To be the absolute best at something, anything, in a city of eight million people takes a certain combination of skill, will, balance and, in most cases, luck. However minor that area of greatness is, once you are the best, that is it. The key piece of the puzzle seems to be that bit of luck. For an artist, it means having your works seen by a prominent critic and earning a prestigious exhibition at one of the better museums in Manhattan. For musicians, it means playing a great show in front of someone who matters, whether it be an agent, a producer, a club promoter or a famous bassist. For everyone else, it simply means working hard enough and being consistent enough to succeed in a given field. Health is a big part of consistency. More on that later.
Having earned its way into the playoffs by virtue of being a top 4 team during the regular season (2-seed), the men and women of Purple Reign converged on Riverside Park for the final games of the summer. It was a simple proposition, the simplest in sports: win a game, win another game, be crowned Zog Sports 2013 Co-Rec 11v11 Sunday Summer League Champions. Even major American professional sports, it is not so easy, with most teams having to beat more opponents, and in most cases having to beat them multiple times. We should consider ourselves lucky, even if it meant playing two games back-to-back on a Sunday afternoon.
Most of the team arrived at the field at least ten minutes before the scheduled kickoff time, at 1 p.m. On this particular occasion, I dodged the typical three-trains-and-a-bus itinerary which had served me for the majority of the season in favor of a valet service: my parents were in town for the weekend to help move me into college, and they dropped me off at the game before battling Riverside Drive for a parking space and becoming two of four civilian spectators Purple Reign ever had.
Upon arriving at the field, one of my teammates informed everyone that the yellow team, Be Audit You Can Be, had just won the first game and would be playing in the final. Our task at hand was one for which we had been preparing, mostly via email, all week. They say familiarity breeds contempt, and Purple Reign harbored no more contempt for any team in the league than the orange team, The Spice Weasels. It had been the only team to have beaten us all season, in the previous week, yet we had won our first game of the season handily against them. The ubiquitous Anwar made his return after shining in our loss, the customized Netherlands national team jersey seemingly pasted to his back.
To make it to the championship game, we had to beat this squad one more time. The first half of the game played out as a kind of chess match, with each side refusing to relinquish possession yet not pushing the ball far enough ahead to cause any real trouble. I stayed on the left side of the field, and most of the play occurred away from me; the few touches I did have came as a result of misdirected headers or deflected passes, and I was unable to maneuver around the defense in a manner to my liking. Matt, a forward/midfielder who, in the absence of team captain Stuart, had become the most important playmaker the previous week, again assumed the role of controlling possession in the middle of the pitch as a means of commencing charges to the goal.
In a moment of foreshadowing, the forward opposite me, Charlie, took an ill-advised touch, and a defender slammed into his leg, propelling him to the ground. He laid writhing for a few minutes before Matt and I escorted him off the field, his arms around our shoulders in an effort to stay off his now bleeding leg. As in the week before, a lack of substitutes meant that every player counted, and having one get injured could spell serious trouble in a moment of extreme exhaustion.
In the meantime, we had put together several nice stretches of completed passes, but we failed to deliver a final touch. On one run in particular, Matt had broken past his defender only to find a pressing keeper and the help defense, propelling a shot which dribbled back to me. In my all-wielding power, I was able to direct a shot on goal…right at the keeper’s chest.
Re-enter Charlie. Minutes after looking like he was finished for the afternoon, he came back on as a sub and immediately re-asserted himself in our offensive strategy, winding the ball through and around defenders and taking pillow-soft touches near and in the goal box. His eye for anticipating a defender’s movement was unmatched, and it was a welcome surprise to have him back on the field so soon after appearing to have taken a critical hit to the HP. He punished foolish opponents for taking an early step to him and almost laughed when flying by them after waiting a split-second too long to tackle.
Finally, after an opposing corner was knocked away, we found ourselves on the counterattack and with the ball at my feet. Charlie and I were two-against-three, but because most of the play had happened on the other half of the field, the left side was wide open for me to push and draw the other defender. I took a few touches, calculating the proper moment to pass and keeping one eye to the ball and the other to the defenders around Charlie. I inched past my own defender and drew the attention of another, watching as Charlie made his move. I sent the ball to his feet, and as he turned he looked up to shoot. The initial shot was blocked but not held, and Charlie stuck with the rebound to slot it home and put us ahead for the time being, a lead we took into halftime.
Sure not to rest on our laurels, we started the second half strong, again holding as much of the ball as we could stand and completing many strings of consecutive passes. The opposition started to play with increased vigor, however, and took more careful touches, which led to better chances. At one point, Anwar scurried into the box and dodged two defenders, sidestepping our sliding goalkeeper, Henry, only to be met by a wall of help defenders and retreated midfielders. Several shots and rebounds ensued before the ball rolled out of bounds, ending the scare. That play repeated itself a few minutes later from the other side, with only a blocked shot preventing a tie game.
