Argentine-American storyteller based in Appalachia

Telling the Story of One Knoxville SC

With pro soccer returning to Knoxville in May 2022, I've agreed to serve as chronicler of the club's story.

Telling the Story of One Knoxville SC
In my office, with a poster of Maradona after scoring the Goal of the Century against in the English in 1986 to my right and my Everton flag behind me. Photo by Sam Weisbrod.

My grandfather always watched games with the television on mute. “Esos fanfarrones hablan al pedo,” is what he always said. Loosely translated: Those loudmouths talk out of their asses. I didn’t need to listen to commentary from somebody whose balls had never frozen in the stands like his had in the days before TV broadcasts, when he was at the stadium every other weekend. I was watching the game with my own eyes. I probably knew it better than they did anyway, he said (more as a criticism of the broadcasters than a compliment of my own knowledge).

As a boy, I envied the men and women on TV who talked about soccer and got paid for it.

That envy is something that never really went away. In 2014, when the SEC Network launched its broadcasts of conference sports games, I was in my second year of grad school at UT. I was back in Knoxville after a summer interning at ESPN, where I did research for World Cup broadcasts. I had spent the previous year writing about the Tennessee women’s soccer team for any outlet that would let me—The Daily Beacon, Knoxville News Sentinel, Top Drawer Soccer, And then, as soccer I was already covering was broadcast nationwide, I had to watch some guy who would've rather been calling a Tennessee football game do play-by-play while I quietly jotted down notes in the pressbox for print papers no one read.*

That resentment probably came, coupled with an obsessive passion for the beautiful game, from Nono. Much of what I know about football I learned while sitting and speaking with him in his kitchen as games played from morning until night. Nono had come of age watching soccer in Argentina in the 1940s and ‘50s before players had numbers, before substitutions and yellow cards, before jerseys had sponsors on the front. His first years following his boyhood club, Club Atletico Rosario Central, the players still worked day jobs.

When I was a boy, Nono came to all my games and shouted at the referees. He followed me up and down the sideline yelling instructions. Track back. Get up to midfield. Stay on your man. Give him space. Boot it. Play it on the ground. If a coach or ref walked over to ask him to calm down, he cursed them out in Spanish, loud enough that they walked away and the other Hispanic kids came over to me apologetically. “Dude, sorry about your grandpa.”

I wasn’t a great soccer player, even though from the age of two my dad, who had played in Newell’s Old Boys youth teams in Argentina, had tried his best to make me one. Growing up, he took me with him to the park behind our house after work and kicked the ball around with me, working on drills he created himself. Sometimes we played with the Arabs and the Mexicans who were also there after their work shifts. Sometimes a youth team asked if I wanted to join and he’d let me for the night. It had taken years for him to sign me up to play in an official league. Once he did, my inadequacies as a footballer were revealed for the world to see. I was slow and stumpy. I hit the ball hard enough and passed well, but I had no cintura, no waist—what they say in Argentina about players who can't dribble or turn to beat a player with style. To be successful in any way I resorted to picardía: trash talk, jersey grabs, elbows, and late stamps to the back of a forward's calf. It worked then. It still does now. I may not catch you, but you'll remember me when I clobber you from behind.

My dad taught me to play the game. But Nono taught me to fall in love with it.

To love it, even when all it does is bring totally avoidable pain into my life. Even on days when I'm in tears, clutching my jersey and pleading with God for some miracle that would uneliminate Argentina or some loophole that would get the U.S. men into the Russian World Cup. In the moments between watching games together, Nono told me incredible stories of when he saw Pele play and wrote out lineups of Argentinian and Brazilian World Cup teams from half a century ago on napkins. He told me about the days when everyone played 2-3-5, and I swore I’d do the same when I coached my first team.**

I could write a novel about my love of the game and the ways I’ve been involved with it since I was a boy. But, to save you that lecture, here’s a summary. My dad took me to my first Metrostars game when I was 10 years old. I still remember Mike Petke’s header in a 1-0 win against the Columbus Crew in Giants Stadium. In the years since, I’ve watched Argentina (twice), the U.S. men (four times), U.S. women, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Jamaica, Panama, Canada, the New York Red Bulls, Orlando Pride, Rosario Central, Inter Milan, and Everton. I’ve suffered and celebrated, and I’ve frozen my balls off too: in 38-degree weather during the U.S. men’s 1-0 win over Jamaica in Chattanooga on my birthday weekend with some close friends back in 2017.

