Loving the Cult Hero

Never the best players on their teams, cult heroes continue to remind us why we love football in the first place.

They play with taped up skulls and blood skipping down their temples. Brilliant beards and sumptuous ‘staches (pre-hipster days) adorn their sweat drenched faces. Their socks crinkle around the ankles, and their boots are black as caves. They tackle like garbage compactors and win headers like rams in heat. Some have a shit first touch, others hands for feet.

Their hairstyles vary. From long thick tufts and horseshoes, to spotless shining domes, no follicle condition is excluded. Some are rails, others fat. But when they kiss the badge we believe them. They play stay-at-home fullback, hyper active midfield or penalty box sniper. Adored by fans, overshadowed by legendary teammates. These are the cult heroes of football.

Watch any match and you can pick one out. Gary Medel — cult hero. Will Johnson — cult hero. Meghan Klingenberg — cult hero. Messi — legend. Cult hero? No.

Cult heroes compete like you and I believe we would if we graced football’s greatest cathedrals. Honest. Determined. Relentless. And with no regrets. Each match leaving our cold beating hearts on the touch line grass, unable to compete any further.

They look like us, and some lived like us once too. Footballing late bloomers who moonlighted as mild mannered carpenters and car mechanics, hiding footballing superpowers in their boots and overalls.

Why do we cherish cult heroes so deeply? They remind us why football is so awesome in the first place: football is for everyone.


When The Ticker Tape Settles

They just won the World Cup, but for these brilliant women their greatest challenge lies ahead.

The United States are World Cup champions. It’s a thrilling sentence to type. These women had it all — panache, charm and grit. They’ve earned their ticket tape parade no doubt. But as with any great triumph the question is posed. What’s next?

Despite all the SI covers, White House invites from the President and record television ratings, people, the casual fan will move on. Quick. Not to any fault of these wonderful women, but because our society’s bottomless appetite for the latest winner rages on.

The medals are worn. Endorsement deals are signed. Trophies are clicked shut into display cases and the hustle of being a professional women’s soccer player returns. For some it’s jetting overseas. For most it’s back to the NWSL.

Now, there’s a new pressure on these women. A pressure that extends beyond their World Cup performance. It’s the pressure to grow the NWSL. A pressure to leave a legacy of professional hope for the next generation of girls. Every autograph, every youtube channel, every interview counts. Each can be a step pushing the NWSL into the next season. The league too has its part to play. Secure TV money and market the hell out of each team. It’s a constant door to door sales pitch. But it’s what’s demanded to eat.

Winning a third World Cup was a stunning achievement for these women. Making the NWSL relevant could be an even greater one.


3 Setting Sons

Cynicism is the easy path. An easy path to walk when three divine sons of Europe arrive to sunset their careers in North America. “Over the hill.” we think. “Proof MLS is a retirement league.” we mutter. “These guys are just cashing in.” we write. It’s the same “I’ve come here to win trophies” babble. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo. A general, an inspiration and a sorcerer. Each unique in skill set, and each arrive with a different ending to their European journeys. Steven missing out on his birthday cup. Frankie doing a strange and effective Manchester City midfielder impersonation. And Andrea chasing around the Barcelona clockwork.

Yes they’re old. And all three could channel their inner Lothar Matthäus. But what if instead we hope. What if we cast aside cynicism and imagine Frankie still bursting into the box unmarked. Or Stevie charging after the MLS and US Open Cups like a wild footballing moose. And Andrea walking around the pitch, playing delicate reverse passes for David Villa to kiss off the inside of the post. Let’s imagine this, let’s believe.

Twilight has come for these legends, but hopefully their final chapters will make for a brilliant read.


Chile’s Cup of Memories

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At the end of a memorable football tournament wonderful feelings can well up. Feelings similar to the end of summer vacation. Or a best friend moving away. Bitter, sweet. Not all tournaments feel like this. Euro 2004 for example. But Copa America 2015 did. This Copa was special. Like that crush at summer camp. You plan your day around seeing them. You double check the network site for local kick off times. You mentally mark off which matches are must see, and the others you’ll have on in the background while making dinner.

Chile are champions, but also makers of memories. Whether it was a thumb in the bum, or lining up with three center backs, *ahem* three central midfielders in defense for the final. They were a footballing polaroid camera, small, determined winners creating instant feelings of nostalgia.

This was a team of pleasure and wonderful symmetry. A team inspiring the future of the international game. Hopefully her footballing ideals will spread far beyond her shores.


Parisian Dreams

A certain PSG striker is opening opportunities for young footballers in the U.S.

Paris. City of lights, seduction and world class strikers. Founded in 1970 PSG has a history of signing brilliant strikers. George Weah scored goals and a league title. Pauleta drank from the French Cup. And Ronaldinho…Ronnie came to town and began his European adventure, mesmerizing the masses with exotic touches and devilish free kicks, both on the pitch and in nightclubs.

A bit of Qatari pocket change parachuted in, allowing Ibrahimovic to strut through the door. A Uruguayan matador followed close behind. But PSG wasn’t done. They had another world class striker in mind. A shadow signing that glided past the press. A signing that has altered the career path for women footballers in the United States.

Lindsey Horan. A US striker and Colorado native signed with PSG, becoming the first US women’s player to shun the collegiate system and turn pro.

Horan’s talents offered her a scholarship to UNC, the La Masia for women’s football in the United States. UNC is the dream for all Tobin Heath, Mia Hamm postered rooms of adolescent soccer playing girls in the US. So when Horan turned down Anson and friends more than a few eyebrows curled. The system had been challenged.

The US has now won more Women’s World Cups than any other nation. It can’t be argued that the current infrastructure has yielded results. But a professional, year round European environment has plenty to teach a young player in terms of individual technique and football composure. Traits that most of our girls could still do with a bit of polish.

So far Horan hasn’t missed a lesson. She’s been imperious. Scoring with a blend of calm inside-of-the-foot corner pocket finishes, half volleys and tap-ins. She’s an impact player, PSG’s leading goal scorer and has been rewarded with a new two year deal.

An American striker dominating in Europe? That’s a national team lock, a spot in starting 11. Bizarrely not for Horan. Horan’s national team chances have been limited allegedly because she’s not poaching goals in the NWSL. PSG, despite it’s global footballing clout is far from the radar of US soccer’s decision makers.

Still, Horan has hacked away a new trail, erasing the idea of the collegiate environment being the only path to a professional career.

The next generation of women footballers may not flock overseas to begin their careers, but thanks to Horan at least they know it’s possible.


Hours Before a Final

Clock_IMG_2538Only hours remain before the United States and Japan play against each other in their third consecutive major final. Sure to break viewer records as the team that almost never loses takes on the team that both shattered and captured hearts 4 years ago. The two have split the previous meetings, including the last World Cup and Olympics.

Each has traveled their own path. Japan weaving and feinting their way through the rounds with a technical dexterity that sets the standard in the women’s game. The US willing themselves past each opponent with an impenetrable back four and a strategic shuffle inspired by suspension that saw Morgan Brian make like a grandmother before Christmas, knitting together both sides of the tactical sweater.

This US team has been praised and criticized, by some of their very own. Which is fine. Gone are the days where this team could do no wrong. Where an adoring press admired and fawned over powerful and lovely women dominating a sport they knew nothing about. The rest of the world, with fabled footballing legacies and fresh ambitions has caught up.

The women’s game continues to develop and grow. And this final is a reason to celebrate that growth. So let’s all tuck in with our families and watch a final to remember.