Soccer in the States: After eight long years, the USMNT is back in the World Cup

Let’s take a step back and appreciate the gift of watching our country on the biggest stage.

USMNT forward Christian Pulisic in a training session at the Thani bin Jassim Stadium in Qatar.

It’s been a long time coming. Tomorrow is the day the United States plays in the World Cup again. Let that one breathe.

We’ve been waiting for the return since the heartbreaking loss against Belgium in 2014, since the soul-crushing Trinidad implosion and failure to qualify in 2017, since the U.S. finally qualified again in March after a grueling qualifying campaign.

It’s finally here. Not a moment too soon.

The last time the United States played in the World Cup, I was a mere middle schooler carrying around my aggressively neon red backpack. During the Belgium game, I was forced to go to swimming lessons despite already knowing how to swim, a decision which I don’t think I’ll ever forgive my parents for (Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m kidding).

Since that fateful loss in 2014, so much about myself, about this national team, about this country has changed since then. Can you tell I’m feeling existential ahead of this next game?

So far in this column, I’ve dished out my roster picks, I’ve given my game-by-game predictions for the group stage and I’ve even mulled over manager Gregg Berhalter’s status as the tactical leader of the team. But now, all of my analysis is set aflame. None of it matters anymore. We’re officially in World Cup mode, and anything can happen.

This is going to be a World Cup like no other. There are countless concerns about host-country Qatar and its, to put it very lightly, suboptimal views on certain marginalized groups. Injuries are abundant due to the tournament being held in the winter. There will be a lot of distractions and hurdles for the players. There will be a lot of drama. Every second will be must-watch television.

Make no mistake, my brain is screaming, “Adam! Don’t let yourself buy into this U.S. team!” If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you know just how little faith I had in this team based on its most recent performances. Key word: had.

It’s time to let go of the pessimism that’s become so second nature to us as fans of this team. It’s time to support each and every player and coach as representatives of our nation. It’s the least we can do to support them.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching this USMNT, it’s that you can never count them out when the lights are brightest. They survived the “group of death” in 2014 and nearly made the quarterfinals. Today’s talent pool is the Golden Generation of American soccer. The pieces are absolutely there.

Getting out of the group won’t be easy by any means. The U.S. is faced with a make-or-break matchup against Wales in their first game. A loss would likely mean it can’t afford to lose to England or Iran. The energy early will set the tone for the rest of the tournament.

One thing for certain, the energy here in the States will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen as soccer fans in this country. Soccer is gaining momentum and popularity by the day. I expect more people to watch the games than ever before.

This competition couldn’t come at a better time for viewership. Most will be home for Thanksgiving, including myself, and the highly-anticipated England game will be on Black Friday. It simply doesn’t get more electric than this.

Going home to watch the first two games with my two younger brothers will be special for me. We’ve bonded together over this soccer team for as long as we can remember. We’ve gone from crying on the floor of the living room to running around the house in ecstasy. It wouldn’t be the same watching without them.

It is truly a gift to be able to appreciate the beautiful game on the biggest stage, and it makes it all the more special to have our nation in the mix. Let’s appreciate this monumental moment in U.S. sporting history. Don’t take it for granted.

I can’t help but be emboldened with an immense sense of pride and optimism. Although I know I’m just setting myself to be disappointed, I’m living blissfully in ignorance. Better, it will be, to recklessly believe than to have never believed at all.