“Playing Forward” is a five-part report on 2010′s Street Soccer USA Cup, a 4 v 4 tournament contested between homeless or recently homeless soccer players and held in Washington, DC from July 30 to August 1. It is being printed here in advance of this year’s event, being played now in DC. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.
A note on the Russian team:
I’m too young to appreciate the Miracle on Ice. I’m familiar with the moment, the “Do you believe in miracles?!” call, the players skating frantically towards the celebration across ice that looked like windshield wiper fluid had been spilled on it, all that stuff, and I would never question it’s sporting or geopolitical importance. Trouble is, by the time I was old enough to process its meaning, that meaning had been driven into me so hard and so many times that the import of the moment was derived mostly from how important I’d been told this moment was. I still get goosebumps when I hear Al Michaels’ line, but they feel kind of phony, artificial.
I get far more emotionally invested in our nation’s other great sporting victory over the Soviet Union: Rocky Balboa’s Christmas Day knockout victory over Ivan Drago. It took me years to watch Rocky IVfrom start to finish, because as a small child I was terrified of Dolph Lundgren’s Soviet punching/killing machine.
I grew up in the early 90s — I’d seen people die in movies before — but something in either the way Apollo Creed hit the canvas stiff as a board or Drago’s stuttered “If he dies, he dies” indifference struck the same fearful chord in nine-year-old me as Jason Voorhees or that creepy looking guy from The Untouchables. Maybe my father or older brother did too good of a job explaining what a hell-of-a-guy Apollo was. Maybe Dolph Lundgren did too good of a job in the role of Drago. I’m not sure. But I do know that Ivan Drago is at fault for whatever bias against Russians I to this day possess.
So I balked a little bit when the Russian team received the biggest cheer during the tournament’s opening parade and ceremonies. At that point I didn’t know they were attending, and didn’t find out later until that they had come from St. Petersburg in search of good competition, which is apparently tough to find in their native country. Even then, before I’d even seen them in action, I scribbled in my notebook, “They’re going to destroy us.” And so they did. The 2010 Street Soccer USA Cup was won by the Russian team.
The problem with these Russians was that they were too nice to get worked up and properly xenophobic over. I tried to root against them, I really did. That’s probably not in keeping with the spirit of Street Soccer USA, but I didn’t care. I wanted to root for America, for someone to win it for the good old U.S of A. But the Russians were just so…gracious. They posed for pictures, signed balls and jerseys, talked with any participants or fans or writers who approached them and asked what I can only imagine were the same questions over and over again.
And they were good too, good but not great. I’m a little surprised they won it, to be honest, as in my judgment they seemed to be only the third or fourth-best team there. They played good, physical team defense, closing down on the opposition and denying them shooting chances that weren’t taken off the first touch quickly, but most of their offense came from just one player, a fast wingback-type with a deadly shot that he could put past keepers from any distance. I remember thinking on more than one occasion that it seemed like he qualified to participate in the tournament only because he was currently between contracts with Russian semi-professional teams.
The Russians’ final with San Francisco proved anti-climactic. The Montgomery County team they beat on penalties in the semi-final matched up better with them; MoCo had already beaten the Russians during the group stages of the tournament, and that game went to penalties too. San Francisco came back from 4-1 down to make it 4-3, but then Russia pulled away, scoring two quick goals to finish with a comfortable 6-3 win.
At the trophy presentation ceremony minutes later, half of the San Francisco team was already wearing Russia’s jerseys, and vice versa.
After accepting the trophy, Russia’s captain Arkady Tyurin took the microphone and told the crowd, “Football is joy. Football is responsibility. We have 220 years of age, and 44 years of sobriety.” This gets a big cheer, and I’m almost sure that I can hear Sacramento goalie Cris above all the other voices.
“We are lucky to be guests of the U.S.,” Tyurin continued, “And we are proud to make introduction of the United States championship San Francisco team.” He handed the trophy off to one of the San Francisco players, to a fresh round of spirited applause.
BACK TO POST
 I.E. not even alive.
 I feel the same way when I see the picture of the soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
 I realize I’m encroaching on Bill Simmons’ territory here.
 Played by, I kid you not, the actor Billy Drago.
 Also any number of video game bosses, including Ganon’s final form in the second NES Zelda game, the dragon at the end of the first Dr. Wily stage in Mega Man II, and, fittingly enough, Mike Tyson at the end of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.
 N.B. that I’m kidding. Kind of. My bias towards Russians is one of those jokes that I’ve told so often the line between the joke and the reality has blurred.
 This, I realize, may go a long way towards answering the question implied above.