American football matched English football on the biggest stage possible

American football matched English football on the biggest stage possible

A few weeks ago I was minding my own business on the internet when I stumbled upon a page called “Are Particle Physicists Happy?” HmmI thought. Are they? I had never ceased to marvel at the luck of particle physicists, but here all the data relating to that luck—its relative strength or weakness, its presence or absence—was spread out before me like the map of a strange pirate’s treasure. I started flipping through the site’s charts and graphs, and as I did so I felt certain that particle physicists must be a grumpy and depressed bunch of people in general. Imagine squinting at tiny flickering blips all day!

But to my surprise, the data said otherwise. Particle physicists are extremely happy! Particle physics turns out to fall in the upper echelon—the top 14 percent, to be precise—of careers ranked by happiness. For some time after learning this information, the thought of a world full of happy particle physicists occupied my mind in an indescribable way. When I closed my eyes, I saw particle physicists dancing down the halls of their research institutes, particle physicists peering into adjacent microscopes. If I saw a happy-looking stranger at the coffee shop, I’d mutter, “Oh, great—another particle physicist.”

I can’t say for sure Why particle physics is such a cheerful profession, but when I watched the USA fight their way to a tie against England in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, I felt like I almost got it. I had to watch most of the game on my phone because the streaming service kept crashing on our TV, which meant I spent 90 minutes plus break time squinting at tiny flickering blips. And some of these particles seemed charged with a strange quality of glory, so that I felt happier and happier the longer I sat there looking at them.

This was the game when I finally completely fell for this American team. They were supposed to be overmatched and they weren’t, and what was exciting was that it felt like they had simply decided not to be. As, no, not you, not today. The third youngest team in the tournament, the Euro 2020 runners-up played, but they played with fearless, positive energy. Two or three inches here or there, maybe one less towering leap by Harry Maguire on an American corner, and the US could have won this. It’s hard to see 0-0 as a heroic scoreline, but that’s kind of the point. This was not a heroic underdog effort. It was a battle between equals. And for the USA to prove they could compete with England’s quality across the 90 was in some ways more satisfying than a 1-0 win where we were pushed around before stealing one on the counter.

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The English were better in some periods – the opening and closing minutes of the match – but the Americans dominated most of the match. The speed, energy and determination of the American attack kept the English on their heels for long stretches. We fielded a back line with a frighteningly high man-bowl-to-player ratio, and that stopped Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling. Christian Pulisic repeatedly charged forward with the ball from 10 meters outside the England area. He hit the crossbar midway through the first half. Weston McKennie was everywhere, scurrying and scraping and pirouetting. Matt Turner calmly saved when and as needed. The only thing more impressive than a goalkeeper who saves you from panicking is a goalkeeper who makes you feel like you don’t need to panic in the first place.

A few days ago someone hacked into my Ringer account and posted a bad article asking if US coach Gregg Berhalter had the tactical sense to eat a milkshake with a spoon. I know it couldn’t possibly have been me, because the American schedule seemed very solid Friday night. If the team hadn’t started to look tired in the second half, Berhalter might not have had any obvious trades to make.

But the match felt more like a test of vibes than a test of tactics. It felt less like a challenge to see if the US could devise a good strategy to stop Kane, Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka, and more like a challenge to see if the US could muster the will and belief to execute that strategy. It took one glimpse of Tyler Adams disrupting England’s passing moves like he was 2017 N’Golo Kante, or Tim Weah finding daylight in the thinnest of cracks in the England back line, to see clearly that they could.

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I don’t really care that they didn’t win the game. (I care that the USA remains undefeated against England in the World Cup.) I care that they played and looked their best on the biggest stage possible. What is the secret of happiness that particle physicists are hiding from the rest of the world? Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of the particles. Maybe some particles just are fun. Perhaps some particles are simply a thrill to look at. Perhaps one look at these happy particles is enough to put someone in a happy state of mind.

Isn’t it the same when you watch a football match? Sometimes you look at two evenly matched teams and one of them somehow has an extra dash of energy, flair, pizzazz, audacity. They are not better, exactly, but they are freer. They are more fun. They are carbonated water, and the second layer is under pressure. They are a hot air balloon and the other team is a Toyota Celica. They are Wario and the other team is Toad. These are the happy particles, and when you look at them, you get to experience, for 90 minutes, the bone-deep happiness that particle physicists apparently feel all the time.

Did the game change anything? Well, yes and no. No, in the sense that the US more or less as expected must beat Iran on Tuesday to qualify for the knockout rounds. England, meanwhile, just need to avoid a four-goal loss to Wales. I’ve seen reports that non-football fans were bored and disappointed with this game, which is understandable – it’s tough to kick off a heavily hyped sporting event the day after Thanksgiving, see a scoreless draw that doesn’t dramatically change the bigger. competitive landscape, and don’t feel a bit let down. You’d probably have to be a long-time fan-slash-nerd to be deep enough in the context to pull that off.

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And if you were, you could see that yes, the match did change something – or at least had the potential to. It had the potential to change the identity of this team. We have been an unproven, inconsistent, ambiguous proposition for a long time. Now we are a team that can hang with England in the World Cup. Maybe we lose to Iran on Tuesday and the England game turns out to be an anomaly. But maybe it’s the start of something. I’ll keep the microscope ready.

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