This was an otherwise normal, July Tuesday afternoon in the Jackson area, meaning you could break a sweat walking out and cranking your car and then see the heat devils rise off the streets as you drove. It was the kind of day when you pray for rain or air conditioning or both.
It was air conditioning – and a cold beer or three – my brother and I found at a Buffalo Wild Wings out Lakeland Drive in Flowood. It was nearly 2 p.m. The parking lot was packed. I am told the scene was repeated in sports bars and taverns across the area.
Inside, the air conditioning was glorious and so was the festive atmosphere. Red, white and blue was everywhere. People of all ages waved little American flags. Some wore Team USA jerseys. Of the seemingly 200 TVs in the place all but three were tuned to World Cup Soccer. The others played Super Bowl reruns.
We took a table near the back, where a big, red Mississippi Soccer Association banner adorned the wall next to one of the 60-inch TVs. Four or five grown-ups were surrounded by many more kids and all eyes were on the TVs and the World Cup soccer match between the U.S. women and England across The Pond in Lyon, France. They were – and I mean this – INTO IT.
Early on, there was much concern because the U.S. team’s star, Megan Rapinoe, she of the pink hair and outspoken views of President Trump, was on the sidelines. Later we were told Rapinoe, who had scored all four goals in the two immediately previous U.S. victories, had suffered a slight hamstring strain in the quarterfinal victory over host France.
Not to worry, Rapinoe’s replacement, Christen Press, scored on a header in only the game’s 10th minute to give the Americans a 1-0 lead and give the patrons reason to begin a chant: “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”
During a pause I asked one of the restaurant’s managers about the normal business on a Tuesday afternoon. “Nothing like this,” Jesus Roman replied, smiling. “This is like a big football weekend.” This was like the Super Bowl or an SEC football Saturday – only with more kids and without divided loyalties. There may have been someone present pulling for the British. If so, they hid it well.
This column should come with a disclaimer. I am nowhere near an expert on soccer. In my hometown of Hattiesburg in the ’50s and ’60s, we didn’t play the sport and saw it played only once every few years on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Occasionally, we would see the Latin American exchange students at Southern Miss play a pickup game on one of the intramural fields. Once, when I was 9 or 10, a soccer ball flew my way on the sidelines. Naturally, I tried to “head” it back toward the field. It nearly knocked me out.
I have written about the sport infrequently over the years, covered a state championship high school match or two, and wrote from Biloxi on last year’s men’s World Cup final match when France defeated Croatia, much to the dismay of a couple hundred Croatian-Americans at the Croatian-American Cultural Center.
Gradually, over the years, I have come to at least comprehend the sport, including what constitutes “offsides.” As surely everyone who watches, I am amazed by the speed and footwork of the men and women who play it at world-class level. Example: Early in the match Tuesday, Rose Lavell, who probably can eat with her feet, somehow dribbled the ball through the legs of a British defender, then went around her for a shot on goal that England’s goalkeeper alertly stopped. I did not know such a marvelous move is called a “nutmeg.” I am still learning.
One facet that has irritated me about the sport is the rampant “flopping” – that is players faking falls and injuries, hoping to get a call from the referees. Tuesday, I even joined the cheers when one of England’s players received a yellow card for an obvious flop. Good for soccer, good for the ref.
Turns out, Kay Bouler, executive director of the Mississippi Soccer Association (MSA), was seated at the next table and able to answer some of my questions, while asking one herself: “Isn’t this just great?” She said her organization will not miss a chance to promote the sport – at any level.
“About 21,000,” she answered when asked how many Mississippi kids play in MSA-sanctioned program and leagues.
At another table nearby, nursing student Larissa Wilks, wearing her Team USA jersey, worked on her schoolwork intermittently while glancing up at the TV every time the crowd responded to a play. Near the match’s conclusion, she wisely put aside the notebook and concentrated on the match.
Ah, the match: England tied the score at 1-1 and then the U.S. regained the lead at 2-1. England appeared to tie the score at 2-2 but, after a replay, the goals was waved off for offsides. My brother called it before the replay. “She was offsides!” he hollered. “Show the replay!”
She was indeed. My brother, Bobby: hunting, fishing, football and, now, soccer expert.
The match’s most important moment came in the 84th minute when England lined up for a penalty kick and U.S. goalie Alyssa Naeher, seizing the moment, dove to her right to smother the ball and protect the 2-1 lead.
Chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” began again.
And the chants resumed when the game ended and the U.S. players rushed the field to swarm Naeher, the hero. It was wonderful theatre and terrific entertainment – for a brutally hot mid-Mississippi Tuesday afternoon.