Soccer is still a passport to world culture, but it’s also an American game

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The U.S. U20 Women's National Team celebrates its World Cup victory in Japan earlier this month. Morgan Brian (#6) is a sophomore midfielder at UVA. Photo: TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/GettyImages The U.S. U20 Women's National Team celebrates its World Cup victory in Japan earlier this month. Morgan Brian (#6) is a sophomore midfielder at UVA. Photo: TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/GettyImages

Before I fell in love with America, I fell in love with the rest of the world. I guess it had to do with growing up in Washington, D.C., a place full of people from everywhere else. I memorized the flags that hung outside the sandstone townhouses on Embassy Row. Hey mom, where’s Equatorial Guinea? I cruised Adams Morgan and Dupont, fixating on the exotic faces and accents. My mom worked at a British newspaper, so the family swapped houses with one of her colleagues for a few summers, and I learned how foreign you could feel in a place where they spoke the same language. Soccer, field manual for world citizenship, tied all of it together.

As a kid, I learned the sport from a combination of well-meaning Americans who treated it as an abstract youth coaching challenge—informed by basketball, and even in some cases, football—and foreigners who used a game they loved and understood as a meal ticket. One of my first (and still one of my favorite) coaches was a Ghanaian expat named Ozzie, who was purported to have played for his country’s full national team in the ’70s, even bragging that he had marked Pelé in a friendly game during the famous Africa tour. Over the course of my youth career, I had coaches from Iraq, Morocco, France, Holland, Congo, and Pakistan. In high school, I had my first licensed coach, who was from Jersey. Cue the recitation, like a dutiful kung fu student, of my coaching lineage: Manfred Schellscheidt, Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Steve Pfiel. The Jersey school. The grand masters.

This week’s feature is about UVA Women’s Soccer Coach Steve Swanson and his star player, Morgan Brian, who helped lead the U.S. to a FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup title earlier this month. As an editor, I can write about whatever I want, but it always feels like adding a whole new job to the one you’re doing. Stories like this make it worthwhile. You can tell the UVA women are well-coached just by watching them closely in warm up, but seeing Swanson with his players in practice is a lesson in what a coach should be. A voice of positivity, structure, and wisdom. Someone who sets the bar high, holds it steady, and takes care that everyone who works hard gets over. I still have to pinch myself that it takes me 15 minutes and $8 to get a seat at Klockner for a men’s or women’s game that proves, beyond all shadow of a doubt, that the world’s sport is ours now too.—Giles Morris

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