Prolonging my career

We had a make-up game last night against one of the better teams in our league. It didn’t look promising, as neither of our goalies could make it and we had no substitutes. I don’t think I’ve been that nervous taking the field in the 30 years since the high school state tournament, because for the first time in my entire soccer career, the captain had me playing defense, specifically, left defender.

Fortunately, I knew the other team’s attackers and I’ve been watching Ender play defense for several years now, so I wasn’t completely lost. Their best attacker and leading scorer knows I’m as fast as he is, so he focused his runs on the right, which left me to become the goalie’s primary outlet. This meant that I found myself in a very unfamiliar and unwelcome role, which is essentially that of point guard bringing the ball up to half-court.

I played it very conservatively at first, passing the ball to the closest unmarked midfielder; if there wasn’t one, I just passed it inside to the sweeper. That worked well, and for the first 20 minutes, we didn’t permit any good chances and I only made one mistake when I had no unmarked options and made a dumb pass in between two of our midfielders instead of putting it right on the feet of the better midfielder and allowing him to try to beat his man.

One of our starting defenders showed up late, so once he was ready I took myself out of the game with some relief. It was a solid 20 minutes, though, and I’d realized that from the back, I could see the lanes which the other team’s defense was leaving for our attackers and wings. I even made two long passes past the defense which created decent chances for us, although their keeper kept the ball out of the net.

Ironically, I’d only been out for 30 seconds when they scored their first goal. Then they scored a second one a few minutes later, and the captain put me back in at my traditional position of attacker. We managed to get a goal back, then promptly gave up a third right before halftime, which was frustrating.

I was a little shocked at halftime when the captain moved me back to right defender, especially since that’s where all three of their goals had come. It struck me as a fairly solid recipe for disaster, but I figured that we were already down 3-1, so how much worse could it get? So, I assured him I was happy to play wherever I was told and did my best to try not to look too nervous.

Now, I was under strict orders not to dribble around or try to beat anyone with the ball. One of the huge problems with putting midfielders on defense is that they frequently, and stupidly, try to beat the fastest players on the field, the attackers, and often end up losing the ball and leaving the defense in a very vulnerable position. That being said, when the attackers put on pressure, it is sometimes necessary to do something to avoid blindly kicking the ball up the field to no one. The safest thing, of course, is to take the ball outside, where one can simply kick it out if necessary, thereby giving up the ball, but also giving the defense time to get set.

About one minute in, a long ball rolled to our goalie, who passed it to me, at which point it became apparent that they were going to play pressure, as one attacker cut off my inside pass to the sweeper, while the left wing rushed me. However, as basketball fans know, speed beats pressure. So, I just pushed the ball outside and up the field, beating the wing, which left open space all the way up to the middle of the field. I brought the ball up, spotted our center mid open, sent him the ball, which he one-touched to our best attacker, who hit the ball on his first touch. Bang-Bang-Bang-Goal. 3-2.

We fought our way back into the game and actually managed to take the lead, 4-3, but their leading scorer beat our offsides trap –  he didn’t really, he was two steps off, but the ref was at a bad angle to see it – and managed to somehow get a step on our sweeper and slide the ball past our stand-in keeper. That was disappointing, but 4-4 was a very good result considering we were playing 12 against 18 and without a proper goalie.

And after the game, the captain told me “that was really good, no more attacker for you”. Which I doubt is entirely true; I’m still the fourth-best attacker on the team and I expect I’ll be moved up front when needed from time to time. But I already knew something had changed when our longtime starter on right defense was ready to come back in towards the end of the game, I automatically moved up to take the place of the right wing who was going out, and the captain ordered me to stay back at right defender while he put the defender on the wing in front of me.

The truth is that I’m only 80 percent as good as the average defender when it comes to defense. I’m weak in the air, I’m not very tall, I can’t take the ball away from anyone, I don’t win enough 50-50 balls, and I need to be more disciplined about holding the offsides line. My speed and strength somewhat make up for those deficiencies, but I’m still decidedly below-average. However, when it comes to assisting the attack, I’m probably 150 percent as good as the average defender, maybe even more. I can see the lanes where I would want the ball myself, and more importantly, I can deliver them there. Two of our four goals came actions that started with my long passes, and I dropped in a high cross that really should have been a third. So, I can see why the captain is reconsidering how to use me, and I’m no longer terrified by the prospect even though I prefer to play in my traditional position up front.

This team doesn’t play to my strengths as an attacker anyhow, so it would probably benefit the team to move me back. I have no idea if I’ll end up starting on defense, or if I’ll start on the wing, come out to recover, then move back to defense in the second half when the starters need a break. I’m not concerned either way; I’ll play wherever they want me to play. If you can’t be a star, the next best thing is to be a utility player capable of playing multiple positions. And I suspect that adding outside defender to my existing repertoire of attacker/outside midfielder will grant me another two or three more years of effective playing time.