It is rather difficult in times like these to ignore the hate and fear mongering that is flowing around us. It is darn near impossible to not be enraged by the xenophobia and downright bigotry occurring in our country from the top down. It is additionally troubling to see the steadily deteriorating international perception of these United States of America.
Athletes and members of the sports media are presented with a unique platform with which to share their views, and hopefully shed light on the most pressing issues. Yet when those of us in the sporting landscape choose to express our thoughts and opinions, we are often met with an age old line:
“I really wish you’d just stick to sports.”
There is no other sport more socially relevant than soccer. The world’s game has literally stopped wars and helped to start revolutions. Soccer has brought hope to those in poverty and humbled those in power. But even in the vast global society of soccer fandom, you will still occasionally find that mindset of wishing that folks on and off the pitch would “just stick to the game”.
This weekend, the United States Men’s National Team was preparing to take on Serbia in a friendly at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. It was Bruce Arena’s first game back as U.S. Manager and the team’s first match of the “post Jurgen Klinsmann era”. It was a game that would see some experimentation, and a few select players trying to prove their worth come March, and the return of World Cup Qualifying.
It was also seen by many as an opportunity for the city of San Diego to stake its rightful claim for Major League Soccer expansion, as the collective eye of U.S. Soccer would be centered on “The Q”, the now former home of the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers.
The Sunday afternoon match was a relative dud, a 0-0 stalemate that lacked any real bite. It was the fourth time in six total U.S. matches at Qualcomm Stadium in which the Americans failed to score. It was also the second straight goose egg for the U.S. on California soil, after a 2-0 Copa America loss to Colombia in Santa Clara in June.
Jozy Altidore marked his 100th cap for the U.S. with a performance that left quite a bit to be desired.
Darlington Nagbe was a bright spot for the Americans, the Portland Timbers midfielder earning Man of the Match honors thanks to some decent attacking displays in the first half.
Jordan Morris brought some good energy off the bench, as did Benny Feilhaber, the Sporting Kansas City maestro making his first appearance for the national team since 2014, after a much publicized feud with Jurgen Klinsmann.
(I spoke with Feilhaber on Saturday. He said he “honestly did not expect to ever play with the national team again”, and stated that it was “a lot more fun to have people talking about my soccer as opposed to just my words”.)
Nick Rimando had a solid day in goal, making a couple of fine saves on a day where he didn’t have a whole lot to do.
Graham Zusi attempted to play right-back. We’ll leave it at that.
An announced crowd of 20,079 was closer to 17,000, leaving at least 50,000 empty seats around the American football and one time baseball stadium. Fans were strategically placed only in the lower bowl on the side opposite the ESPN and Univision network cameras, giving the impression of a fuller stadium to the national television audience.
The Serbian team was comprised of all domestic based players, none of whom had made more than one appearance for their senior national team. The U.S. team was made up almost entirely of players from MLS, these annual January friendlies falling on non-FIFA dates, meaning almost no foreign based talent is released to play for the national team. The MLS players are customarily in pre-season form, something that has garnered the annual, three week January congregation the nickname of “camp cupcake”.
The match itself could have been a springboard of sorts for a U.S. team that needs a spark. The event could have been a stoking of the effort to bring top-flight professional soccer to San Diego. Instead, the gorgeous afternoon did almost nothing to advance either cause, nor did it hinder anything. It was about as poetic and symbolic as a nil-nil draw could get, the final score essentially serving as a microcosm of January 29th, 2017.
And even with these lackluster occurrences, there existed a passionate pulse around the U.S. team in the minutes that followed the final whistle. The conversations that took place between players and journalists in the post-match mixed zone were anything but mundane.
On Saturday night, U.S. Captain Michael Bradley took to social media to express his concerns over the recent actions of President Donald Trump.
“When Trump was elected,” Bradley wrote in an Instagram post that followed his interview with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, an interview in which Bradley felt his answers were too soft, “I only hoped that the President Trump would be different than the campaigner Trump. That the xenophobic, misogynistic, narcissistic rhetoric would be replaced with a more humble and measured approach to leading our country. I was wrong. And the ‘Muslim ban’ is just the latest example of someone who couldn’t be more out of touch with our country and the right way to move forward.”
Trump’s executive order on immigration indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States and suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days. The executive order also blocked citizens, refugees or otherwise, of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days. The countries were Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Though Bradley himself did not discuss the ban or anything that didn’t pertain to soccer itself, saying to a large group of reporters that he “made his opinions very clear”, other U.S. players were more than willing to share their thoughts and expand on the words of their captain.
Sacha Kljestan told an elaborate story of his father, Slavko, coming from war-torn Yugoslavia to the United States as an illegal immigrant and entering the U.S. in the trunk of a car while crossing the Canadian border. Kljestan’s father then hitchhiked to Los Angeles, where he found a phone booth and looked up people with Serbian last names, eventually finding someone who would house him while he found work. Slavko was a footballer himself, and his son, who was born in Huntington Beach, marked his 52nd cap for the U.S. team on Sunday.
