So the question was, rhetorically, “How bad can a bottle of ketchup go in seven hours?” We were cleaning out our unit at the Summer House condos in Orange Beach, AL, trying to decide which of our foodstuffs would make the cut for the return trip to Athens and which would be jettisoned down the trash chute. This particular bottle of ketchup cost us $1.79 at the Orange Beach Publix. That’s one dollar and seventy-nine cents. Less than a Starbucks venti. Less than pretty much anything.
No, money wasn’t an issue. The thought of buying food and then throwing it away when it was still perfectly useful, barely used – that was the issue. Plenty of other food had already been selected for the trip home. But that food had been given cooler priority and our three coolers were filled to capacity. If the ketchup was coming home, I would be the sole caregiver for its storage and transport. The mustard and mayonnaise were also a part of the pool of eligible candidates – also barely touched. But this is about the ketchup.
Why am I thinking about ketchup? How did this conversation hijack my brain? It’s like I’m paralyzed. How long have I been staring at this little bottle of ketchup? For Pete's sake, pull yourself together, man!
In my own defense, I was running on five hours sleep and still in a bit of a fog. Okay, a big fog. Thing is, I easily could’ve gotten more sleep. Could’ve gotten another three hours if I chose. But last night I saw something special. So I decided to forgo sleep just so I could see it again.
When last we met, I was recapping our abysmal outing with the Volunteers in Knoxville. It was our last regular season game and we knew it. Losing would seriously damage any chance we had at an NCAA bid and we knew that too. And with so many reasons to play, we just didn’t. It was like our tank had hit E four days earlier against Auburn and we couldn’t find a gas station.
It was scary. It was scary when it happened in Athens, and scarier still in Knoxville, because as a coach you have to wonder if it’s even fixable. Our kids were just spent.
So we had hit an emotional and physical dip - an undeniable malaise. We had become passionless automatons riding a conveyor belt, caught in a pattern of pack-bus-match-bus-unpack-repeat. Sports psychologists will line up to tell you that you have to be stronger than the external factors, stronger than those things beyond your control. They will tell you that you have to rise above human nature. And for a while we did just that. But eventually the load became too much to carry. The too many hours on a fleet of busses; enough hotels to break the bank in Monopoly; the cycle of returning to Athens under a blanket of darkness in the wee-hours and squeezing in a glorified nap before rising for morning classes - all of it had led to our collapse. In the end we revealed our humanness.
The story of the year in women’s college soccer arrived a few days ago when FSU Coach Mark Krikorian left his starters in Tallahassee and took a team of reserves to the ACC Tournament where they were promptly dispatched by Wake Forest. Krikorian felt that there was a bigger fish to fry, specifically the quest for an NCAA national title, and that resting his starters would be the best way to butter the pan. That decision has brought a firestorm onto Krikorian and everyone in soccer had an opinion, even before the ACC carpet-bombed FSU with penalties for devaluing their premier women’s soccer event. Well, from where I’ve sat these past few weeks, namely the front row of a charter bus, that idea doesn’t sound all that outlandish. The lion’s share of our attention has been devoted to finding ways to buy our players some rest. We’ve shortened training sessions. We’ve cancelled some. We’ve backed up wake-up calls. We’ve done whatever we could. The only other thing we could’ve done was to leave our starters behind, but we never had that luxury. FSU is an NCAA Tournament lock. We are anything but. So we couldn’t throw the SEC Tournament. Fact is, because of our loss at Tennessee, we probably had to win it.
We arrived in Orange Beach on Tuesday afternoon anticipating a Wednesday kick-off against Auburn. But the gulf was hammered by rains late Tuesday and all of Wednesday which pushed the first round matches back to Thursday. I wasn’t too sad to see us get one more day of rest. On Thursday morning the players seemed upbeat and energized in a way that I hadn’t seen in weeks. And on Thursday night at roughly 8 P.M., something amazing started to happen. The Dawgs remembered how good they really were.
