Guest Column: Celebrate your ethnicity — but support the USMNT

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

By NICK CHAVEZ (@NickChavezMLS)
Guest Columnist

There’s no rule that says you can’t support more than one national soccer team, especially in the cultural melting pot that is the United States of America.

Nevertheless, by the way some Americans neglect the U.S. National Team for the team of their ethnic nationality, you’d think there was.

We’ve seen it for years; many born-and-raised Americans of foreign descent proudly sporting the national jerseys of their ancestors while ignoring the games and pride associated with their very own country during World Cup and qualifying.

I used to be no different.

As the son of a Costa Rican immigrant, I was always taught by my Tico side of the family to be proud of my heritage.  It really became a big part of my identity — so much so that in 2001, when Costa Rica became the first ever team to defeat Mexico in its famous fortress Azteca Stadium in a World Cup Qualifying match, La Selección de Costa Rica actually made me a fan of the sport of soccer for the first time. I’ve been hooked ever since.  They would go on to qualify for the tournament shortly there after.

After that World Cup, I became immersed.  I transformed into a big supporter of Real Madrid, though I didn’t think much (if at all) about US Soccer — or Major League Soccer for that matter. Costa Rica matches meant everything to me, but US Soccer matches barely registered a blip on my radar.

That changed in 2005, a bit before the 2006 World Cup.

Now, looking back, I wonder how I could’ve possibly been so indifferent to the national team of my very own country, especially considering how passionate I am about it now. Upon further reflection, it seems that it was because we, as Americans, frequently identify ourselves by our ethnicity while ignoring our actual nationality: being American. We often seem to treat our country as a just a place we live while we carry on being Costa Rican, Italian, Portuguese, etc. as if we’re some English-speaking diplomats from these nations abroad.  That, of course, is the beauty of America — but it is also an unforeseen obstacle many ethnic families hurdle to become fans of the U.S. National Team.

I would tell people, “I am Costa Rican.” I’ve heard Italian-Americans frequently say, “I’m Italian”, and so on. But, when you spend enough time away from your country in the nation of your ethnicity, you really begin to realize that you frequently share little in common with countries of your ethnicity besides similar genes, some shared dishes, and sometimes, a second language.

I actually lived in Costa Rica for six months after that World Cup, and as much as I absolutely love the country and its people, I quickly learned just how “American” I was. Right off the bat upon visiting there, I told my cousins and some new friends, “I’m Costa Rican”, and they were quick to inform me, “No you’re not, man… you’re Gringo” (Which, by the way is not a derogatory or racist term in Latin America, but only a nickname for people, of any race or color, that are North American). One of my Tico cousins even went as far as to call me a “paquete Tico” (Fake Costa Rican) — jokingly of course.

Needless to say, there is nothing “fake” about what I feel when donning the Tico shirt and cheering them on from afar — but I digress.

This is a uniquely American problem when it comes to garnering grassroots soccer support; our own citizens, born and raised, are often only loyal and supportive to their respective national teams abroad than to their very own country. It’s an obstacle that keeps US Soccer (and our nation’s own Major League Soccer) from seeing the full potential that it can in the form of TV ratings, merchandise bought, tickets sold, general excitement, media coverage, and a true “sense of importance.”  These benefits that we are deprived of would really improve the infrastructure, create an even bigger demand for better coaching and academies, develop the soccer culture, and engender increased popularity and awareness in our country, which can quickly transform our improving National Soccer program to become one that can, eventually, really become a favorite to win the World Cup … in our lifetime.

In essence, the United States of America isn’t just fighting against every other nation in the World Cup; it’s also trying to win over its own citizens as well.

Playing Portugal on Sunday, many US fans will be supporting their actual home nation, but they will have many of their own Portuguese, American-born and raised friends and family wearing Portuguese national team shirts screaming at the television hoping that Portugal routs our US Men’s National Team.  They will be rallying against the men whom they have far more in common with while supporting a team with whom they share similar DNA, perhaps a second language and a few ethnic dishes to boot.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand where that passion and loyalty comes from, but here’s my petition: give your loyalty to both sides.  Follow your beloved foreign team representing as I still proudly support my Costa Rica, but also support the team of your home nation — especially when their interests don’t conflict. Don’t neglect your fellow countrymen, Americans just like you and I, who need the support arguably more than any other nation in the world. Let us stop being the only country where such a large percentage of its soccer fans support teams that do not represent their actual country.

Imagine the potential we can realize if all soccer fans in America put forth their support for our team?  All of the resources that support can produce for our soccer program, as well as the paradigm shift that could create for our American Sports culture as a whole? Consider all of the young athletes and children it would inspire to truly dedicate themselves to mastering the beautiful game at the highest standard. Imagine how quickly that can accelerate the process of improving American soccer, making the game truly “big” here?

Any person who makes their living in America, who calls this country home, even if they were born-and-raised somewhere else — we welcome your support. You’re as American as much as anyone else — and this is your team.

Join us in celebrating our country in the most important sporting event in the world. We’ve been missing you. And it’s never too late.