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June 20, 2016

Why I'm not rooting for the US soccer team on Tuesday

Call me a traitor if you will, but Lionel Messi fandom transcends national victory in my mind

When it comes to sports allegiances, I’m a strange bird.

Sure, I’m a Flyers and Sixers fan. That’s what happens when you’re born just in time for a pair of Stanley Cup parades and when Dr. J, Sir Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson take the court in the name of your region. But when it comes to the Phillies and Eagles, well, that’s where it gets a little trickier.

In many cases, I have an enlightened defect of rooting for player over team.

Ryne Sandberg getting traded when I was a Little League second baseman, well, that turned me into a Cubs fan. (And yes, this is finally the year.)

John Elway’s trail of suffering through Super Bowl blowouts en route to late-career redemption, well, that’s why I hearken back to 13-year-old me getting heckled for sporting orange in the 700 Level when I root against the Birds every few years.

Most people don’t get it. Which is fine. I don’t get the whole manufactured sports-talk pride in being a “4 for 4” guy or gal. Geography shouldn’t define your sporting allegiances; your heart should. Most players aren’t from here; they just work here.

All of which brings us to the topic at hand: Tuesday night’s Copa America Centenario semifinal matchup between the United States men’s national soccer team and Argentina, which just happens to have a roster featuring the best player in the history of the sport, Lionel Messi. 

Messi’s side is a clear favorite, despite taking on a momentum-fueled host team that, dare I say, looks better than it's looked in years.

Some would deem a U.S. victory in this match to be the biggest in national history. In reality, it’d receive the bronze medal behind the 1950 World Cup win over England and the 2009 Confederation Cup victory over a seemingly unstoppable Spanish side. Both were flukes – just like a U.S. win on Tuesday would be – but the stages were bigger (though marginally so in the 2009 tilt).

Make no mistake about it: Beating Messi et al would be nothing short of a coup for the sport in a country that tries to relegate it to also-ran status.

The confidence it would give kids – like, for instance, the under-six side I coach in East Falls – would be monumental. It would put the U.S. side in the “teams that could make a deeper run in the 2018 World Cup” category. It would grab international headlines in a greater fashion that those written when older players flee better leagues in Europe to play against the Union in Major League Soccer.

All of the above would be great things. 

They are things I would normally want to see happen. They are things that would be great for my favorite sport in the nation where I hold citizenship. Heck, look at this tweet from the USMNT match in Philly earlier this month.

I love me some American futbol.

But what a USMNT win on Tuesday wouldn’t be great for is my (and my son Louden’s) favorite soccer player of all time, the previously aforementioned greatest-ever Messi who does things with a soccer ball that Pixar animators would have trouble replicating. 

See below:

Seriously, dude is super-human. Soccer haters better recognize that Messi is not one of those players who dive. Nope, he stays on his feet or bounces right back up because he doesn’t care about getting cheap calls or appearances. Scoring/assisting goals and winning matches is his M.O.

He continues to rewrite record books on the regular, and he doesn’t even turn 29 until Friday.

I won’t weight this piece down with his life story about overcoming a growth hormone deficiency as a child and cultivating such skill that FC Barcelona moved he and his family to Spain from Argentina when he was just 13. (That’s what documentaries are for, anyway.) That would be too maudlin.

But here’s the thing about Messi: Since he went to Spain at such a young age, some Argentines don’t fully embrace him as their own. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the national team doesn’t fare all that well in international competitions under his captaincy.

Sure, it's been to five World Cup finals, but it hasn’t won since 1986. And, just two years ago, a failed Messi free kick late in the 2014 World Cup title match left me storming out of the bar with unkind words about the German people.

It is the proverbial albatross dangling around Messi’s reputational neck, a glitch in an otherwise stellar record. And, quite frankly, I’ve had enough of having it thrown back at me when playing the Messi vs. Pele vs. Diego Maradona game.

Just like how a Copa America Centenario title would be amazing for stateside soccer (real talk, though: they wouldn’t get past Chile in a potential final), to my fandom-mind’s eye, it’s even bigger for Messi.

It would serve as final confirmation that this little guy emerged from Rosario, Argentina wholly redefined the biggest sport on the globe. Sure, a Copa title doesn’t come close to a World Cup trophy, but it’s a start that extricates that lingering criticism from the conversation.

Would I be upset if the U.S. won? Maybe for a little while because I’d know it meant another couple years of Messi (and by default, me in soccer conversations) having to fend off these annoying criticisms.

Would I run outside, sporting my Messi kit, banging pots and pans if Argentina won the Copa? If I’m not at the Meadowlands watching it, yeah, probably. After all, because my son's had the opportunity to watch so many of his matches he's a vastly superior player at 6 years old than I was at 10. So there is a personal element to all this as well.

If I might adulterate the U.S. Marine Corps motto for explanatory purposes, when it comes to soccer, I’m for God (#D10S) and Corps (Barcelona/Argentina, though I'd root for the Philadelphia Union to beat both) over my country, but only for this single match.

So, I apologize in advance, America. 

Once Messi has this noteworthy international trophy, you can win the rest of them as many times as you want. But until then, here's hoping Messi drops five goals against the USMNT in Houston and leaves people wondering why they even let some people play on the same field as him.