There's a long uphill road for US Soccer to reach the heights it strives for, but a few have been faithful travelers on that journey.By Andrea Canales
The American who impressed me the most at the first World Cup I covered - the 2005 U17 version in Peru - never stepped onto the field.
He never stood on the sideline, either.
Instead, he was up in the stands.
Yes, he was just a fan.
He wasn't, however, an American who happened to be living in Peru, or there on business. He was from Texas, if I remember correctly.
He was a fan who bought a ticket to travel to South America to see the youngest players representing the United States.
Believe me, he was an oddity. Of course, there were Americans at the game - a few tourists and the parents of the players, but fans flying in from the States for games? Taking little chartered flights to far-flung stadiums in small towns like Chiclayo in Peru? He was the only one, as far as I could tell.
"I had some time off," he told me, "I'd saved up a little money, and thought this would be a cool thing to do."
Going to those games meant he saw Jozy Altidore play when Jozy was only 15 and still 5-foot something. That fan saw Neven Subotic playing in a USA uniform, saw Omar Gonzales as a forward, saw a young Amechi Igwe, Jeremy Hall, Kevin Alston, Preston Zimmerman, and Brian Perk.
"That matters to me," he said, "To be there at the start of the next generation for the US - I want to go to the World Cup one day and see some of these guys there and remember back to when I first saw them."
I pointed out that many of the players at the starting national team age levels don't continue that progression.
He reminded me that some do.
He shrugged. "I like seeing for myself that someone is a good player, not reading it somewhere."
I asked him if it got lonely, being the only American in the cheering section sometimes.
He smiled. "Well, I end up sitting with the parents of the players a lot, because they want to meet me and thank me for supporting their kids. Besides, some of my friends are U.S. Soccer fans - they just couldn't make this trip."
I asked him what he thought of Project 2010 - the goal US Soccer had set to be a contender for the World Cup that year.
My tone in the question must have betrayed my skepticism, because he got a bit defiant.
"Why not have lofty ambitions? Why not try to set that as a goal? We should have our eyes on the prize."
In 2005, the prize slipped away from the US players in the quarterfinals versus the Netherlands. Alston's leg was broken in a crunching tackle, and Subotic saw red, leaving the Americans to struggle a man down.
This US fan, though, didn't see that U17 World Cup campaign as a failure.
"These kids played some good soccer, and that was fun to watch," he pointed out. "These steps are all part of the struggle to improve. Someday, the big breakthrough will happen. We were close in the 2002 World Cup, after all."
Americans do big events well. That's the impression I got when only a year later, I went to the 2006 World Cup in Germany and the US supporters showed up in droves to that famous tournament.
US fans come out to big events | Die-hard fans show up to the smaller ones, too.
Most of them, though, are certainly not chartering private planes and faking emergency landings to cheer on a U17 squad, though. (Yes, that's what Gambian fans did in 2005.)
However, people get out of experiences what they put into them. Following a player for years means remembering when they had a weak off-foot, or recalling the time they lost to injury, or the moment they hit a turning point and triumphed.
Even if I didn't agree with that US fan, I had to respect him.
It's often easier to criticize than it is to compliment. It's easier to give up than to hold on to hope and have faith that something that's never yet happened will be accomplished.
We'll never know, for example, the difference it might have made if all the people who labled Subotic traitorous for walking away from his chance to represent the USA on the senior level had shown up to cheer him in those youth games long ago.
But everybody knows that the more rare that something is, the more it's really worth. Fans like the gentleman who went to Peru are true gems.
They're not fans because it's trendy, because soccer has arrived as the main event. They were there when hardly anyone else was, and if the big prize ever falls, they'll celebrate it with pride that few others can match.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America
For more news on the U.S. Youth Teams visit Goal.com's U.S. National Team page.