The connection between the team and the day has existed since late 2001, and Tuesday’s soccer game showed that it is as strong as ever.
The U.S. men were the first national team in any sport to play after the 9/11 attacks. They faced Jamaica on Oct. 7, 2001 in a decisive FIFA World Cup qualifier in Foxboro, Mass., and the game happened to kick off hours after the United States began military operations in Afghanistan.
Then U.S. head coach Bruce Arena told players about the developments on the other side of the world, and the team responded with a 2-1 win in front of a solemn, but inspired, crowd. The victory clinched a spot at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, where the U.S. would have its best-ever showing, making it all the way to the quarterfinals.
On Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, the U.S. faced Jamaica in another important World Cup qualifier, and the significance of the date was not lost on anyone associated with the team. Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. Soccer Federation made sure of it, just as they did one year ago when the team visited the National 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City.
Klinsmann invited three first responders from the NYC Fire Dept. — Capt. Joseph Brosi, Battalion Chief Wayman Iriarte, and Lt. Jason Hickey — to have dinner with and speak to the players the night before the game. Their tales of heroism and loss during the tragedy had a profound effect on many of the players, according to U.S. Soccer.
“You get a sense of what sacrifice means,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “We use a lot of buzzwords in sports like sacrifice and hard work and fight and life-and-death and it’s not those things. What they do on a team of firefighters, every time they go to their game -– every time they get called to a fire –- it could be life or death, it’s real. To hear someone speak humbly about that really puts it in perspective and also lets you know you can give an extra edge. To hear his words of heroism and patriotism was cool.”
Klinsmann said the players took the firefighters’ words to heart. They played their opponents with a greater sense of purpose than they may have shown in Friday’s loss in Kingston, Jamaica.
“Last night, the three gentlemen that were honored before the game came by after dinner and one of the firefighters talked to the group for about an hour just telling his story of his fire department. It was a big learning experience for us. I think that everyone was aware of this and had these certain feelings, we all knew this was a very special day. The players were outstanding in how they responded on the field.”
At gametime, the U.S. was urged on by 23,881 fervent fans at Columbus Crew Stadium. They first showed their reverence of the day by observing a minute’s silence (with both teams) before kickoff. When the game began, they loudly sang and chanted in support of the home team. Between the ninth and 11th minutes, they waved thousands of American flags (which U.S. Soccer distributed), clapped, cheered and chanted “U.S.A.”
Howard and Clint Dempsey have over 180 national team appearances between them. Tuesday’s crowd provided one of the most pro-U.S. atmospheres either player has ever seen. It was a key element in the 1-0 win over Jamaica.
“The crowd was great and they really got behind us,” Dempsey said. “We draw strength from each other in tough times and that was something everybody will remember on that day [Sept. 11, 2001]. People lost loved ones and didn’t know why. They were waiting around watching TV, and trying to get answers but as a country we were able to draw strength within ourselves. When you get knocked down, you get back up again. They [the crowd in Columbus] really got behind us tonight and showed their patriotism. It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in with the National Team here in the States.”
U.S. government officials like to say that “everything changed” on 9/11. It certainly did for a team that plays what is still a niche sport in this country. It gave players, coaches and fans a role to play that transcended the sport. U.S. Soccer gave them a healthy outlet through which they could express their love for their country and help heal the wounds left by the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team assumed that responsibility in 2001, carried it for 11 years to the present, and will continue to do so long into the future.