Photo credit: Ashley Allen/Getty

Once the rage subsided within the proud hearts of American soccer fans in response to the USMNT’s humiliating failure to qualify for next summer’s World Cup, the feeling that settled in has been one of profound sadness. Mostly, this sadness has centered on what was stolen from us—namely, the opportunity for the entire country to unite around one of the few things that can still inspire the blues and the reds of the country stand together and get loud and happy about the same thing—but, as Christian Pulisic writes in an article on The Players’ Tribune today, this sucks exponentially more for the players themselves. And no U.S. player deserves good things and a happy World Cup like the wonderteen.

Pulisic’s article has lots of interesting tidbits about how he felt in the immediate aftermath of the infamous Trinidad and Tobago match, about what he sees as the key issue afflicting soccer’s development in America, about American soccer culture, and, maybe most interestingly, about his concerns with the nativist rhetoric that has encircled and even seeped inside the American soccer program. (As for that last point, it’s fascinating that even as a born-and-bred American whose skills were nevertheless honed in Europe, Pulisic sees himself as part of the at-times maligned group of Euro-based USMNTers that, when fans or pundits or even former and current national team members talk about wanting the U.S. squad to be filled only with real Americans imbued with just the right levels of magical traits like PASHUN and DEDICATION to ensure victory, is traditionally limited to the team’s German-American contingent.)

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But it’s when Pulisic is talking directly about just how awesome the World Cup is, and how much it fucking blows that he won’t play in this next one, that drives home just how much of a bummer this all is. At one point, Pulisic explains why he hasn’t said much about the USMNT’s qualification failure until now, and in the process recounts a treasured World Cup memory from his youth:

There have been many opinions voiced over the past few weeks about our failure to reach the World Cup — and I hope people can understand why one of them hasn’t been mine. Playing for the U.S. in the World Cup has been my dream ever since I can remember. World Cup Final … minute to go … ball on Pulisic’s foot … and he scoooores! — that’s what I would dream about. For me, that’s always been the pinnacle of what I could accomplish in this sport.

I remember watching the 2014 tournament in my cousin’s basement in Virginia. We threw this big party for the first U.S. match against Ghana — and before I could even sit down with my food, I’ll never forget it: Clint made that sweet cut to the right, put the ball on his left foot, and went post-and-in.

29 seconds in, 1-0, USA.

We went crazy.

I couldn’t believe the electricity in the air after that goal. It was like the entire country was with us in that basement, running around with our hands in the air, screaming out, “Gooooooooaaaaaaaaaaal! Gooooooooaaaaaaaaal!” Just going insane. It was this amazing realization of, like, “Wow — American soccer can do that. We can do … that.”

So to have come this far, in these four years since that goal was scored — to have made the team, and to have been a goal away from qualifying … and then to have fallen short? It hurt more than I can really put into words.

I remember—of course—that Dempsey moment Pulisic is talking about. We were all at the old Gawker offices that day, and for the World Cup we’d jury-rigged a couple of the screens on the wall of our shared, open-plan office to show the games. About five minutes before kickoff, most of us Deadspinners made our way away from that setup near our desks on the fourth floor down to the mostly uninhabited second floor—we wanted to watch the game and drink some beers and hoot and holler on the couch in front of the big TV down there without disturbing the others trying to do actual work upstairs.

As we scrambled to find out how to get the TV on and onto the right channel, we realized we’d already missed the the start of the game. This didn’t concern us too much, at least not until we heard an explosion of “Ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!” coming from upstairs. Immediately, we all shot up from our seats and sprinted upstairs, beers in hand, in order to see what we’d missed. As we flung open the fourth floor door, we were greeted by our elated coworkers who’d stayed upstairs to watch on the working screens up there. I was a little disappointed to have missed the goal but mostly just overjoyed that it had come at all, and so early, too. For the rest of that game and for the rest of the tournament, we and lots of our coworkers all huddled together along those wall-mounted screens to watch the USMNT’s matches, living every tense, exciting moment as one.

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Our whole office watching that World Cup together was an absolute blast. It was an unforgettable bonding event the likes of which millions of Americans shared, and it’s exactly the kind of thing we won’t get to revel in next summer because of the U.S.’s fuck-up. And sure, it sucks that those of us watching from home won’t be able to see another Dempsey-vs.-Ghana moment, but it must suck a million times worse for Pulisic.

To have dreamt as a boy of creating a Dempsey-vs. Ghana moment, to have seen that dream grow over the years from a nigh-impossible fantasy into a more and more plausibly attainable goal, and to have been on the doorstep of it actually happening only to be thwarted at the very last moment—it’s horrifying. To have had your lifelong dream within your grasp and have it snatched away in agonizing fashion is an unspeakably cruel fate.

To that point, Dempsey’s goal in the Ghana match in 2014 isn’t even the best example of what it feels like to realize a lifelong dream—and, in light of the U.S.’s absence from the tournament, how painful it must be for Pulisic to know he has missed out on his shot for at least four more years. For that, we have then-21-year-old John Brook’s late game-winner from that same day:

Look at how Brooks celebrates—if you can even call trying to remember to breath while your brain has just melted a celebration. That was just Brooks’s fifth cap with the USMNT. He’d probably spent countless hours on his local field near his childhood home in Berlin pretending he was playing in and was about to score in the World Cup. And just a year into his tenure with the senior national team, as a somewhat surprising inclusion in Jurgen Klinsmann’s tournament roster and after starting the Ghana match from the bench, Brooks’s dream became reality. You can tell he almost couldn’t even handle the emotions.

Witnessing something like that is what we fans are missing out on, but actually doing something great is what Pulisic lost that night in Trinidad. Imagine what this World Cup would’ve meant to him, the crowning achievement after a whirlwind journey that took him from competing against high school kids in central Pennsylvania just a few years ago to going up against Cristiano Ronaldo on a Tuesday night Champions League match in Germany now. And as big as playing against Real Madrid in the Champions League has to be, even that is nothing compared to the World Cup. It must be hell for Pulisic to think about.

We all feel bad for you, kid. And shame on the teammates and coaches and the broader U.S. Soccer that let you, the least culpable American player of all, down. But keep your head up. You’ll get there eventually.

[The Player’s Tribune]