After having finally shown up late to a game, I knew better than to rely solely on my desire to play soccer in order to get myself out of bed on a Sunday morning, take a bus and three different trains and reach a somewhat remote location in time. It was an awakening of sorts, one in which I realized I had paid specifically for the privilege of playing a game I enjoy with a bunch of strangers who chose to name their team after a Prince album and song. Never again, I decided, would I arrive unprepared, whether mentally, physically or otherwise. For the final two regular season games, I would set personal precedents for promptness and diligence on the pitch which I could realize as a standard for my play going into the playoffs. This would be the turning point.
Retiring earlier on Saturday night than has been customary in the summer of 2013, I dialed back my usual Sunday morning alarms fifteen minutes each (I have two, five minutes apart from each other, so I do not, you know, miss anything truly important). Promptly at the sounding of the first alarm, I rose from my bed, went into the kitchen, ate a banana and left for Riverside Park. I spent the better part of the next 45 minutes trying to get myself focused. I was not particularly tired or preoccupied with anything else; this should not have been a tough task. For whatever reason, however, I could not shake the lingering notion that something just was not right.
In the interest of full disclosure: during the previous game, I sustained a slight toe injury when an opponent disarmed me with a block tackle as I had been preparing to pass the ball. At first, it was very painful, and I continued on to finish the game. In the following days, I found myself struggling to have free movement in the big toe on my right foot, my preferred foot, and although I played a pickup soccer game during the week, I tried to stay off of it for long stretches of time in the hopes that the injury would resolve itself. There were several hours in which I sat in my kitchen, probably to my roommates’ chagrin, with a bag of Bird’s Eye frozen corn on my foot. On Sunday morning, though it felt better, it did not feel great, and I wrapped my toe and the ball of my foot so tightly that I could not feel anything beyond my ankle. Probably for the best.
Upon arriving at Riverside Park, there seemed to be some question as to whether or not we would even play the game. Purple Reign had produced enough players, but our opponents of the week, a turquoise squad branded, creatively, the Turquoise Beach Bombers, did not seem to have enough to play a full game right up until the referee signaled “90 seconds until kick-off!” We expected a victory by forfeit and half-joked about playing a scrimmage consisting primarily of our own players with bits of Beach Bomber sprinkled around us. I was actually a little disappointed that I would not get to play for something that mattered. Then, right at the start of the game, a sea of turquoise stepped onto the field. The game was to go on as scheduled.
Right at high noon, with the first whistle of the game, a slight rain began, one which would continue intermittently throughout the game. Conditions were perfect. Immediately, however, we faced an uphill battle. Within five minutes, we had relinquished a goal, again on a rebound and as the direct result of poor, mishandled clearances and passing. Charlie, the other forward, and I tried to make runs, comfortable in the knowledge that we could split the defense and penetrate the goalkeeper’s box consistently. We were able to string several nice pass sequences together, a mark of team chemistry which has grown over the course of the season, but could not find the final, finishing touch. We each put shots off the post, and Charlie sent several excellent crosses dribbling out of bounds, unmet by anyone’s head or foot. Frustration, the Kryptonite of many a good sports team, crept back into the throne in our minds.
Finally, we caught some luck. On a through ball to the left wing, I bypassed my coverage and spun into the goalie box. A fervent defender and the keeper himself were charging, and I saw a teammate on the break. I nudged the ball to her, and she hurtled it into the back of the net for the tying score. The game was level before halftime, largely due to the fact that, for once, I had not been playing with my head faced strictly to the ball. The celebration commenced.
According to the sideline referee, my teammate had gone in offside. The goal was not to count, and we were still down 1-0. The curious aspect of this was that the main referee, who had been relatively close to the action, did not call offside, nor did the opposition plead to him in protest, as so often happens in sports. The other team had already accepted the goal and moved on, ready to win the game on the field rather than leave it in the hands of the officials.
Also of note, perhaps more importantly, Zog Sports requires that other teams in the league provide two sideline officials for games on a rotating basis and that for this game, the yellow team, Be Audit You Can Be, had sent two of its players to officiate. It was one of its referees who had called us offside, and interestingly, we were the only team as of Sunday who could catch Be Audit You Can Be to claim the regular season championship. Seeing us as a threat and doing everything it could to keep us from tying them in the league standings would give the yellow team’s players incentive to slight us, and it just so happened that an opportunity arose in which it may or may not have been the right time to make the wrong call.
On a run up the sideline shortly after that debacle, an almost identical play to the one in which I had initially injured my toe the week before occurred, and I hobbled to the sideline for a replacement. Almost immediately after that, another one of my teammates, a girl named Haley, was elbowed in the face, causing a steady stream of blood as the result of what we later found out to be a broken nose.
When Tim took a shot to the knees from a sliding goalkeeper, a dispute arose over fair play and the etiquette involved in possession immediately following an injury. No matter how you play a game, it would seem that displaying good sportsmanship should be at the forefront of competition, especially in a rec league for charity. When the turquoise team played on, we were under the impression that it was the referee’s obligation to stop play rather than give advantage. He gave advantage instead, ignoring our pleas, and when the ball went out of bounds, everyone congregated in the middle for a clarification of the rules and what exactly “fair play” meant in that context. It was an interesting moment for the human condition, one in which a dialectic formed: on one side, a team’s competitive spirit charged it to continue forward and play to the whistle, one of the cardinal rules of sport. On the other, genuine concern arose over the well-being of a fellow person, standing in defiance of competition for the sake of health. Although Tim got up and walked his battery off, we had seen the base instincts of man reveal themselves and manifest themselves in different ways for opposing ends.
Beaten and bruised, we watched from the sideline as Charlie managed to tie the score with a fantastic run and shot into the upper right-hand corner of the net. We applauded and praised the effort which had led to the goal, but I felt disappointed, almost cheated, that I had not been a part of it. Ultimately, I recognized that it was best for the team at that time, and after jogging around a bit, I went back in for the start of the second half.
Much of the second half can be categorized together with the first half: great runs leading to excellent opportunities which simply did not reach the back of the net. On one occasion, a two-on-one, I held behind the trailing defender long enough for him to draw to the girl with the ball, who passed it to me, onside, but my left-footed shot slung right at the keeper, who knocked it out of bounds. The team captain simply said, “Rory, you gotta finish those chances, mate.” I knew it better than anyone, but it would be my last real shot at a goal for the day.
The man guarding me had picked up on my injury, or at least on the weaknesses it engendered, and began shading me on the inside when I played the ball with my dominant foot. On a few occasions, he took steps (allegedly) toward the ball which just happened to land on my right cleat, apologizing each time with a simple, succinct “Sorry about that, bro.”
Several very good rushes on goal and many remarkable saves held the score at 1-1, and that is where it stood when the final whistle blew. We had tied for the third week in a row, probably due to the calumniation of the team which had now claimed the regular season championship. It was frustrating, again, eternally, to draw with a team we knew we had the skill to beat, even in our shorthanded state. I walked off the field disappointed in myself, angered at my toe, enraged at Be Audit You Can Be and every accounting firm I had ever known. Purple Reign has one regular season game left before an all-day playoff tournament the second weekend in August. This is when reality catches up with the dreams and nightmares of those lucky enough to sleep at night.