I love soccer when it is played the right way. I love soccer when the team in possession values the ball and doesn’t hurry to give it back to the opponent. I love when one team takes its time to probe the opponent by stringing passes together in long sequences and the opponent chases with dogged futility. That was how this team was designed to play. And on Thursday night we did just that.
So many times I watch a game and see two teams play with all the artistry of a fat roofer hammering a nail. What I saw on Thursday looked nothing like that. What I saw on Thursday looked like surgery. From the moment the game kicked off it looked like our players had been bathed in the bright light of Kenny Dalglish. We remembered how to pass a ball, how to keep a ball… how to make an opponent chase. It was glorious.
And naturally we fell behind 1-0.
In the 15thminute Traci Dreesen inadvertently deflected an Auburn cross into our net. The official scorer gave credit for the goal to an Auburn player. The scorer was and still is wrong. It should have been recorded as an own-goal. Funnier still, there is also, ‘officially’ speaking, actually an assist attached to that own goal.
I wouldn’t have mentioned Traci’s name but the story as a whole commands it, because Traci Dreesen wasn’t just a little bit special that night. Traci Dreesen was freaking spectacular. Traci had an awakening after our Mercer mishap and since then she’s been a fixture in our starting line-up and the engine in our midfield. And as good as I felt she had been before the SEC Tournament, against Auburn she was on a whole different level. In a team where everyone was playing at a high level, Dreesen was exalted. We paired her with Eddy in the middle and that combination was the hub of a possession wheel that sprayed passes across the park like a six-jet sprinkler head sprays water streams across the front lawn. We went to the half still down a goal, but we had seen a lot of the ball and Auburn had expended a lot of energy trying to get it back from us.
At the half we didn’t make any significant tactical adjustments. What we did do is lay it on the line. If we didn’t find a way to win that game, our team as we know it would be done. The program would live on, but as it stood, if things didn’t change on the scoreboard, this would be the last time this specific group of players would ever play together again.
The message must’ve hit a nerve for as good as we thought we were in the first half, it paled beside our second half performance because in those second 45 minutes, we were the best soccer team I’ve ever been a part of. We played with an urgency befitting the direness of our predicament but never abandoned our style. Far from it. We actually got better at it. It was our most complete half of soccer. We were as close to perfect as a coach could ever hope to see. And in the 67thminute Kelli Corless played a quick free kick to Traci Dreesen. Dreesen fired from 25 and her shot ricocheted into the Auburn net to knot the score. The game was 1-1 and Dreesen had both goals.
Our opportunities were abundant but the goals were scarce. Locandro flared a header from Lex’s cross that forced a great save. Miller spun a couple of defenders but her shot clanged the outside of the post. We got a corner with about ten to play. We’ve had over 100 corner kicks this year and Bailey, because she stands at 5’11”, has gone forward for almost every one of them. So when she moved forward for this corner kick I said to no one in particular on the bench, “C’mon Bay. You’ve been up there 108 times. Can you please score a goal?” The ball came across with high hopes... but again nothing.
We couldn’t finish the job in regulation even though the disparity in the shot margin continued to grow. Still knotted at 1-1 after the first overtime we told our reserves to start thinking about their penalty kicks. I was also steadying for the unthinkable because this game was setting itself as one of soccer’s signature, evil masterpieces where the team that utterly dominates ends up losing on an anomaly – an inapposite foray by the outmatched team that almost by accident culminates with the ball finding its way into the net of the better team as if pulled there by the force of a black hole. We’ve suffered that fate too often this season and one more miscarriage of justice would have had me jumping off the 5thfloor balcony at the Summer House Condominiums.
In the second overtime a splendid parry by Auburn’s keeper gave us another corner. Lex curled it across the six. This time Bailey popped off the goalkeeper and redirected her header down through the tangle of legs, arms and torsos and into the side netting for a sensational finish to our season’s best all around performance. The dog-pile, well, dawg-pile, ensued and we had finally had a dramatic finish go in our favor. And yes there was the excitement generated by the dramatic finish, but there was also another type of excitement forming – a soccer ecstasy. It was about more than just the end. It was about the whole of the game, the whole of the performance. We saw us at our best. It was like the light bulb had gone on for everyone on the same night and we finally figured out the combination to unlock any door that may end up in our path. Finally, in our 20thgame of the season, we finally figured it out. And now that we had it, we craved more. A lot more.
