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Saturday, June 19, 2010
Emotions on the sleeve, for a change

By Jeff Bradley
ESPN The Magazine

RUSTENBURG -- So, I'm eating breakfast in my hotel near here. I'm getting ready to cover Ghana and Australia, and wondering if I'll finally see an African team win a game (a W today clinches a spot in the second round for Ghana), but I've got to use the next few hours to clear my brain and refocus on my assignment.

Because on Friday, I did what I swore I wouldn't do here in South Africa, and it left my heart and brain in tatters. What did I do? I went to a U.S. game. Brief background. My brother Bob ("Rob" or "Robbie" to his family) is the U.S. coach. His son, my nephew Michael, is No. 4. I was The Magazine's soccer writer from 1998-2006, but took myself off the beat when Bob was named coach. It was a conflict, plain and simple.

My assignment here at the World Cup has been to cover the six African teams. But more than that, to be available to cover anything but the U.S. team.

But Saturday was a travel day for me, by van from Bloemfontein to Rustenburg. On Thursday night, I went online and saw that Ellis Park Stadium, the venue that would host U.S.-Slovenia, was on the way. I started to feel guilt pangs. I'm here in South Africa, my brother is coaching the U.S. Shouldn't I be there to support him? I texted a friend who works for U.S. Soccer and said, "If you can get me a ticket, I'd like to be there."

I was not going to sit in the press box, but if I could be a fan in the stands, I'd go. U.S. Soccer came through with a ticket for me, down low, right behind the U.S. bench.

So, I went. And I sat by myself. And for 45 minutes, I wished I hadn't. If I left at halftime, it wouldn't have been the first time I'd left one of Bob's games at the half: When Bob was fired as coach of the MetroStars, he returned a year later to coach Chivas USA against the team that fired him, now known as the Red Bulls. When the Bulls built up a 3-0 first-half lead, my two sons and I booked for the parking lot. Funny thing is, Chivas USA fought back, and ultimately lost a thrilling game 5-4. But with Slovenia (a team that had surrendered only four goals during qualifying) ahead 2-0 at the interval, a part of me was ready to call my driver and start heading to Rustenburg. All I could think was that the U.S.'s World Cup had ended after only two games. I had very little hope.

Landon Donovan's goal at the start of the second half made it a new ballgame, but it would be hard to describe the emotional ride I was taking. Like I said, I took myself off the U.S. Soccer beat because of the obvious conflicts. But I also took myself off because there's no way I could hide my feelings, my emotions, and be impartial. After Donovan's goal, I started screaming "C'mon boys!" I was banging the seat in front of me. Hard.

Yeah, not really the stuff a journalist is supposed to do.

I don't remember much of the next 38 minutes, only that I looked at my watch a lot and felt a pit in my stomach, and a huge lump building in my throat. I was rationalizing a little. At least they didn't give up. At least they showed some heart. It's only a game.

And then, I saw Donovan right in front of me. He was lofting a pass into the box. I saw someone (it was Jozy Altidore) win a header and send it back across.

And I saw No. 4.

Then I saw the ball hit the net. The game was tied 2-2, and I was jumping up and down and pounding the seat some more. And I could feel tears rolling down my cheeks.

It's not the first time I've cried since I've been here. When the U.S. played England, I watched in solitude in a hotel room in Polokwane. And when I saw the players standing for the national anthem, and I saw each starter with his arm on the shoulder of a teammate, and I saw Michael, I could feel something welling in my eyes. And when the camera panned to Bob, I sobbed. Yeah, sobbed like a baby.

I was just overcome with emotion.

I don't expect everyone to get it. The friends who e-mail me with questions about my brother's lineup choices. They don't get it. The folks who ask me if I'm having "fun" watching the U.S. play at the World Cup. They don't get it.

A few of my old friends get it. The folks who grew up with me. The folks who saw my brother fall in love with soccer in the early '70s, when there weren't a whole lot of reasons to fall in love with the game. They get it. Bob's old high school coaches and Princeton teammates. They get it. I think a lot of the kids (now men) who played for Bob on club teams, who trained with Bob on weekend mornings in the gyms at Princeton. They get it.

The ball hit the net, and the U.S. was alive again. Now, I saw Michael, running toward the corner flag, celebrating. And, for a second, I thought of a Christmas morning, close to 20 years ago, and Michael shooting on me, his Uncle Jeff, in my parents' front yard. He was decked out, from head to toe, in the new soccer kit that had been under the tree a few moments before. He was so full of joy. And there he was. Scoring a goal in the World Cup. And there I was. In the stands. At the game. Screaming. Crying.

Get it?

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.