World Cup, soccer was once again at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Ok, maybe in the rest of the world, but not so much in the US. Especially since the men’s national team wasn’t even in the tournament. But that’s not to say it didn’t permeate other parts of media and subconsciously lead me to watch way too many soccer games that I was neither invested in, nor really cared about the outcome. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they weren’t compelling and tragic and all the other things that I didn’t remember I appreciate about professional soccer, despite growing up playing the sport through high school and now watching on a weekly basis as Hipster Jr. and Hipster Jr. Jr. travel distances in every kind of weather to play other peoples’ juniors in a game of sport.
This particular podcast series came to my attention after watching its host, Roger Bennett, do his schtick on MSNBC and various other channels leading up to the World Cup. The dude is funny as hell, clearly loves the sport and is remarkably proud to be a new American despite his super-British accent and his clear love of the Premier League and English National Football Team. I honestly don’t remember if he plugged the podcast on another podcast I happened to be listening to, or if I just came across it somewhere, but the fact that the guy decided to make a five-hour documentary about the 1998 US Men’s National Soccer Team just drew me in. I was certainly old enough at that time to be cognoscente of their story, and I should have been their target audience. But I had very little recollection about what happened to them and why their tale would make for compelling content. Turns out Bennett certainly did.
The podcast form is something that I’ve been interacting with for quite a while now. But most of my daily listening habits revolve around programming of the political or entertainment variety, and are episodic in a way where I don’t necessarily need to listen to every broadcast, because there will another one the next day or later in the week that’s on a new topic and includes breaking news or reviews of recent stuff. This is a serial podcast — a self-contained documentary about a specific topic. And it’s my new favorite thing, because binging on audio is pretty awesome. Granted, there were times when I went to listen to the podcast in bed at night and may have dozed of and had to rewind to catch myself up, but that was my own fault and not that of our fearless narrator.
The podcast itself definitely brings us a more low-key Bennett than I’m certainly used to. His normal hyper-caffeinated sarcasm has been dialed back to let the wackiness of the actual story shine through. And, trust me, there are enough characters all around to cover for his usual big personality. Bennett, through interviews with the players, coaches, broadcasters and various other US Soccer officials and administrators, unfurls a tale about the rise of a relatively obscure group of soccer players to the heights of world football stardom. But, as Bennett tells it, this isn’t an underdog story that ends like Rocky II or anything out of Hollywood, but is a tragedy of epic proportions that is completely self-inflicted and, with hindsight, seemed destined to fail like almost every preceding attempt at raising American soccer to the pinnacle of the sport in the hearts and minds of the American public. Bennett says from the start that he chose this story because of the catastrophic failure, because that’s what interests him. The frailty of human nature and the tipping points that can send us over the edge into the darkness. Anyone, after all, can tell the tale of an underdog rising up to glory, but it takes a special person to lay out a fiasco like this.
The thing is, while the story is compelling, the characters interesting and this period in time a bit of a black mark on our sporting history, this tells a larger story about soccer in America. We wonder aloud — or at least I have — why the world loves this sport that Americans can’t seem to embrace. It’s a huge youth sport, mind you, but professional leagues over the years have folded and failed due to lack of interest or overwhelming competition from more favorable sports. It’s a sport a lot of us Americans grew up playing and loving, and these guys on this team felt that this was their chance to cement the sport as the next big American thing. There was a lot riding on their shoulders, and their failure seemingly set back professional soccer decades. So there are larger themes at play here — at least for the guys involved and for those of us who love the sport. Like Bennett said, the mistakes seem pretty obvious in retrospect, but they do in the case of most fiascos.