“America is the land of opportunity,” Kljestan said, “and I don’t think we’re the type of country that should shut our borders to anybody. I think we should welcome everybody here to our soil to live the American dream.”
U.S. defenders Greg Garza and Jorge Villafana, both veterans of Liga MX, spoke to reporters in both English and Spanish, each man saying they “absolutely agreed” with Bradley’s statements.
As honest and blunt as anyone, U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya spoke directly to Soccer Nation, expressing his support of Bradley’s words, and a whole lot more.
“Michael is our captain, and he speaks for many of us,” Bedoya began. “I agree with his comments completely.”
Bedoya then made it abundantly clear how he feels about the age old line from the beginning of this article.
“I hate it when people say ‘stick to sports’. I’m an American. I’m a taxpayer. I was born and raised here in this country, born to immigrant parents, and anything that happens to America affects me.”
Bedoya went on to share his thoughts on President Trump, the refugee ban, and the state of our country.
“I’m really disappointed to see the rhetoric that is out there right now and this ‘temporary Muslim ban’. It affects so many innocent people, and I think it’s an absolute disgrace to put this ban out there. You have to think of these people and their families being divided.”
Bedoya referenced his experience at his first professional club as something that shaped his mind forever more. In 2009, after signing with Swedish side Orebro SK, Bedoya became roommates with Yunus Ismail, a Somalian refugee who sadly suffered a stroke that ended his soccer career before he ever played a game for the club. Even before the health issues surfaced, Ismail was a much debated figure in Sweden, a country unfortunately known for its often less than welcoming attitude toward immigrants, specifically non-Nordics and people of color. Somalia being part of President Trump’s executive order here in 2017 hit home with Bedoya.
“To just talk to Yunus that year,” said Bedoya, “to hear his story and everything he and his family went through, all the suffering just to live… These are not terrorists. This rhetoric is crazy, and just wrong, the way we are labeling people. I mean, we have a guy on this team, Darlington Nagbe, whose parents were refugees that escaped a civil war in Liberia. There are people that need help. And right now, we are in a time of humanitarian crisis. To turn your back on some of these people and just label them as terrorists or put a ban on them, for me, is just not American.”
“There’s a lot of political bull s*** out there right now. When you see those seven countries listed, you may wonder if business interests played a part in certain countries not being listed. It’s ridiculous. I can’t stand by it. I don’t like where our country is going, and it sets a dangerous precedent as we move forward.”
I asked Bedoya if the discussion we were having was one being had among the players themselves.
“I mean, we speak about it here and there. Guys have opinions. We’re human.”
“But most of all we support our teammates. We support each other. And there are a lot of guys here on this team who are sons of immigrants, and with the divisive rhetoric that we’re seeing in this country right now, we need to protect one another.”
There is no doubt that when the opening whistle blows, the likes of Alejandro Bedoya, Sacha Kljestan, and Michael Bradley are focused solely on the task at hand, playing to win and giving their all for the United States. Their willingness to speak up about issues that affect millions of people has no baring on their competitive capability.
To be quite frank, the U.S. team had a poor game in San Diego, and they need to play better against Jamaica in Chattanooga next Friday, the last friendly before the vital March 24th qualifying showdown with Honduras at San Jose’s Avaya Stadium and the March 28th trip to Panama.
Off the field, players like Bedoya, Kljestan, and Bradley were outstanding, using their platform for the good of the country and for the betterment of our soccer culture in America.
It’s important to clarify that not every player necessarily wants to be in the social spotlight, and no person, professional athlete or otherwise, should ever feel obligated to say or do anything in the public eye, nor should they ever be fearful in doing so. For journalists, beat writers are in a much different position than columnists and editorialists in this regard.
At the end of the day, we all have jobs to fulfill. But if a chance presents itself to say or do something that can have a lasting positive impact on the world around us, pouncing at that opportunity is always a good move.
As I left the stadium early Sunday evening, I took a walk around the parking lot, the few remaining groups of post-game tailgaters soaking in the last glimmers of San Diego daylight.
On my walk, I met a group of Hmong Americans. A man donning a San Diego Padres hat and a U.S. soccer shirt talked about the Refugee Assistance Act of 1975. Tens of thousands of Hmong people were killed in Vietnam, as approximately 3,400 were granted asylum and came to the U.S. as refugees. Thousands more followed in subsequent years in one of the most unique refugee crisis of the late 20th century. The man spoke of his deep cultural loyalty, his love for his ancestral land of Laos, and how it all combines with his American and San Diegan pride. It was an intense, humbling, and fitting way to close the day.
And for now, it’s back to soccer, that game we love. It’s a game that is capable of some powerful things.
So the next time you hear or read someone say “just stick to soccer”, do it. Stick to the game that has the power to stop wars, start revolutions, shine light, raise awareness, enlighten the masses, and bring people together.
Stick to soccer. Don’t ever let it go.