Tuesday, April 5, 2011
So the Atlanta Beat came to Athens last night (at the time of this writing, last night has faded into last week). It’s not every day that you get to square off with a full-fledged professional team, so even for a spring game, and as much as we didn’t want to admit it, it was kind of a big deal. I mean, how do you not get just a little bit star-struck when Ms. All-Everything, Heather Mitts, is in your backyard? We’re only human. It was a gorgeous night for soccer and all signs pointed to a memorable event. The day’s only downer was that Izzy had come down sick and wouldn’t be there to meet some phenomenal role models.
As you might expect from a pro team, the Beat have some talent... Like two-time Olympic gold medalist Heather Mitts for example, and her gold medaling teammates Carli Lloyd and Kat Whitehill, not to mention fellow National Team member U.S. Lori Chalupny and uber-athlete and collegiate All-American, India Trotter. That’s just the start of a pretty deep cast. The Beat were 5-0 against college teams this spring and hadn’t conceded a goal. They defeated UNC 3-0 and the Heels didn’t even record a shot until the 85thminute. Let’s just say we were looking at an uphill battle.
Okay, a little comedy you just can’t get from the box score. Capitalizing on the fame of our visitors, the Home Team from 960 The Ref - the local sports-talk radio show - broadcasted live from our press box in the hours leading up to the game. They included a live interview segment with Steve, which I sincerely hope you heard, as he did a bang-up job discussing the world’s best players and addressed a host of other topics. Then, because there was still plenty of air to fill, our opportunistic sports marketing staff started poaching the Beat’s players for interviews. It’s not every day you get the chance to interview some gold medalists, so you gotta strike when the iron is hot, right? Well, apparently protocol dictates that when you interview a professional player, you first get it cleared with through the appropriate channels - namely their coach. Our people, me included, did not. Ummm… Yeah. Our bad. For us it was just a carnival of star power and we wanted to enjoy it while we could. Was that wrong?
While his team went into the locker room to, you know, focus on the match, the Beat’s coach, a very likeable and accomplished Aussie named James Galanis, stood gathering his thoughts out on the empty pitch, fifty yards from the fence-line in front of the grandstand. (Keep in mind that there was music blasting over the PA system, so on the field, there’s no way to hear someone who is more than 15 yards away from you.) Anyway, in the solitude of the deserted stadium, Coach Galanis is dialed in to the game at hand, reviewing his notes, thinking through what he’s going to say to his team in pre-game. That’s right about when the circus began.
Galanis sees Keely Dowling and Lauren Sesselmann marching their way up to the press box for a heretofore unscheduled and unapproved pregame interview. He didn’t say anything, because with the distance between the parties and the music blaring, let’s face it, there wasn’t any point to it. He just intimated his displeasure by checking his watch, dismissed the distraction, then refocused on his notes. Five minutes later, with Dowling and Sesselmann on the air and Coach Galanis still wandering the field, starting center back, Kat Whitehill, strolls by - headed for where else? The press box, naturally. Galanis, growing a bit more visibly agitated, again checks his watch. A disapproving shake of his head followed by a heavy sigh tells me he is wondering what in the world his players could possibly be thinking this close to game-time. Now, while the Beat are supposed to be in the locker room focusing on the match, we’ve got Dowling and Sesselmann on the air, Whitehill actually waiting in queue, an irritated coach wandering the field, and whataya know…. here comes Heather Mitts bopping her way to the press box. The Beat may have had more players in our press box than in their locker room. It was fantastic!
The cavalcade of stars was lovely, but there was still the matter of the game we were about to play against a very strong opponent. We didn’t bother with a scouting report for this match. I mean what were we really going to say? These three players have played in two Olympics and two World Cups, but these two only played in one World Cup? So we decided to just worry about ourselves. We’ve been focusing a lot on possession this spring and it’s been paying off so there didn’t seem to be much point in changing. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, if you play quick and simple, you’ll be difficult to beat. At least that was our logic.
Before each game the players gather in the video room and wait for the coaches to address them. Waiting for them on the white-board at the front of the room were these pearls of wisdom:
No one can outrun a moving ball
- Keep the ball
- Make them chase
- Don’t abandon our style
By the time the coaches got into the room, someone had done some editing and changed ‘style’ to ‘SWAG.’ I liked that. I like it a lot.
