by Jeff Laughlin

Every World Cup season arrives with two guarantees: I have no idea who will win and I am drastically ill prepared to talk about soccer.

It’s not entirely my own fault: I grew up in a household that featured my father regularly calling attention to the sport’s flaws. Anything that could be wrong with a sport, he claimed soccer had in spades. Flopping, long breaks for fake injuries, low-scoring, low-drama, terrible haircuts — my father used every excuse to miss a match.

“I love watching soccer. It’s a great chance for a 90-minute nap,” he’d say to fans who riled him up.

Guiltily, I would watch matches from time to time. Soccer fascinated me on a purely jingoistic level. I don’t care if they’re sorting legal affidavits — if they pit an American uniform against any other country, I’m going to watch and I’m going to scream at the screen if “we” lose.

Obviously, I do a lot of screaming during the World Cup since America has never won. That doesn’t take away from the pageantry or the significant skill level it takes put a team through qualifying while forming their chemistry and make-up along the way. Nor does it rob the event of worldwide support.

While memorizing facts or listening to arguments about Landon Donovan might prepare me for conversation about this year’s US team, I still feel cheap just knowing the numbers. Even watching friendlies and qualifiers could not prepare me. I needed to see a match in person — something I had never done.

As a warm-up to this year’s World Cup, the Carolina Dynamo headlined FutbolFest — an opportunity for the Triad community to watch games at many levels during a full-day celebration. Of course, the level of skill and dexterity differed from the cup, but seeing a game live meant more than traveling to an exotic destination or going to a larger city to see an MLS team. I needed the root level of the game — where no European or South American advantages could destroy my enjoyment. Greensboro-based Carolina played Louisville — the River City Rovers — on a perfect night at Macpherson Stadium in Brown Summit. Southern America versus Southern America; no advantage there.

Mike, one of my “soccer expert” friends, accompanied me to explain some of the finer points. I had missed a lot growing up under house rules, so I thought a pro game with a fanatic might get me more involved.[pullquote]I had a real chance to leave my first professional game without having seen a goal.[/pullquote]

Problematically, neither of us could understand what formations the teams were using. I’m no expert on the matter, but Mike definitely knew more than I did and he could not understand either team’s use of its players. I suppose that’s all part of the disorganization of semi-pro ball.

That said, one thing was certain: The Dynamo played way better than the Rovers through the first half. Despite a 0-0 score, they had put pressure on the Rovers defense — unidentifiable as it looked — and gotten some real chances. Travis Wannemuehler had one opportunity that went wide right only 6 minutes into the match.

The Dynamo continued to overmatch their opponent. They boasted a 5-1 advantage in shots on goal — the one Rovers shot being an underwhelming try. The defense got very little workout early, allowing the offense to pressure Louisville and hope for mistakes.

The second half began as more of the same — a one-sided possession game for Carolina. Amassing an 8-1 lead on shots, the match began to feel like one of those unfair draws that soccer lends itself to. The sport does not always reward the best team with a win and, despite the obvious lopsided time-of-possession numbers, River City had a real chance to sneak out of Greensboro with points.

And I had a real chance to leave my first professional game without having seen a goal.

While attacking from the wings, Carolina had an obvious speed disadvantage. Any chances for a breakaway dissipated when River City caught up to the slower offensive players.

Two substitutions changed the game entirely. Coach Steve Diamond went with the faster Caue Da Silva and Brandt Bronico in the 57th and 66th minutes. Both of them attacked the weaker Louisville defense immediately with moves that got the crowd involved.

Even Mike and I, he reserved and I of little knowledge, knew that the Dynamo’s advantage would have to pay off. In the 71st minute, Da Silva scored off of a pass form Bronico — the two reserves came through with their natural advantages.

After seeing around six near-misses, the reward of seeing a live goal felt pretty tremendous. Even Da Silva’s devastating ankle injury in the 84th minute could not take away from the thrill of his score.

River City couldn’t muster another shot and the Dynamo won 1-0. Now ready for the most exhilarating tournament the sport had to offer, I exited Macpherson Stadium without guilt. I had eaten the forbidden fruit and felt justified to spend the next couple of weeks screaming feebly at my television set.

Even if I still don’t know exactly what I am yelling about.

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