Every player in the history of any sport, from the top-level professionals who become legends to the street amateurs who play the game once and never again, have a best game. It is simply the way anything requiring skill has to go. For those who play once and only once, their best day is also their worst day, and they can live with the fact that this paradox is inherent to the limited sample set they offer. For the rest, with each game comes an opportunity to raise the personal bar just a little higher. These are the days we remember long after the act of playing the game has ceased. We look back on them and are able to say, “Ah, yes, I remember that day well. When you have a game like that, you tend not to forget.”
Unfortunately, this was not one of those “best games,” and unfortunately, we remember games like this one as well, perhaps with even sharper memorial precision.
After weeks of tempting fate and toying with my phone alarms, I finally arrived late to a game. Granted, the game had only started a few minutes prior, and in walking over the bridge to Riverside Park, I had heard a whistle and muffled cheering. A goal had already been scored, and my pace picked up noticeably so that I could see which team was already ahead. Upon reaching the field, it was indeed Purple Reign who had taken the lead over our fluorescent opponents of the week, the grey team. The goalie was a familiar face, one of our opponents from the game against the yellow team who sported a Brazilian Ronaldinho jersey.
Having been tardy, I took to the stone steps surrounding the field and in the shade. Although it was not as hot as it had been all week, or during the previous week’s game, it was no Ice Bar. It was not long before a tired comrade asked to be replaced, and I made my entrance to the field, to much adulation and great fanfare. Coming off the bench is a strangely welcoming position in which to be. The team expects a spark of energy, yet with the flow of play already in motion it can be difficult to assimilate to the working chemistry of a group of people, even if a player has spent significant time on the field with his or her counterparts. Each game is different, and the way teams respond to substitutions can work as a catalyst or a disruption. It is the substitute’s job to analyze the stylistic nuances of an individual game and discern how to maximize his contribution when entering in the midst of a turf war.
For me, it is typically a pretty simple process: find the slowest defender, switch to that side of the field and make repeated charges, going under or over that player to get the ball and attempt a breakthrough. Most of the time, I go in slotted at the left wing/forward position, which takes away my crossing ability but allows for cuts inside to play the ball with my right foot. It also lets me try and split the two center backs, which creates defensive confusion and is how I scored the goal in the previous week.
Utilizing this approach, my job became exponentially easier when I realized that the opposing right back was more of a wing who abandoned her defensive responsibilities at every opportunity. A dragging center covered me, opening even more space in the middle. The problem was that we could not exploit this gap. Too often, we were pushed to the sidelines and unable to work back into the middle or cross the ball toward open space. We went into halftime ahead, but we lacked a certain poise. The first half had been sloppy soccer, even more so than is typical of a city league game and certainly more so than Purple Reign usually manages.
The second half trudged along retaining many of the same elements which had plagued the first. Open spaces everywhere, yet none anywhere near the ball when we needed it. We ground out a few chances, mostly from wayward crosses when we managed to maneuver around the defense along the sidelines. The grey team tied the score with an unfortunate goal conceded primarily as a result of persistence on their part. Several rebounds fluttered around the box, and our defenders could not get a clean clearance on the ball before it ricocheted off the goalkeeper’s hands and into the back of the net.
With time winding down, we pressed forth, launching shots and high passes in an attempt to reclaim what was rightfully ours. With each touch I took, my feet felt like anchors in a sandpit. For whatever reason, perhaps due to my complete lack of sleep the night prior, I could not get a handle on anything in my general area, and many of my efforts ended with weak, intercepted passes and poor shots.
Purple Reign caught a fortunate break when one of our shots caught the hand of an opposing player, which typically results in a penalty kick (although sometimes it goes unnoticed). Tim, the Mutombo-wagging hero of our last game, perfectly converted a low shot to the left side, and we were back on top. It again became a game of holding the lead, a test in which we had proven remarkably inconsistent for such a small sample size. The grey team left two defenders at the back and everyone else pushing. Stuart, our team captain, gave me explicit instructions to remain forward and be ready to break. I wanted to maintain my goal-scoring streak, so I was wholly content on watching the action as it unfolded at our goal.
Our inconsistency with leads manifested itself once again. With around four minutes left in the game, the grey team won a corner, which was deflected away from the goal. Misjudging a falling air ball is one of the most common and deadly mistakes in rec league soccer. In this case, the ball was met by the foot of a grey striker, who hurtled a curving shot into the top right corner which, save for the speed and trajectory of the shot, looked a bit like this.
It was devastating. The goal was objectively beautiful, but I hated it. I was stunned. Watching from the midfield, the two defenders and I expected a clearance and prompt return to the box, or at least another shot. Instead, action stopped, and we all just looked on in wonder.
Our frustration became evident, as had happened the first time we faced a draw. We benefited from a few rushes and the omnipresent gap in the defense; I had one run in which a pass sailed over the top and landed at my feet, but a charging goalie caused me to tap the ball just outside off target. In that moment, it had taken less than death to kill a man, and I was prepared to dissolve into the field, never to be heard from again. It was to be the best chance I would get all afternoon, and the one which will haunt my restless dreams for years.
We had one more legitimate chance at goal, a cross which met the head of Cori, the other forward, and floated outside the keeper’s reach but also wide of the goal. The goalie spent the last two minutes of the game undermining the referee’s authority, which increasingly became an annoyance to feed our collective rage and disappointment. When the referee would give the time (“40 seconds left!”), the keeper would respond with a significantly shorter amount of time (“20 seconds!”). It is a common practice at this level, when peripheral white noise is limited to the joggers on the surrounding track and mothers screaming at referees during summer league girls’ basketball tournaments on the neighboring courts at Riverside Park. While it does happen, it is not a particularly sportsmanlike approach to the beautiful game, or any game for that matter.
Time hit zero, we heard the ominous three whistles closing the game, and it was complete. Another draw, and we now sit at 2-0-2, second in the league behind the yellow team, whose apparent name is Be Audit You Can Be. Two games remain before the playoffs, for which we have already qualified, and I will not stand to lose to a group of (actual or aspiring) tax accountants, even as a student of business practices. This is the calm before the storm.