When you’re about to play Florida, no matter who you are or what you say out loud, it’s hard not to have a twinge of doubt about your chances because to beat them you’re going to have to be both very good and probably also a little bit lucky. But the Auburn match cured us of any lingering sense of inferiority. We were going to play Florida in the semi-final and this time we were doing it convinced that quite simply, we were the better soccer team.
We lost 3-1 to Florida, conceding the third goal in the final three minutes as we threw bodies forward trying to equalize. So if you weren’t there, if you didn’t see what I saw, if you’re opinion will be married to the score-line, you might just want to stop reading because you probably won’t believe what I’m about to say.
Well, I’ll just try to repeat what I told the team after the match…
“Last night... the game against Auburn… it was freaking great. And it wasn’t just great because of the dramatic finish. It was great because of how we played the game… how we passed the ball… how we played with patience and composure… how we refused to abandon our style. It was like somewhere in the past 48 hours we remembered who we were. And it was just sensational to watch and I was thinking that if we weren’t going to win this tournament, that if I had to go down, that was the team I wanted to go down with. That was a team I could lose with and have a clear conscience because last night you were fantastic. It was the best performance from any team I’ve ever coached. And tonight… tonight you were even better.”
And I meant every word.
I had never seen Florida have to spend so much time being the team without the ball. I mean we were flat out toying with them for long stretches. At least three times during the first half I laughed and said to myself, “This is unbelievable. They can’t get the ball from us.”
I watch a lot of women’s soccer matches. On Monday and Tuesday of each week I’ll watch our two games from the weekend and then at least three matches of our opponent for the upcoming Friday. Then I’ll mix in one for our upcoming Sunday opponent. That’s a minimum of six matches a week. And let me tell you something… it hardly ever looks like what happened on that field last night.
Robin said it best. She said that it was a great game because athleticism wasn’t the distinguishing characteristic. She’s absolutely right. It wasn’t about speed and power and jamming a round peg into a square goal. Last night was about technical ability and tactics – those were the hallmarks. It was two very good teams putting on what may be the best played game I’ve ever been a part of and it was an honor to freeze my butt off on that sideline just to see it.
Normally when a game ends I’ll get a hold of the video and take a quick look at the big plays – the moments that directly impacted the final score. Last night I watched that game in its entirety for no other reason than to enjoy it all over again. I wanted to see if, through the lens of the camera, we played as well as I thought we had. And you know what? We absolutely did.
So now, like another fifteen or so nervous teams across the U.S., we have to sit and wait for a committee to decide if we get to play another day. And the thought of it ending now, well, I can’t process that. At the end of each season I’m sad. I’m sad the ride is over. I’m sad for the players – particularly the seniors. And that won’t change. But this time I’m also sad for the soccer. I want this season to live on just to see how good we can really be, how far we can really go. I’m not ready for this season to be over. This story hasn’t been finished being written. We’ve just started scratching the surface. Playing the way we’ve played the past two nights, we have a legitimate chance to beat any team in the country. The question is, will we get that chance?
In every other season I’ve ever coached, when it comes to an end, I just want to take a rest. I want to curl up on the couch for a day or two and think about something other than soccer – like Cool Ranch Doritos. But on that bus back from Orange Beach my to-do list had just one item. I didn’t want to sleep in or spend two days under a Snuggie watching Law and Order and getting fatter. All I wanted to do, with urgency, was get home and start cutting up video. I want to cut up video of us at our very best in case we make the NCAAs, and also in case we don’t. Because regardless of when Georgia Soccer takes the field again, there’s a new blueprint that we’re going to follow. We’re going to watch ourselves playing the game the way it was meant to be played, and then we’re going to commit to making it look like that for the ever-after. I hope this group of players gets to stay together because they are the ones that redefined Georgia Bulldog Soccer. They are the ones who just made the template. I’m hoping that they get to ride this ride a little while longer. They freaking deserve it.