It wasn’t quite a wet, windy Tuesday night in Stoke, but it was a hazy, overcast Sunday afternoon in New York that eventually, mercifully brought rain and tremendous heartbreak to Purple Reign’s second match. On the same day as another, slightly less important game of futbol, the commute to Riverside Park was far less stressful (mostly because I left my apartment with more than enough time), though I am still not convinced I have found the most efficient way of crossing from the Bronx to upper east side of Manhattan; this time, I traversed the entire island laterally, itself a full workout and showed up to the field drenched in sweat. Fortunately I had remembered to put on sunscreen prior to departing, not that it ended up mattering at all given the clouds. Walking up to the field, I ran into two teammates, and we discussed how perfect it would be if the skies opened, only slightly, allowing a few precious, cool drops of rain to fall.
Increased familiarity took away some of the fear and excitement from the first week, though it was nice to know the people for whom to look when preparing for battle. When we looked over, we saw a team in yellow shirts awaiting us at the conclusion of the game preceding ours. Alright, it was time to chip away at the rest of the color wheel. Given the fact that we had yet to surrender a goal from an opponent through one game, we headed into this one with confidence.
The big question that will start to dominate pregame routines for the rest of the season, it seems, is that of our goalkeeper. In ZogSports’ omnipotence, we were not granted a player willing to consistently stand between the pipes. Fair enough, Zog-gods. We would go on volunteer-based rotation, switching keepers every half. That prospect frightened me to no end; for starters, any skill (I use that term extremely loosely, for fear of devaluing players of true merit) I might possess on a soccer field has no place in the goalkeeper position, as my hands are about 1/10th as fast as my feet are in terms of reaction time. My only real physical asset at this point, the only thing that could even be considered an asset under any circumstances, is my speed, which I really only have as a result of probably being one of the dozen or so youngest people in the league (all players must be 21 for entry). Being a goalie would preclude capitalizing on my speed, and it would definitely fill my teammates with much anger and resentment for at least 24 minutes of competitive soccer.
Fortunately for me, someone volunteered to play goalie, and I exhaled. We would have the same starting lineup as in the first game, putting me back up top in a forward/wing position. Yellow kicked off, and not more than two passes into its possession, I was able to steal the ball and pass to a teammate. He pushed a through ball forward back to me, I managed to basically jump past a defender while maintaining possession of the ball and sent a pass into the box. Charlie, the teammate on the receiving end, spun around and throttled a shot which would’ve certainly put us on the board if not for grazing a defender’s leg. Instead, it bounced weakly and landed at my feet. Not getting nearly the amount of the ball that I wanted (actually, getting about 10% of my foot to the ball), I nudged a shot which slipped under the keeper and into the back of the net. Just like that, about 30 seconds into the game, we were leading.
At that point, it is easy to think, “Well, that just happened. And it’s probably going to happen three or four more times before this day is through, ya feel me?” But rather than unleashing a feverish cannonade punctuated with clinical finishes and much rejoicing, that goal, my lucky, dribbling score, would be the period of Purple Reign’s scoring sentence. Much of the rest of the first half was spent negotiating the strange areas near all corners of the field, usually when the ball was on the wrong foot from the best. There were a few more chances, and the yellow team managed a few shots which, had they not sailed through the uprights behind the goals on the field, would have caused great panic, but generally there fell a malaise on both sides, and we went into halftime with only a single goal, albeit also with the lead.
The same tone carried over into the second half, yet a peculiar pattern emerged, one which has remarkably and frustratingly been a theme with several intramural teams on which I have played: rather than playing through the middle and creating chances with a midfield, a gaping hole marked a lack of presence, and our offensive scheme had essentially become to hurl the ball over the top and hope someone could get to it before it rolled out of bounds or to the opposing goalkeeper. Our formation had devolved from an agreed-upon 4-4-2 to a bizarro Spanish tiki-taka, a 5-0-5 at best, in which there is no midfield and too many forwards.
This played directly into the hands of the opposing team, which turned up its intensity and played with an increasingly desperate fervor as time wound down to the final whistle. Meanwhile, I had it in my head (stupidly. Really, really stupidly) that our victory was a foregone conclusion, and when the referee signaled for one minute remaining, I knew we were home free. I just knew it. When the other team sent a ball out of bounds behind our goal, awarding us a goal kick, it was over. Clear the ball, and we would be 2-0.
Except that it wasn’t so easy.
The skies opened exactly as slightly as we wished, and just a hint of rain fell upon us. With it, the wind had picked up over the course of the second half, its gusts blowing back toward our goal, and our goal kicks were more often than not kept on the ground, for obvious reasons. Not keen to take too many chances, we would pass on the ground out by the sidelines, leaving it at the feet of receivers to try and outrun or outclass the defenders. That had worked in the sense that it drained a lot of time and kept the ball away from the other team in our half of the field.
As the team had gotten more aggressive, however, we had to start sending it over the top from the goal kicks. With a complete lack of midfield, a header or interception would return the ball to our end, where the other team invariably had many more decent chances than it had in the first half. This isn’t really anyone’s fault, save for maybe Mother Nature: the midfield gets clogged, people converge on where they think a skied goal kick will land, and the ball ends up out at the sidelines anyway. Usually.
On this occasion, inside of maybe 45 seconds left in the game, a skied goal kick was the necessary evil. Its interception, and the subsequent shot which one of our defenders cleared behind our goal for a corner, had to happen. We knew it would happen. It became a question merely of defending the corner. And really, how many times do corners in the very last minute of a game, especially in a recreational city league, count for anything, let alone create a goal?
The answer: at least one time. This time. A few deflections, and the ball found the head of someone in a yellow shirt, who redirected it into our net. Just like that, dreams of the perfect season vanished. Our complacency had doomed us. The pain, the rage, everything I’ve ever felt about the French national team rose to the surface, and it was miserable.
Walking back to the subway after the game, I said to one of my teammates that losing 4-0 would have felt better because in that case, at least we would know we were not as good as the opposition. Had it not been for our tendency to rest on our laurels after opening the scoring, the kind of thing that is said to usually occur when holding a 2-0 lead, we may have escaped Riverside Park with a victory and our pride, or at least my pride, fully intact. Instead, as we’ve seen many other times, being at the top is only cause for others to chase you.
Editor’s Note: Due to the Feast of American Independence, ZogSports leagues will not be playing on the weekend following July 4th. Stay tuned through the fortnight pause in the trials and tribulations of Purple Reign.