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Soccer Poet

Oh The Irony

I used Saturday night to watch the video of Arkansas v Tennessee to prepare for Sunday’s match with the Razorbacks. About 20 minutes into the video I was thinking, Wow, they’re gonna cause us a lot of problems. They had a couple of dynamic attackers that I was particularly worried about. When those players can receive the ball and face up, it creates a lot of havoc because Arkansas loves to interchange positions as they go forward. There’s no straight up and down. It’s a lot of overlapping and slashing runs across defensive zones and that stuff forces defenders to make decisions and communicate. And the more you force defenders to do those two things, the more likely the defenders are to eventually botch something.

One of the things I try to do when a game ends is remember my pregame speech and compare it to what actually transpired on the field. Sometimes the key points are embarrassingly wrong. Other times they look like prophecy. Today would fall into the latter category... sort of.

The theme of today’s pregame speech was “no do-overs.” We haven’t exactly lit the world on fire as a Sunday team and only performing once a week won’t win you an SEC championship. I wanted the girls to understand that if we didn’t come to play and this game got away from us, we didn’t get a second bite of the apple. You get what you get. That’s just how it is. In the SEC everyone has the same 11 games. Everyone plays everyone. But only once. And the team that gets it done more often than the others gets to call itself the SEC Champion. Excuses don’t matter. Only results.

The point I was trying to make is that if we came out flat and lost, in the end it might cost us the SEC title. We had to prove that our ability to perform won’t be dictated by something as trivial as a calendar. We had to come out fast and play like champions because every Friday and Sunday we are literally playing for a championship. No do-overs.

So… how’d it work out?

Well let me say this… If you took goal-scoring out of the equation we could not have asked for a better first half performance than the one we put on against Arkansas today. There were times where I would just sit back and think, “Holy smokes we’re on fire!” That’s rare in coaching because as coaches you’re forever searching for total and unblemished perfection. And no, we weren’t getting that. But what we were getting was some top-shelf movement of the ball and chances at goal. As far as what we did before we got into the final 20 yards, well, it was pretty darn spectacular. So no, we weren’t flat. The shot total for the half was 13-1 in our favor. Sometimes a shot total doesn’t really reflect what was actually happening on the field. Not the case in this particular instance.

In a couple of recent entries I’ve mentioned ‘a game of two halves.’ Today fell into that category also, but not based on momentum or territorial dominance. Today the two halves were dictated by Mother Nature. There was the first half - played on a more or less normal field. And there was the second half which looked a lot like the last 30 minutes of the Poseidon Adventure. Except wetter.

Last night we got a lot of rain here in Athens but the field held up pretty darn well. There was one rough patch, a coffin-sized puddle down our attacking right side in the first half that would kill the ball, but other than that the field played pretty much as it normally does. But the moment we kicked off the rain came in again. It was more or less a glorified drizzle at first and didn’t affect the conditions too much, but in the final ten minutes of the half it shifted into high gear and began to take its toll. The field had reached its saturation point before the game and now began to hold copious amounts of water. The rain never abated and by the time the second half started there was standing water all over the pitch. That’s all fine and dandy when you’re playing U-12 soccer and it’s more cute and comical than anything, but when your job security is predicated on wins and losses, the last thing you want to see when you’re playing so well is a swamp growing out of your field. But sometimes that’s just how it goes.

The Razorbacks did a better job than we did of adjusting to the conditions to start the half. They played very direct right out of the chute while we tried to maintain our style for the opening minutes. The result was Arkansas' two best chances of the match and two strong saves from Baker. After that, mainly through trial and error, our style sort of evolved into a direct brand of play. Once we started accepting the things we could not change and making adjustments to the now ankle-deep water, we got better and took back control of the match.

Okay, the next hour or so is a little blurry because of lightning delays. We were called off of the field in the 67thminute. Then we were called back on to resume play. But before play could resume lighting struck again and we were sent back to the dressing room. Forty minutes later we were summoned onto the field again, only to be sent back inside once more.

The field could have been deemed unplayable to start the second half. By the time the first lightning delay was called it certainly should have been. I’m not sure of the definition of unplayable. I don’t know that there is one officially. But when it is impossible to pass a ball along the ground over five yards, I think that’s a decent indicator that it’s time to pack up shop and call it a day. But in all fairness, what do I know? It’s not like I’ve been in soccer for 35 years. Oh. Wait.

When the field gets saturated like that, as a coach all you’re thinking is that one goal wins it. The obvious problem is actually manufacturing that one goal. Creativity had become obsolete. The only things that mattered were being first to the ball and trying to kick it up and out of the marsh.

Anyway, the powers-that-be (who I can assure you are not insurance actuaries) eventually decided that the weather was right for us to continue.So while the heavens thundered, we were game on.

We took advantage of the lightning delay to revamp our style of play. Now… I want you to think about all you’ve read over the past few entries. Think about everything that we train and we value. Now think about throwing all of that in the trash and telling a lot of very high-level players this: Stop passing the darn ball. Don't even bother. Just kick it high and long toward their goal and run after it. Because that’s all that was left to do.

There was absolutely no value in trying to pass the ball on the ground. It was like trying to play in a tide pool on Myrtle Beach. The only way for the ball to get anywhere was for it to get up and off the ground. The closer you hit it to the opponent’s goal the better. It was that mind-numbingly simple. But when you’re playing in ankle deep water in water-logged shoes trying to kick a water-logged ball, that’s also a lot easier said than done.

The second half wasn’t soccer. I don’t know what sport it was but it certainly wasn’t soccer. Regardless, we still dominated territorially. We had a few close calls but most of what happened on the field was just downright silly. When an unpressured player runs right past her own dribble because the ball has stopped dead in a quagmire, there’s a real problem. And that was happening everywhere. We were constantly screaming at our players not to dribble, not to even take a prep touch unless absolutely necessary because no matter how appealing it looked the field would inevitably reach up and grab the ball. Open space in front of a ball carrier was like a carnival game that seems so inviting, so very easy to beat, but in the end proves invincible.

We got better at this non-soccer soccer thing. After the lightning break I don’t think Baker had to make a save (I could be wrong there). But with the exception of a couple of forays into our defensive third, the rest of the match was more or less played in the Arkansas end.

Hats off to the Razorbacks. They defended with everything they had and their goalkeeper made three fantastic stops coming off her line to blow-up 1v1 chances.

We kept getting close. We kept putting in dangerous serves and finding dangerous seams. But seeing so many great chances die in the slop was getting so very frustrating. Every time we had a ‘this could be the one’ moment, a patch of water would palm the ball and we’d have to start all over again. It was just plain maddening.

90 minutes produced no winner nor did 20 minutes of overtime. What we were left with was a nil-nil draw, a shot advantage of 22-5… and no do-over.

When the match ended there was no one on this planet I wasn’t mad at. If Mickey Mouse had wandered into my office I would have swatted him with a broom. I’m not really sure why. Can’t be mad at the girls. They played their hearts out. I guess that was the problem. There was really no one to be angry at so I decided to spread my anger out across Planet Earth. It was one of those afternoons when I really wish a mime had come to my front door. Climb that rope now, Sucker!

There are so many ‘if onlys’ from this match. If only our shots had hit the other side of the bar. If only the field stayed dry. But you know what. None of those matter. It’s the SEC. Regardless of the conditions, you either get it done or you don’t. Being the better side just isn’t enough. You have to find a way to win. No do-overs.