Ah, memories. The summer of 2010 can be remembered for a great many things: Usher and Will.i.am’s "OMG" was tearing up the charts, Toy Story 3 made you feel an awful lot of things, and the KFC Double Down was doing irreparable harm to our bodies. We were also gathered around our TVs to watch the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, vuvuzelas and all.
As for yours truly, I was deployed to Al Asad, Iraq. Al Asad is located in the western Al Anbar province of Iraq, which was mostly used as a convoy hub for supplies coming into the country. (Al Asad was the second-largest airbase in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.) One of the things they stress to you while you’re deployed is that while in uniform, you’re representing America to every person you encounter. So, it stood to reason that seeing the U.S. Men’s National Team play the beautiful game while abroad had extra significance.
The build-up heading into the tournament was how the U.S. and England were set to face off for the first time in 60 years. Steven Gerrard scored early and gave England a 1-0 lead. But, then, not too long before halftime, Clint Dempsey sent a seemingly harmless shot at West Ham’s Robert Green that he inexplicably mishandled and let trickle past him to level the score at 1-1. Having witnessed that, the MWR (Morale, Welfare, Recreation) Center I was at erupted. Servicemen and women from all branches started breaking out in "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chants (The ubiquitous "I believe" chant hadn’t quite reached over to us yet.) The scoreline would hold and Al Asad would be a hotbed of soccer enthusiasm I had never experienced in all my 21 years on Earth as an American at that point.
In the motorpool we’d suddenly be making jokes about the English and Slovenians. After Landon Donovan scored off a shot from Deuce that had rebounded off the keeper to not only stave off the Americans’ elimination from the World Cup, but also to actually win the group, I can recall leaping up and ferociously giving my closest friend Spc. Lauren Kent (whom I still remain close to today and is a fellow Orlando City and Pride fan) a giant bear hug and exclaimed "Algeria? More like foulgeria!" (To this day, I maintain it’s the most clever thing you can say about Algeria.) For this I would receive a smack from her. The Americans wouldn’t be going home yet but soon we would be.
On June 25 I boarded a plane in Al Asad, landed in Shannon, Ireland, re-boarded that plane, flew to Ft. Drum, NY, and did the Army’s "hurry up and wait" process, where awaited another plane that would take us to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for demobilization processing and debriefings. On June 26, the USMNT played Ghana.
I had maybe three hours of sleep from the time I left Iraq to the time I found myself having a medical briefing, explaining how sand fleas may have given us Leishmaniasis (they hadn’t, for the most part), and how acclimatizing to the more temperate climate of the United States would wreak havoc on some of our allergies. The joke was on the medical staff as I suspected my sinuses had melted off when I first landed in Kuwait the year prior.
I can remember getting my cell phone out of my footlocker (I had brought my phone back with me because I had installed a mobile version of Football Manager on it when I came home for leave) and instead of paying attention to what was supposed to be a medical briefing on my next anthrax booster shot, I was writhing in anticipation after Landon Donovan leveled the score on a penalty, then deflated in my chair after Asamoah Gyan scored in stoppage time. And like that, it was over. The day after my deployment had ended, so had the World Cup for a lot of us.
I bring this story up today because later on this evening, the U.S. is playing in another tournament -- the Copa América Centenario this time -- and against one of the best teams in the world in Argentina. It happens to feature arguably the best player in the world, Lionel Messi. I’ve seen the U.S. featured in games they weren’t supposed to win and come out victorious: last summer they had back-to-back victories over Germany and the Netherlands.
I’m wary, but, I’ve never been one to count out my countrymen in any situation. It’s certainly a tall order but, then again, the USMNT wasn’t supposed to make it out of Group A either, let alone win it.