We are the champions

Last night, we won our second straight league title, and I’m much happier about this one because I actually contributed to it. After three years of not being able to play soccer due to a leg injury, I joined a veteran’s team that plays at a lower level than my old elite team. Whereas my old league featured a number of players who had been in top professional programs and even one ex-international, the only connection to any UEFA teams in my new league is that our main rival has a midfielder whose brother used to play for Liverpool. Even so, it’s been difficult for me despite the lower level of play because I’m older, I hadn’t played for three years, and it always takes a while to adjust to the style of your new teammates.

Last year, I joined the club towards the end of the season and my entire contribution was to play the second half of the last game, during which I did precisely nothing except send a few harmless crosses to no one, as we had gone into a defensive position and were happy with the tie that clinched our championship. This year, I was absolutely astounded to find myself starting the first game, since I was by almost any measure the worst of the six strikers we have at our disposal. Through playing my way back into shape and getting more accustomed to everyone’s preferences, I moved up into the fifth position, but remained largely superflous as I’d scored only four goals over the course of a season which saw us rack up a +49 goal difference going into the last three games. However, we did so largely by crushing the weaker teams and losing the occasional game to the three best teams, so after last week’s 3-1 loss to our main rivals, who were three points behind us going into the game, we found ourselves tied for first with a goal-difference advantage and two games left.

The problem was that our second- and third-best strikers were injured, as was our goalie. Injuries are a common problem with veterans teams, since you just don’t recover as quickly from them in your thirties and forties as in your twenties, and most players have a few lingering, long-term issues that are susceptible to flaring up here and there. On my old team, we once went from 31 healthy players to 10 by the second half of the last game of the season. So, I wound up starting up front with our top striker, as our fourth-best striker was playing in goal. We attacked hard from the start and created two decent chances, but then the other striker got hit from behind and had to go out after only five minutes. Fortunately, I tend to play much better with the other striker, who came forward as another player went into goal, so we were able to maintain our offensive pressure.

I’d already missed one shot just wide of goal when one of our defenders charged forward with the ball and made a perfect through pass beyond the defense, which was playing an aggressive offsides trap. Of course, I love high offsides traps, since they’re very vulnerable to any speed striker patient enough to remain onside. It set up what over the years has turned into my favorite situation, the through ball between the circle and the 18-yard box, which all but forces the keeper to come out in order to cut down the angle. I have a very weak and inaccurate shot, especially for Europe, in part due to poor technique and part due to the leg injury, but for some reason, the one thing I can always do is loop the ball over the head of the keeper and down into the upper left corner from 20 to 25 yards out. I touched the ball once with the outside of my foot to push it right and create an angle, he came out as expected, I hit the ball about five yards outside of the box, and it arced perfectly into the upper left corner. 1-0.

Only about two minutes later, our center mid passed the ball past the defense again, but wide right this time. Both the other striker and I broke on the ball, and while I could have gotten there first, being on the right, he shouted “lascia, lascia”, which I immediately did since he has a very powerful and accurate right foot. So, I cut left and circled behind him, giving him an option to pass across, but assuming that he’d shoot and score. However, he instead drew the goalie and the defenders to him, then slid the ball across the face of goal to me, where I was so alone that I was able to take the time to safely trap it before booting it into the back of the net. 2-0. It was one of those plays that is so easy that you tend to forget all the proper decision-making and execution that made it possible

I was quite happy to come out at halftime with two goals on four shots, since it had been my job to chase the defenders around and keep them from having time to build their attack. However, ten minutes into the second half, it was 3-0 and our left midfielder had to come out after having his foot stomped on for the second time. Our captain, who is one of the injured strikers, looked at his options, all of whom had played the first half, and settled on me since I was the least worn out. I didn’t start that well as their right midfielder, my man, scored on a post-corner kick scrum, but no one blamed me for it since our defender on the post had the ball right at his feet on the line but failed to clear it because he didn’t see it. It probably wasn’t my fault since the only thing I could have done was either physically tackle the guy and give up a penalty, or kick it in our goal myself. Still, it rankled a little. But that was pretty much their last gasp as our defenders soon figured out that neither of their outside midfielders could keep pace with me or our right midfielder, who is also an ex-track man. Between us, we must have made 12 long runs up the sidelines in the half, four of which resulted in goals. I was particularly pleased when on one of them, I beat the midfielder down the line, faked cutting in before cutting back out to beat the right defender around the corner, then returned the earlier favor by drawing the goalie and sliding the ball back to my former fellow striker. The shot I gave him was a little tougher than the one he’d all but gift-wrapped me since there were defenders all over the box, but he effortlessly buried it in the upper right corner. I really like playing with him as he always does what I consider to be the sensible thing, and that goal marked the third one in two games where one of us directly assisted the other’s goal. The right midfielder added one more to make it 7-2 and the game was over.

We still have one more game left to play, but the team that beat us last week was upset on Friday, so even if we lose, we’ll win the league by virtue of our +53 goal difference. Half the guys don’t realize that yet, as our captain told everyone that we need at least a tie to be sure of winning the league, but that’s just because he wants to win it on points, not goal difference. He reminds me of my high school team’s captain as they’re both hypercompetitive players who simply will not accept anything less than 100 percent effort from everyone. That high school team was good too, as we won both conference and regional championships. I’ve played on teams that win by virtue of superior talent and teams that win by playing as well-led machine, and I have to say, I very much prefer the latter.

Considering that I thought my competitive days were done four years ago, it’s truly a joy to be able to experience the feeling of seeing a ball go into the net and to play on a winning team once more. These days, I care much more about Ender’s performances than my own, but I feel very fortunate to still be able to go out there on the field and contribute something. No matter how stiff and sore I feel today….