“You can’t win ’em all,” so the adage goes. While the application of this saying has extended to the subjects of romance, academic pursuit, flying standby at the airport and khaki sales at Kohl’s, it is safe to assume that the most practical sense in which someone can say this to a fellow human being occurs when engaging in sport. You hear it all the time, and no matter how diluted those words can become, they still retain truth, and the truth behind them is difficult to accept when you have spent the majority of an athletic season buffered by a sense of invincibility.
I awoke Sunday morning about half an hour before the series of alarms I have grown accustomed to setting. They usually leave me with a full hour to traverse New York City and reach Riverside Park, so waking up prior to the time I cut out for myself was a rather pleasant experience. I had an entire half hour to prepare in the comfort of my temporary living space, and I could take advantage of that time to wake up, settle myself down and attempt to hydrate a bit before stepping into the warm but not terribly hot sun.
With that extra half hour, a friend of mine and I chose to read Yelp reviews of the quality cuisine served in the gentlemen’s clubs of Charlotte, North Carolina. So that happened.
Having finally gotten into a Sunday morning travel routine (D train->C train->A train, with the Bx12 bus a looming possibility at all times), I felt confident in my ability to reach the field with time to spare after walking out the door a full hour before scheduled kick-off. I noticed a lady on the subway playing the most aggressive and successful game of subway Temple Run that I had ever witnessed. Also, I forwent picking up a penny I found because it was face down on the subway platform. That had to bode well for us.
Something nagged at me the entire way. My toe, which I had wrapped more as a precautionary measure than anything else, felt relatively fine, much better than it had the previous week. My left foot, however, started to ache, and I had absolutely no idea why. With each step I took, I felt the soreness increase. It never became especially sharp, but it lingered. But hey, it was only my left foot. Who needs it?
Stepping off the A train at 137th Street, I felt physically better prepared than I had in several weeks, yet something just felt out of place. I felt lazy, like my effort was destined to arrive at nothing in terms of positive results. There was no particular reason why, but it was there. When I got to the field, it seemed that many key pieces of Purple Reign, including captain Stuart and our defensive rock, Tim, were missing and that we would barely be able to field a full team, let alone have any substitutes, for our final regular season game. I would have to play the full game, which did not bother me too much, but so would everyone else. Fortunately, we were set to play the orange (oranje?) team, which we had beaten handily in the first game of the season and against whom I had scored my first goal. Perhaps this was just the rejuvenation we needed before heading into the playoffs.
From the opening whistle, however, I was unfocused. I thought that maybe the game would jump-start some adrenaline, but my head was firmly secured in the clouds. After about four minutes of play, someone from the earlier match informed the referee that he was leaving, that we were using his ball and that we would have to give him his ball. This led to a ten-minute stoppage of play which worked against my mindset. Sure, games of keep away are a really fun pastime, but when I am already unable to keep my eyes on the play at hand for more than a few seconds at a time without wondering when the American League adopted the designated hitter rule (it was 1973), they become an unnecessary distraction.
Finally, the referee returned with the Zog Sports collection of soccer balls, and the game resumed. Each team had several exceptional possessions, balancing well-placed passes with space-exploiting runs. Finishing was the rub of the entire situation. For every Xaviesta-like display, there was an equal and opposite Fernando Torres finish. Which is to say, there was not one (all apologies to Nando, who can and has done things that I could only dream of replicating in various editions of FIFA). I was not an exception to that theme. On two separate occasions in the first half, I broke from my defender and faced the keeper alone, only to a) miss the goal and b) shoot the ball directly at the keeper, who naturally saved it.
The dread of falling behind hit us with about ten minutes remaining in the half. A player named Anwar, who had played in several games against us for many different teams and always displayed a penchant for flair over substance, received a ball at about midfield, laid a pass off to a teammate for a give-and-go and broke up the sideline. He faked one defender out of his shoes, sidestepped the goalie and placed a shot firmly in the bottom right corner of the net. The expression on his face, one of tremendous accomplishment in the face of inferior competition, tore at my competitive spirit. It felt like a moment in which he had personally shook a sleeping giant, and I desperately wanted to make sure that was the case.
A few more missed opportunities and a corner which grazed the top of my head put us down 1-0 at halftime. My blasé attitude had taken steps toward recovery, and I was still not particularly convinced that we were headed for disaster. After all, we had fallen behind before only to salvage draws, and we were generating enough quality chances to merit a goal in the second half. Surely we could save this.
The second half began with a series of short, alternating possessions in which neither team advanced the ball to a dangerous position. A pattern did start to emerge, however: on the overwhelming majority of balls the opposing team sent out of bounds, we would relinquish possession immediately. We could not retain any of the inbounds passes we received, and it was starting to take a toll on our midfielders, who would often be caught out of position when trying to guard against losing the ball. This opened up spaces for their midfielders to push forward and left defenders without help in 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 situations.
As a result, we went down 2-0 on a possession in which we gave up the ball to Anwar, who executed another flawless set of moves in charging to the goal. Even the kids sitting in the surrounding areas had to take notice when he broke the ankles of a defender inside the box. Objectively, it was beautiful soccer, even if it was the direct result of poor spacing and a total lack of teamwork on Anwar’s part. That put us in a real tight spot with fourteen minutes remaining. I remained optimistic.
The team’s play, mine included, continued to drag in a very listless fashion. Matt, another forward who had taken on the role of pseudo-captain in Stuart’s absence, was the only person who was clearly exhausting himself on every play. The passes he had and chances he created put him in a “game of the season” kind of situation, yet none of us (mostly, I) could take advantage of his brilliance on the ball. He played box-to-box, sometimes more, and was an important piece of every major run that we had. All of it went to waste.
With around six minutes remaining, we surrendered another goal, one in which Anwar had passed to a teammate inside the box who called himself offsides, yet the goal stood. That did not make any sense to me. How could a referee overrule a player’s own admission of guilt when the referee was nowhere near the play? The sideline referees, volunteers from other teams, did nothing to help, but they at least went with the player’s call. But hey, when the referee is wrong, he is still right.
The rest of the game became an exercise in pushing the ball as far as we could as quickly as we could and punching in any shots we managed to get off of our foots. Angered, but depleted, I fought for every ball and started to run with an intensity that should have been in place from the start. It was to no avail. On a final run through the middle, I took a heavy touch after eluding defenders and shoved the ball right into the outstretched arms of the keeper, who accepted it as if I was handing off a newborn baby. The final whistle blew, I shook hands with my head faced firmly to the ground and went on my un-merry way back to the train.
As I exited the subway and walked to the bus stop, I noticed a bottle cap on the ground. Being the playful, incorrigible young man that I am, I wound up to kick it and promptly whiffed, missing the cap entirely. I deemed it only appropriate for that to have happened and hoped that, with only a single Sunday and potentially two games left, I could regain enough of my early season form to be able to kick the bottle cap when my team needed me the most.