Steve made a great point in pre-game. As a matter of fact, it was the only point that really mattered. He told the girls not to wait to start playing. He said, “Let’s not come in here at half-time and realize we can actually play with that team. Let’s not wait to realize that we’re a good team, too. Let’s go after them right from the start.” As far as I was concerned, that was the most important message our players would hear.
Then I got my chance to speak. I was a little worried about our nerves. If it was a big deal to the coaches, then it was an enormous deal to the players. Heck, half our kids want to play for the Beat after graduation. So I talked about what a great opportunity we had. For one of the very few times in their careers, our players got to play a game they weren’t expected to win. We had nothing to lose, and that gave us the freedom to play with a little reckless abandon. If we lose, who cares? But let’s take advantage of this chance we’ve been given.
Then I asked the girls to take a few seconds and think about the end of the game, and what words they wanted to use to describe their performance. I told them that this was a fantastic opportunity, but they needed to leave the field with a clear conscience about the amount of effort and courage and aggression they brought to the field. They didn’t have to worry about what the Atlanta Beat thought about them. They just had to be square with themselves.
It’s funny, but when you stand at the front of that room, you can see which players are actually digesting your words. Their heads will nod, just ever so slightly, without them even realizing it. As much as you’d like to, you’re not going to hit home with everyone. But if you pay attention, you can do a decent job of predicting who was tuned in. And most of our girls definitely were. I thought we might have a pretty good night. Then, well, the game actually began.
Like any coach in this situation, I was desperately hoping we wouldn’t concede an early goal. The game wasn’t twenty seconds old when the Beat picked off a lazy pass in our defensive third and promptly pinged it off the bar. Baker had gotten a mitt to it or we would have been down a goal before the last note of the national anthem had wafted out of the park.
For the first ten minutes it seemed to rain Beat corner kicks. We were a nervous lot and some normally dependable players were having some abnormally bad first touches. Those were typically followed in short order by a Beat shot that was either saved by Baker or block over the endline by one of our defenders. It wasn’t looking too promising for the Dawgs. For the Beat it looked like an excellent night to practice their attacking corners.
Fair play to our girls – regardless of the pressure we were under, we didn’t panic and we didn’t abandon ship. We stuck to our style and got the ball on the deck and started to move the game into the Beat end of the park. Then, in the fifteenth minute – a most remarkable sight! Ashley Miller is first to a loose ball and absolutely crushes it into the upper right corner from 23 yards! It was our first shot of the match. It was our first of anything that even resembled an attack. And it was sensational! And better yet, it completely changed the game.
Do you remember Rocky? The first one? Remember round one? Rocky’s face is absorbing jab after jab after jab as Apollo dances around the ring, stinging him at will? Rocky can’t land a single punch – not one. He throws a couple of wishful haymakers that catch nothing but air. Meanwhile Apollo is methodically pummeling Rocky’s face with a series of combinations and all signs point to a bad, bad night for the challenger. Then, out of nowhere, Rocky connects with a roundhouse left that knocks the champ to the canvas. And in one of my all time favorite cinematic moments, as the champ gathers himself, we hear that ominous bell - a bell that signals not only a shift in momentum, but also a seismic shift in possibility. That bell tells us that everything has changed; that the challenger is for real – and that it’s time to fasten our seatbelts. When Miller’s shot – the first punch we had thrown – screamed into the net, I swear to you I heard that bell.
Suddenly we weren’t playing against professionals. Suddenly our opponent was something we see all the time - a team full of good players. And we can play against a team full of good players. And for stretches we played them beautifully. After Miller’s goal, the game moved into the Atlanta end and that’s where it stayed for much longer than I ever imagined. Eddie, Miller and Pollock were magic in the middle of the park – escaping pressure, keeping the ball and spraying it around the pitch. The Beat weren’t helping their own cause as we caught them offsides five times coming out of their end in the first half an hour. Whenever it looked like they were about to build something, our defenders would put on the brakes and their forwards would run offsides, sometimes by as much as ten yards. To be honest, we were playing a heckuva game.
