The joy of mediocrity

In The Age of Football, David Goldblatt observes one of the charms of watching the USMNT play is the undermining of American exceptionalism. Or, rather, he posts that part of the fun is watching a US team play a sport that originated elsewhere and at which we can’t claim even a level of equality, much less superiority, on the world stage. In short, we know we are just one country of many trying to excel but flailing about.

I’ve been thinking about this over the past several weeks as a friend of mine writes me during every international break to ask if he can borrow some of my confidence in the US Men’s team, as he worries about us failing again to get through to the World Cup. It’s not even that I’m particularly bullish about this team. I simply look at the schedule, the other teams, and I think, “Well, logically, we should end up in the top three,” and I don’t worry much beyond that. I could be wrong, of course, as we could stumble in one more game and find ourselves in great trouble. That said, we could also perform better than I expect and come out of this very comfortably.

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Nonetheless, I’m ok with whatever outcome we have because, while I love watching the World Cup as much as anyone, I don’t have any expectations that the US will even make it past the group stage unless we have a pretty favorable draw. We are simply not at that level. We have a great deal of talent on the pitch, to be sure, but most of these players won’t even be peaking for another 4-8 years.

But, more than that—and this is where I think Goldblatt may be onto something—at least for some of us, there is something exciting about pulling for the US as an underdog, in a big time professional sport. I never enjoyed pulling for the basketball dream teams because they felt like they should win. Losing would be a complete failure. With men’s soccer (certainly as opposed to the USWNT), America is just one country of many. Not exceptional, with low expectations.

Going further, and tying this to another student of the game, Laurent Dubois, in The Language of the Game, observes that it is during USMNT and USWNT matches that you can find people who would never show a jingoist streak in any other phase of their life, wearing the countries colors and shouting their “USA” chants at the top of their lungs. For some, including me, supporting the US teams is almost the only area where I can feel properly jingoistic. 

And for me, that’s mostly the case, I believe, because the men are simply unexceptional (so far? Right now?). I’m not as nervous when they play because my expectations are low; I can be as “Rah Rah America” as I wish because I know that, ultimately, it’s a jingoism that is doomed.

While I realize that the joys I take are different than those of others, I have to say that I’ve enjoyed the last two weeks—cheering in Columbus, then watching the subsequent games with crowds of others wearing red, white and blue—in a more relaxed manner than I will, or can, while I saddle up to gear up to support Chelsea and Nashville SC, both teams for which I expect great things.

Sometimes the expectation of (just a little better than) mediocrity allows a whole different type of pleasure.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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