I played club ball until I was 14 years old when at a tournament my travel coach told me to not get so upset about not playing and just accept letting the better players win trophies for me. I quit the next day and have held a grudge against him since. I quit high school soccer after another disagreement with a coach who thought he was a hotshot for spending a season on the Metrostars bench in the '90s. Since then, I’ve played in various intramural and adult soccer leagues. Most of my favorite memories, however, are of the years before moving to Knoxville at 22 when I played soccer every other night with Salvadorans, Peruvians, Egyptians, Hondurans, Poles, and other immigrants from all over the world in the fields where my dad had taught me to play as a boy, just a short walk from the house.

I wrote my first soccer article in 2009 for Bleacher Report after the U.S. lost 3-2 to Brazil in the Confederations Cup Final, one match after improbably breaking Spain’s epic 35-match unbeaten streak in the semis. I kept writing for B/R and then Soccer Without Limits, a blog started by two soccer agents who relied on talented, naive writers who loved the game enough to write for their site for free. I went to grad school at UT in 2013 determined to become an Argentine-American fusion of Gabrielle Marcotti and Wright Thompson and cover the game for the rest of my life. Within a week of starting school, I interviewed Olympian and New Zealand international Hannah Wilkinson, who played for the Lady Vols. I made friends who loved the game and would talk about it with me.***

I kept my own soccer blog, A Peach of a Goal, to get practice writing about international soccer while working a full-time job, going to school, and contributing wherever I could. That helped me get the gig at ESPN, where on my last day I met Mario Kempes, the hero of the 1978 World Cup for Argentina. He verified some of the more unbelievable of my grandfather's stories and took a picture with me I then shared proudly on Facebook that night for all the Argentinians and Rosario Central supporters in my family to see.****

When I got back to Tennessee, I wrote for The Daily Times of Maryville, covering high school and college soccer. I got more comfortable reporting stories instead of just writing based on TV broadcasts, like so much caca journalism you now find online. To graduate, I had to produce a multilayered project good enough to persuade a panel of professors that I was ready to go out into the world as a 21st century journalist. I interviewed dozens of people, attended dozens of adult rec games, sent out surveys, and wrote an in-depth story on the history and culture of soccer in Knoxville which was eventually published as “Brotherhood of the Turf,” a cover story by the now-defunct Knoxville Mercury.

I did a lot of writing about soccer in the following years. But I never did become Marcotti or Thompson, Ray Hudson or Arlo White.

When the news broke that professional soccer was coming back to Knoxville, my phone lit up with texts and tags on social media. I texted one of the owners who I had worked with years before and eventually met with him and the club’s growth director. I didn’t know how, but I needed to be involved. My daughter will be 2 years old by the time One Knoxville kicks off in May. My son will be an infant. I want them to grow up in a city where on Saturdays we go to the stadium to sing songs and wave flags as 11 players fight on the field to make the most diverse group of people Knoxville is capable of bringing together happy for a night.

I want my kids to know what I learned watching games with my grandfather and walking to fields with my dad. That this is the most beautiful sport in the entire world, and there’s nothing anyone can say to convince me otherwise.

