It's 7:30 the evening before the tournament, and at the Radisson bar near the Minneapolis suburb of Blaine, Minn., many of the parents are already stiff.
Which would be fine if we did not have a responsibility tonight, but we do.
No, it's not "parenting" our soccer girls, who we glimpse only occasionally, zooming past on scooters they have found in the bushes and paid for on their phones that are hooked up to our bank accounts, and sucking. Far from monitoring our drinking, the girls will regard us for the duration of the tournament as hangers-on, to be graciously acknowledged at accidental elevator encounters, long enough to sign an autograph, as if we are dubiously claiming to be their biggest fan.
It's like being invisible, being a parent at a teenage soccer tournament, and that is like being free.
No, our responsibility is memorizing the names of all the parents and kids on this ersatz all-star team we've brought from Chicago. Because goddamnit, I will not spend another week on the sidelines as I spent this week last year at this tournament, pretending to know who belongs to whom, and being pretended to. That's why I'm filling the flimsy Radisson notepads, scribbling down the names of the 15 sets of parents and girls.
"Target USA CUP is the greatest youth soccer experience in the World," reads the website. "In 2019, we welcome 1,152 teams from 22 U.S. states and 20 countries."
And for the same reason, Target USA CUP is the worst parent soccer experience in the World.
The first game is tomorrow, at noon.
The opening ceremony is tomorrow evening, at seven.
In between, we're at the Radisson, whose balky elevator, broken ice machines, leaking ceilings and ever-gathering inadequacies the overwhelmed staff does an incredibly, inexplicably great job of overcoming, with oblivious Minnesota cheer.
There may come a moment in the course of the four or more games our girls will play this week when they can take inspiration from the Radisson hotel staff.
There may come a moment when their parents can, too.
* I’m informed that there were no rental scooters last night, only complementary bicycles. What part of “gonzo” did you not understand?
Everybody knows this travel soccer phenomenon is FUBAR, American style. I’m not writing a book, so I’ll write a sentence: Over the last couple decades, a lot of former college soccer players who want to make their living coaching soccer have combined with a lot of waterhead parents who want to believe their kids will earn soccer scholarships to create a multi-million dollar “travel soccer” economy that keeps the soccer coaches marginally employed, gives the waterheads hope and excludes working-class children entirely.
Of all that bullshit, this tournament is the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, its interminable opening ceremony, with 16,000 children filing onto a field, is deceptively beautiful. (Click on photo.)
No, actually beautiful.
More beautiful than our first game, which saw our right forward on the sideline with an ankle injury, our striker carted off with a knee injury, and our left forward, my daughter, gasping and heaving from a combination of dehydration and overwrought frustration during a 3-1 opening loss to a more cohesive club team from Minnesota.
Which was especially disappointing to this team. Though cobbled together from several Chicago club teams, these girls spent the last week in Eau Claire, Wis., at a soccer camp and athletic encounter group put on by their deeply charismatic coach, a shamanic priest of a man named J.D. Jones. Of J.D., the girls say things like, "I think he is the best person I have ever known." (J.D. at right, below, talking lineups with Karen Nicol, the soccer supermom who wrangled much of this project together.)
At the camp, the girls were safely and blissfully away from the endless raggedy half-toxic high school social media maw, ensconced with one another within the context of a game they all love. "I don't even want to look at my phone," Scout said with astonishment on the drive from Eau Claire to Minneapolis. The kids didn't get a lot of sleep while they were up there, but their normally nerve-jangled parents never slept better.
So there's that.
And then there's the lobby drinking, which for those of us who do it, is pretty intense.
What are we drinking for, aside of relieving the awkwardness of meeting quirky grown-ups for the first time, none of whom will ever divulge the real reason they're here (see waterheads and soccer scholarships, above)?
We're drinking because it's fun to drink.
We're drinking because it's fun to drink in hotel lobbies.
We're drinking because it's fun to drink in hotel lobbies out of Solo cups.
We're drinking because it's fun to drink in hotel lobbies out of Solo cups with people you know you'll only ever know casually. (It feels like college, in the dorms.)
And we're drinking because we are all sad—and we all know we share this deep and deepening grief, though it's rarely spoken directly—that our little girls aren't our little girls anymore.
Tonight I took the Radisson's one working elevator up at 1:30, and the lobby party wasn't over yet.
This afternoon's opponent is from Canada, the only international squad in our bracket group.
We'd better begin hydrating now—all of us.
These Radisson employees must have had their training on the RMS Titanic. Yes sir, I can get you a bourbon just as soon as I lower this lifeboat. Would you like ice with that?
I’m coming to love these doomed heroes, who show us to the maid’s elevator when the main ones are out, who cheerfully hand over bags of ice because our the sixth-floor machine is not in fact broken but missing, and who do not police our lobby drinking, or even tell us to keep it down.