The key to this game lie in the number of blocked and deflected shots our defense took off its bodies and feet. Every player laid his or her well-being on the line for the sake of this team, a hasty collection of strangers only eight weeks before which had grown into a cohesive unit of not-quite-joga bonito. It hurt any one of us to see any of the others in pain, and one player’s missed opportunity was the team’s missed opportunity. Chemistry, that all-important unknown which is just as much Pippen-to-Jordan as it is desperation dream team 2004 Los Angeles Lakers, revealed itself in the smallest plays, the momentous charges forward and everything in between, and the first playoff game was a clear indication of just how far we had come from that first week against this very same opponent.
As The Space Weasels grew more desperate, their backline increasingly diminished. With two minutes left in the game, a mad rush toward our goal resulted in a booted clearance to Charlie, who managed to draw his defender and the keeper all the way to the left side of the goalie box before sliding a pass to Cori, a girl who had played in college and was every bit as tough (and in some cases, much, much tougher) as any of the guys who drew her as a defensive assignment. Cori nudged the shot into the back of the net, putting us up 2-0 and all but sealing our passage into the championship.
When the final whistle blew, we exhaled mightily. The anguish in the faces of our opponents was apparent. This had been the only team to which we had actually lost, and we overcame that defeat, fresh in our minds, to restore confidence and put us a step closer to the end. Our challengers understood the events of the afternoon, each team having matched so well with the other that, if tempted with a sports cliché, we would each win fifty times if we played a hundred. It just so happened that on this day, we claimed one of ours in the most dire of times.
Winded but not exhausted, we looked to the future, which was rapidly approaching. We had faced Be Audit You Can Be once before, with that game ending in a draw. In every case of a draw throughout the season, I had reasoned that we were always the better team simply on an off day. This was our chance to prove it.
In between games, my mother gave me a piece of advice: “Stop using your head! Keep the ball at your feet, where it’s supposed to be!”
We gathered in the center for the final, with the general attitude that anything could happen and that we were extraordinarily evenly matched, given the fact that the 1 seed was playing the 2 seed. Be Audit You Can Be kicked off, approaching each pass with a certain degree of trepidation. From the start, the care with which both sides protected the ball was immense, with possession again held at a premium. The sense that one false move could lead to an opposing chance fell heavily on us.
Every touch was so careful on both sides in those first few minutes because we were trying to feel out each other, and we were each cognizant of it. Neither team wanted to take too many chances, lest something go extremely awry. Every player tried his or her best not to be a little slow, or a little late, which we know is simply impossible.
And then, it happened.
With maybe eight minutes gone by in the first half, Be Audit You Can Be won a corner kick. It fell to the many tangled feet of our defenders, and one of them was able to get good enough contact on the ball to clear it in the general direction of a waiting Charlie on the right wing. Charlie settled the ball, turned with it in a roulette as quickly as I’ve ever seen in the course of a game to shake his defender, and was off. It was a 2-on-2, with me breaking up the left side of the field but always hanging just behind the last defender so as not to run the risk of getting called offside. As Charlie got closer, he drew increasing attention from the goalkeeper, who drifted to Charlie’s side of the goal and left mine open.
In one fluid motion, as best as I can remember, the following happened: I yelled Charlie’s name and broke into a sprint. He lofted a high cross to the opposite goalpost, and I broke entirely from my defender. It became a question of whether or not I would get to the ball and where I would be when it happened, fearing the ball falling to me as I stepped out of play. The keeper recognized the situation as well and adjusted accordingly, racing back to my side of the goal. As the ball reached the end of its descent, my only thought was to try and send it back to the other side of the goal for Charlie to take a one-time shot. Yet, when the ball made contact with my head, I realized I had sent it toward the goal. The ball hit one of the keeper’s hands and shot up into the top left corner of the net for the first score of the game (For those interested, it looked a little like a mirrored version of the goal scored starting around 0:58 into this video).
And they say mother knows best.
I said it at the time, and I truly believe it: that was the single best goal I will ever score in my modest soccer career. Everything that went into it felt like it happened almost in slow motion, which is a cliché if ever there was one, but anyone who has ever experienced a moment like that can relate, even outside of the comparatively unimportant realm of sport. When the referees confirmed that I was not offside over the objections of the opposition, I was elevated to a glorious place of athletic nirvana, briefly, in which pain was not even an identifiable concept. As I strolled back to the center for the next kickoff, everything in the world was perfect.