I wrote all of that to tell you this: I recently agreed to serve in the role of club chronicler for One Knoxville Sporting Club. This role will give me full access to the club and its stories. In many cases, I will be either the first to tell you their big news or the one giving you that news with greater depth than any media outlet in town is capable of.  I’ll answer the questions you may have as Knoxvillians or soccer fans who wants to know what in the world the United Soccer Leagues are, who the coaches and the players are going to be, where the team will play, and what happens if they really do win USL League Two in their first season, as they aim to.

There is a level of uncertainty to what lies ahead. Though I expect the future to be a bright one—if only because in seven months we will finally see high-quality men’s soccer return to Knoxville (we already have top-notch women's soccer; the Lady Vols are currently ranked among the Top 10 programs nationwide). If what the owners of the club believe is true, One Knoxville will be better than anything we’ve seen here before. And for my children, for me, and for thousands of you out there who aren’t satisfied having your fandom separated by an ocean, that means you’ll have football you can see and touch with your own eyes in your backyard many weekends a year.

I encourage you to sign up to my newsletter to receive news about the club and some of my other stories, many of which revolve around soccer. You can see many of the soccer essays and stories I’ve already written here: My Hero, Batistuta; 36 Hours of Soccer in Orlando; My Dad and the Soccer Ball; The Redemption Song of Lionel Messi; Can My 9-Month-Old American Daughter Love Everton?; Letter to Maradona; Messi the Man-Hound; The Penalty Kick.

Thanks for joining me for the ride.

*The play-by-play guys, at least those early years, were always (to me) unremarkable. Nothing like Ian Darke or JP Dellacamera. Though they greatly benefited from having Tori Beeler Watson doing color beside them. There are many great soccer minds in Knoxville. Tori, a former Lady Vol and a heckuva youth coach, is one of the best ones.

**I want to say I tried. But the first team I seriously coached, I had a group of teenage girls for Emerald Youth Foundation’s soccer club who thought I was nuts for showing up to games in long pants and dress shirts (they obviously had never heard of Diego Simeone before). We nearly pulled off 3-5-2 the second year, though we wound up reverting to a 4-4-2 that led us to the state B-division semifinals in 2019, where we lost 1-0 to the team that eventually won the championship in a 7-2 route. I still keep that 2-3-5 in my back pocket for when my daughter starts her soccer career in two years.

***I’m deeply indebted to Steven Lee, the media relations director for Lady Vol soccer at the time for letting me, a loudmouth kid from Jersey, write about the team for the UT Athletics' website. And for texting me back to let me know he’d let Wilkinson chat with me after she scored against the U.S. for New Zealand. I had remembered Abby Wambach was Wilkinson's favorite player and when I texted Steven he confirmed they had swapped jerseys after the game. I knew I couldn’t miss the chance to share that story. I also met Hemant Sharma, perhaps the greatest soccer mind in East Tennessee and a fellow immigrant son from Jersey, thanks to that time covering Lady Vol soccer. In 2014, he called me to ask me if I wanted to meet Luis Robles, then the starting goalkeeper for the MLS Supporters Shield winners, New York Red Bulls. Hemant was training him while he was in town visiting. That interview wound up on my A Peach of a Goal blog.

****Nono has these stories he tells on repeat, more so now as he gets older and his short-term memory declines. One of his favorite stories has always been how, in the lead-up to the 1974 World Cup, the Argentine national team played a friendly against the Rosario selection team. It was common in those days for clubs or national teams to play against city’s select teams, made up of professional and reserve players (the closest equivalent I could find for you today is the Catalan national team). The way Nono told it, Rosario was beating the national team 3-0 by halftime and the federation’s figureheads were so distraught the Argentinian head coach went into the locker room at halftime and pleaded with the team to stop scoring. “You’re embarrassing your own countrymen just before we try to win the World Cup!” The game ended that way, 3-0. When I asked Kempes, who played for Rosario Central at the time, about this game, he told me: “Your grandfather is exactly right. We were beating the hell out of them, and they made us stop.” A full report of the game, in Spanish, is available online.

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Jamie Larson