So kindly and hard-working are the Radisson employees, that guests become involved in sort of a cooperative spirit. The rooms don’t have refrigerators, so you have to ask. One of our players, sensing the hotel staff’s lack of manpower—at any given time, the bartender Lisa is also waiting tables in the restaurant across the hall and we wouldn’t be surprised if she was washing dishes, too—took it upon herself to take the stairwell into the bowels of the building, load a mini-fridge on a dolly, and deliver it to her room. (Filming the caper, of course, for Instagram.)
I’ve stayed at the Ritz Carlton, and let me tell you—it is no Minnesota Radisson. And it was with the Radisson crew in mind that I gave my daughter, wherever she was before today's game against a team from Toronto, a pregame text: "Stay positive and relentless no matter what happens."
After a mostly inept first half, the team came out with renewed energy in the second, and my daughter had two assists in a 2-0 victory. With a win tomorrow, they'll likely advance into the playoff brackets.
Meanwhile, I've identified the parents who I can stand—and methods for enduring the parents I can't—and several girls for whom I feel sufficient avuncular fondness to tell them shaggy dog stories like the one about my sixty-something friend Paul, who's summer activity when he was exactly their age was hitchhiking around New England. That story was inspired by the big harvest moon the other night and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, coming up. You see, the day Paul and his friend returned from their adventure, they expected an enthusiastic reception. But their families were occupied watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. "Hey, pull up a chair, Paul!"
"I could never go hitchhiking," the goalie said in amazement.
This afternoon our team came back from a 2-0 deficit, but the effort was deemed unsatisfactory. By the parents, viewing from our lawn chairs.
To find out how fucked up is the whole travel soccer phenomenon, be on the sideline for a bad game.
The heretofore positive, supportive parents decide within moments of the first goal scored against our girls that the referees are at once blind and biased, the coaches have not the foggiest idea what they’re doing, the team has no chemistry nor leadership and the players have neither the skill nor the desire to compete, as the phrase inevitably goes, “at this level."
In our mob narcissism, the opposing team never gets any credit for their exceptional play or effort—the very credit we give to all our girls after a victory—and it never occurs to any of us that teenage girls bring varying energy and differing moods on different days. (As do NFL football teams and NBA basketball teams, we forget.)
And of course we also forget that none of it matters a goddamn anyway.
Inevitably, the grumbling begins about how far we've driven, how much time we've taken off work and how much we've spent to have the girls perform this way.
Luckily, I think the girls are spared from some of this utterly bogus energy—but surely nowhere close to all of it.
What, for the love of God, is wrong with us?
Every parent should receive this as a pre-game pep talk before every game (and at halftime).
Our resentment at our girls' tardy heroism was cut, happily, by another game our parents and players attended here immediately after. A younger girls team from Chicago played a team from Liberia, in the stadium on these grounds. The stands were filled with many hundreds of Liberians, who, a little research told us, number about 35,000 in suburban Minneapolis.
The Chicago team went ahead early, but when the Liberians tied it and then took the lead, their crowd was ebullient, and we were rooting for them, too. And everyone also appreciated the effort of the outclassed but spirited Chicago girls.
And when the Liberian girls won, the whole team ran over to the stands and danced for their adoring fans, to an African drummer.
And, in this week when the president spoke of sending some Americans back to where they came from, a few of the Chicago parents noticed their eyes filling with tears.
And the lobby beers were joyful tonight, in happy anticipation of tomorrow morning, when the single-elimination portion of the tournament commences, with an 11:00 a.m. game against another Minnesota club.
A spirited effort in the morning earned our club a 3-1 victory. After a Panera lunch and a rest at the hotel, back to the fields for a 5:00 game in a hot wind, against a club from Edina, Minn., that, the sideline whispers said, as its own stadium with a Jumbotron screen.
At the end of regulation, the game was tied 2-2, and went to penalty kicks. Each team made its first eight. Their goalie stopped our ninth, and the game was over—and, for us, the tournament, too.
But later that evening, a complete emotional recovery …
… though Coach J.D. Jones fell into a deep slumber sitting up in the lobby, hugging in his lap, the soccer ball the girls had signed and given to him.
And on Saturday morning, a long, rainy and quiet ride back to a disorienting reality wherein we weren't just actually at the World Cup, where there would be no ticker tape parade in New York and no appearances on Anderson Cooper 360. And where, as I had to actually declare to Scout at one point this week, "I am not just the jagoff who drives you around!"
"Seeing the bond that these girls from seven different teams developed over the 12 days has been more than I could have hoped for," parent organizer Karen Nicol wrote in a note to all the parents who will inevitably all agree. Her daughter, she said, "has had many years under JD’s guidance, and I’ve never known someone to impact her life the way he does. The knowledge, guidance, mentorship and most of all friendship he gives to her warms my soul. Helping JD put this together is my way of making sure he gets shared around to have that impact on other young girls, so that their knowledge of self and belief that they can do anything together becomes unquestionable. From what I saw over these 12 days, he has left a mark on all 17 girls that will forever stay with them. And that is why I do this year after year."
However decadent, depraved they may be—these are the good old days.