While I recognize the extreme lack of importance of the goal in the grand scheme of a world penetrated and disheartened by greed, anguish, poverty and war, often all within the same ZIP code, I still felt as if I had taken a major step toward full fluency in the world language that is soccer. I have scored goals before, and, hopefully, I will score goals in the future, but there was something unreal about this one which removed me from any sense of place or time and dropped me in a world where soccer was the only currency, and I had cashed the most important check of my life.
Unfortunately, the tax collector came calling not too much longer afterward. A few minutes later, Matt asked me to drift back to the defense and cover a speedy forward at left back. As unskilled as I am in most areas of soccer, defense is especially not my forte, but with our lack of substitutes and general need to be as fluid as possible, I agreed to do so. On the next possession, an opposing midfielder sent the forward in on a through ball to the right wing, and I turned to catch up with the pass. As I was running alongside the forward toward the ball, I felt a pull in my left leg and immediately thought I had sprained or torn a ligament in my knee. As I kept running, slowing down after I knocked the ball out of bounds purely on momentum, I realized it was higher and closer to my thigh: I had pulled my hamstring very severely.
I tried to jog to the ball but found myself simply unable, barely mustering enough energy to walk. I tossed the ball to Cori for the throw-in and immediately signaled for a sub, simply telling her, “I can’t do this.” One of the toughest sights in the world, I imagine, is a parent witnessing his or her child in any kind of pain. When I made it to my parents, sitting in the shade with matching empathetic looks of trouble in their eyes. My mother took to treating my leg, trying to figure out exactly what and where something had gone wrong. Had it happened on the other side of the field, I’m almost certain she would have taken on the role of Derek Redmond’s dad and personally assisted me to a place of relative comfort.
As it was, I rested my leg on the stone stadium steps surrounding the field. I watched us surrender one goal, furious in my inability to have prevented it. My teammates kept looking to see if I had recovered, if I had simply walked it off as Charlie had so effortlessly done less than an hour beforehand. At halftime, they converged near me, each checking to see how my leg was responding. They needed me as a substitute, if only for my energy. They were tired, and our constant rotating of players kept people fresh enough to make an impact when they returned to the field.
After halftime, when my mother and I walked to the snack bar to fill up a water bottle at her behest, we turned just in time to see Be Audit You Can Be score the go-ahead goal at the opposite end of the field. I took several draws from my bottle and began jogging around the side of the field, hoping to stretch my hamstring back to life. With around eight minutes left, I subbed back into the game, barely half the player I was prior and relegated back to the defense as a marker for the slower forward. I did manage to make a solid tackle on him inside the box with my good foot, and he even complimented me on it, and had a few clearances, but I knew my left hamstring had rendered me essentially useless. The Willis Reed comeback was not to be. I left the game at the feet of Matt, Charlie and the midfielders.
With around five minutes left, I subbed out and watched as Charlie stormed up the field. Matt ran alongside him as he dodged two defenders and faced only the keeper. This was it. We could tie the game, go to overtime and possibly end on penalties, to which, while not entirely welcome, I could at least contribute on one leg. All Charlie had to do was either a) slot the shot home or b) lay off to Matt, neutralizing the keeper and ensuring the goal.
Except, he didn’t. Charlie took one too many touches, saving the cringe-inspiring heaviest for the last, and wound up rolling over the keeper, who clutched the ball tightly after it rolled into his arms. It was among the most devastating sequences I have ever witnessed in sports, and I am a fan of the New York Jets. I could not believe that after all the sublime magic he had given us on that day, Charlie would prove himself human in the most vital of times. In that moment, the polar opposite of the feeling I had following my goal in the first half consumed me, and I knew it was finished.
Even so, I subbed back in with about three minutes remaining and tried to contribute to anything that would put us back in that position. Lightning, as the scientifically-incorrect saying goes, never strikes twice, and the idiom held up on this day. The terminal whistle blew, a definite end to what had been a raucous, unpredictable season.
Still, it was remarkable to look back on what we had accomplished throughout the summer, from an adult rec league soccer point of view. A group of people was thrown together, only two of whom having known each other prior to the season, and gelled to create something fun and mildly entertaining. While I realize this happens several thousand times a year in cities all across the rest of the United States and the world, each situation is unique, and there was truly something captivating about this particular team to me. If nothing else, it gave me a weird and quasi-meta jumping-off point for this little experiment, Tuesdays With Horry, and, in the interest of full disclosure, helped me to maintain some stability during one of the most volatile summers of my life. Every Sunday, between the hours of noon and 3 p.m., I would play soccer, something I enjoyed thoroughly and which I could use as a tool to bond with people who were otherwise unlike myself in most respects. It was a glorified exercise regimen, the best one I could ever imagine, and when the rest of the team was discussing future plans for Zog Sports collaborations which would reveal themselves more clearly through our continuing email thread, I left them with only this: “See you in the fall.”