Two for three

I have scabs on the outsides of both ankles, a nice scrape curving up one shin, a toenail that looks as if it’s painted purple, and the clearly discernable imprint of a ball on one thigh. And we’re all of three games into the spring season.

We’re in that enjoyable phase of a veteran’s season when everyone has played themselves into shape but their bodies haven’t started breaking down yet. My current team hasn’t seen anything like the Bataan Death March of a season that whittled 31 players down to 10 healthy enough to be on the field, but our longtime captain is done thanks to his knees and our best midfielder is out for three months courtesy of a nagging hamstring. In other words, we have no chance at the title.

I’ve been moved back up to striker after spending most of the fall season at right wing. I’m also starting, which is nice, especially since I spent the winter running twice a week in preparation for the need to get up and down the field on the wing. However, the first game against R was a disaster; we controlled the ball for the entire first half, blew about 10 chances to score, and I couldn’t complain when the new captain took me out at halftime. I only took one shot, and too often passed when I should have simply shot on goal, perhaps because I wasn’t expecting to play up front.

We finally scored right after the half started, but then the captain made a serious blunder. We only have three speed players, me, Sergio, and Sandro. I was on the bench, Sandro tweaked his leg and had to come out, and Sergio got tired and took himself out with 15 minutes left. That left us with precisely zero speed on the field, which shrunk the field and killed our attack. R scored two goals on headed corners in the last five minutes and we lost 2-1. I also learned that unlike the previous captain, the new captain was not keen on post-match analysis, as he reacted very badly to my pointing out why we had lost a game we controlled most of the way.

And by badly, I mean badly enough that my friend with whom I rode to the next game was telling me that I’d probably be sitting on the bench for the entire second game against A. But he was only joking, as the captain told me that I was starting again and told me to prove that we needed speed on the field. Fortunately, Sergio gave me the chance to do that as he slipped the ball past the defensive line, at midfield, I blew by my defender and took a shot from just inside the box to put us up 2-0. I came out 10 minutes into the second half after our third goal, but after A scored two goals to make it 3-2 and the field started to shrink again, the captain came out and put me back in for him at left wing. I started making runs, forced the goalie to mis-hit a hurried clearance that Sergio promptly buried, and we ended up winning 5-2. Score one for the Theory of Speed.

Last night’s game started off all right, but although we were controlling the game for the first 15 minutes, I realized I just couldn’t get past this Robert Carlos-lookalike at sweeper. Not having Giorgio, our injured midfielder, really hurt as our attack kept failing to make the last pass to the striker in shooting position, and then D scored a beautiful goal on their first chance. I had one decent opportunity that I created by blatantly shoving the ersatz Carlos off the ball as we ran for it, but I hit the side of the net. We also had one goal taken away for offside, but it was the right call, and for once, no one even complained.

We were down 3-0 at halftime, then 4-0. I did get one back, however, when I charged down a backpass and blocked the sweeper’s attempted clearance with my right thigh. The ball rebounded right into the net before the goalie even realized that it hadn’t been cleared. In 25 years of playing soccer, that’s only the second time I’ve managed to score off a blocked clearance; the last time was with Nike about 15 years ago. Then our right wing celebrated his birthday by turning a throw-in into a half-volley that hit the crossbar and went in, which gave us a faint hope of coming back before D scored again to put the game away. We lost, 5-2, but no one felt bad about being beaten by the better team, although I was very annoyed with myself for getting caught offside on what should have been a good chance at the end.

Ender’s team is off to a better start. They are 2-1, but they’ve also lost two of their three best players. Jet was finally poached by an elite regional team and Cesare broke his collarbone, but, ironically enough, Ender and the big kid that he beat up last fall have turned out to be an effective combination in defense. The big kid sweeps while Ender shuts down the side and brings the ball up the field as a sort of point defender. Most of their scoring attacks begin with a long pass from him, either up the side or a cross into the middle that drops behind the defense. He doesn’t have much speed, but he has good vision and anticipation, so he’s usually in the right spot before he needs to be there.