For a week I’ve been trying to figure out how to address this next issue. Frankly, it’s the main reason this entry has taken so long to write. My better angels have told me to ignore it and take it on the chin like a man. But I have also been schooled as a journalist, and as such it would be remiss/irresponsible of me to omit what was by all accounts the game’s pivotal turning point. So here’s how it went down.
Before the match, the Beat asked for a couple of concessions. The first was that we play with their balls – the ones that are WPS league issue. Sure thing, we said. The other concession we agreed to was that the game clock would count up, from 0:00 to 45:00 in the first half, and from 45:00 to 90:00 in the second. We couldn’t possibly see the harm in this. And that’s why you should be happy we’re coaches and not air traffic controllers.
The head coaches met with the three officials to agree to terms. The clock would count up. It would not stop for anything – not goals or injuries. Not anything. When the clock hit 45:00, the half would be over. No stoppage time. These are the facts and as Don King would say, they are irrefutable and incontrovertible.
The major difference in this clock counting thing is that pretty much every scoreboard in the country, including ours, is wired so that when the clock winds down to 00:00, a buzzer automatically sounds. That doesn’t happen when the clock is counting up.
What is also without debate is the position of the ball when the clock reaches 45:00. It is outside of our 18. There’s a great view of it on our match video. What the video doesn’t show is our staff of coaches yelling to the ref that the half is over, and her acknowledging our shouts with a talk-to-the-hand wave.
At roughly 45:12, the Beat tapped in at the back post to bring them level at 1-1. It was, conveniently, the last touch of the half as the ref whistled time.
As you might imagine, we were incensed. As if we didn’t have a big enough challenge, you’re going to actually give a handout to the professionals? In our park? Are you serious? We argued our case but the referee kept pointing at her watch and saying, “Forty-five.” Because you know, saying “forty-five” matters. I’d really thought I’d seen every possible mistake a referee could make. But in my 35 years as both a player and coach, I have never seen a ref screw up half-time. With the advent of scoreboards I didn’t even think it was possible. But there it was, right in front of me. Half-time had been botched.
Before the second half starts, Steve gets with Coach Galanis and together they approach the referee and tell her what everyone in the stadium already knows - that the goal was scored well after time had expired and should not have counted. The problem now is that if you take the goal off the board, the referee might look bad. So let’s not worry about doing, you know, the right thing – the thing that should have been done in the first place. Let’s not correct a perfectly correctable mistake. No, no, no. First things first. Let’s make sure we save face. Because that’s what’s important.
The goal stood. Naturally. We started the half at 1-1.
The second half was practically a mirror image of the first. As was the case in the first half, Atlanta stormed out in the early going and had us pinned for the first ten minutes. We almost scored another sizzler against the run of play as Lex’s bomb from 30 yards beat the keeper but not the crossbar and we remained even at 1-1. In the 60thminute the Beat finally capitalized on a corner kick as Chalupny volleyed home from 18 yards to pull them ahead 2-1. Then we settled into a comfortable rhythm and had our fair share of the ball and territory and put together a succession of chances in the game’s final ten minutes. Unfortunately we never did find the late equalizer and fell by a 2-1 final.
It was a bittersweet night. The girls played well and they knew it. As a matter of fact, they had a ball. And why not? As far as anyone in our camp was concerned, we played a pro team to a 1-1 draw and looked good doing it. That’s something to hang your hat on.
GTV interviewed Miller after the game and since I was in the vicinity I made a point of eavesdropping. Miller had played an absolute burner of a match, even if she hadn’t scored that ridiculous goal. But she had done that too, and that made her an easy choice for the cameras. Miller went right back to the pregame talk. She explained, “We said before the game that we wanted to leave here with our heads held high and be proud of ourselves and we did that.” See that? I knew they were paying attention. I love it when that happens.
After the game the Beat players stuck around to sign some autographs.
Because I had a heartbroken little girl at home, I decided to take advantage of my position and get my kid a really cool souvenir. Heather Mitts is as classy as they come (and not just because she got engaged to a Philadelphia Eagle). When I told her how upset Izzy was about missing the game, she told me to let her know when I bring Izzy to a Beat game. She’d be happy to meet her. Don’t for a second believe that we won’t be taking her up on that offer.