“Now take Payson for example. He’s not an athlete.”
Bob Ward, my high school’s athletic director who to my misfortune was also my Bible teacher, was pontificating on the topic of nature versus nurture. He explained to us how our talents were not the result of good genes or thousands of hours of practice, but rather divine inspiration. He’d chosen me as his proof point because he’d just seen me play piano.
Like any southern ex-football coach worth his salt, Mr. Ward pronounced “athlete” with three syllables — “ath-uh-lete” — before adding: “God gave Payson the ability to play music, not sports, and that’s ok.”
I was captain of the soccer team at the time. And we were playing our archrival that night.
I thought of this incident when I heard the news that the U.S. will likely host the tournament again in 2026, this time with Mexico and Canada. My son and daughter will be around the same age as I was when World Cup ’94 came through the U.S., a couple years before I was on the receiving end of this Bob Ward anti-soccer micro aggression.
By the time the ‘26 tournament arrives, my kids will have grown up with a completely different soccer experience. They won’t have dealt with the long list of indignities that us young soccer players and fans have, until fairly recently, had to endure.
Stale jokes, petty insults, and uniformed opinions abounded at the time — “soccer’s not a real sport…it’s so boring and there’s not enough scoring…since it has no commercial breaks, it will never succeed on TV” — but that was only part of the experience.
As our friends enjoyed well-manicured football fields and baseball diamonds, we often played on what would more accurately described as a patch of dirt surrounded by weeds. Even when we lucked out with good surface, we were usually on a flood plain, leaving us to play through puddles after heavy rains.
Our referees had little first-hand experience with the game, leaving us to shake off crunching fouls and missed offside calls. Coaches hadn’t watched many games, let alone played any, and whatever tips they did offer could have applied to any sport. “Good hustle,” “tackle him,” and “shoot” were the most common pieces of advice.
I was lucky enough to have a great coach named Caleb when I was a preteen. He brought the experience and knowledge you’d expect in a quality youth coach today, but at that time it was rare to find someone who could teach proper physical training, foot skills, and tactical awareness.
Caleb was a talented professional soccer player who’d been born a decade or so too soon. He turned down a college soccer scholarship to play professionally for the NASL’s San Diego Sockers in 1984, but the NASL folded that year after he’d only played 6 games. The U.S. wouldn’t have another top-tier professional league until MLS launched around the time he retired. Caleb spent his career rotating among teams in an alphabet soup of leagues: the MISL, AISA, USISL, and the A-League.
Had his timing been better, I’m sure he could have made a good living playing in MLS. Instead he played professionally part-time, sold soccer equipment as a Diadora sales rep, and somehow found time to coach us at night and on weekends. I admired Caleb. I still think back to the lessons he taught me about perseverance, toughness, and the beauty of one and two-touch soccer played well. But never did I think to myself, “I want to be a professional soccer player like him.” He had three jobs and was busy raising a family, a good life by any measure, but a far cry from the glamorous ones enjoyed by other pro athletes.
While I’d watched the holy trinity of American sports — football, baseball, and basketball — dozens of times in person, it wasn’t until the ’94 World Cup, when my parents took me to Orlando for the group stage, that I was in the stands for a top-level soccer match. The Atlanta Chiefs had folded for good the year before I was born, and though MLS started up after the Cup, I’d have to wait 20 years before Atlanta finally got a team.
I don’t even think I’d ever watched a full match on television. My first memory of watching soccer on TV involves my dad doing his Andres Cantor impression (Dad: “Goooooooooooooooal!” Me: “Dad, please stop.”) since Univision was usually the only channel that showed the sport at all.
Caleb sometimes popped a tape into the VCR to show us highlights from previous World Cups. But looking back, our video sessions had the feel of a found footage festival. During those brief viewings, it felt like we were were being exposed to something rare, something only die-hard fans would seek out and buy.
Everything is different for my kids and their generation.
Soccer is competing with hockey as the nation’s fourth sport, and even the haters have to admit it’s only growing in popularity. Not all their coaches will be great, but at least they will have grown up playing the sport. New soccer-focused complexes have sprouted up across metro Atlanta, with acres of immaculate green fields.
My kids can can turn on SportsCenter and see soccer highlights, albeit at the tail end end of the show. The US Men’s and Women’s National Teams are often featured on ESPN and Fox Sports. On weekends, my kids are exposed to a steady dose of soccer viewing, with Premier League in the mornings, Bundesliga in the afternoons, and MLS in the evenings. With Atlanta United, they’ll have their own team to see in person and players to idolize and emulate as they grow.
And if they play in high school, they won’t have to worry about their athletic director being as willfully ignorant as the Bob Wards of the world once were about the game.