A festive evening and a false alarm

This season has been a difficult one for me so far. Four games (including two friendlies), two starts, no goals. I had a horrible game last week, which was of some concern to me because it’s the first time I felt as if I was playing like a fragile old man afraid to go in and win a contested ball. One thing I’ve noticed with age is that it’s harder to play in cold weather and that one tends to become more contact-avoidant for fear of injury. Then again, the last time we played our most recent opponent, one of our defenders snapped the leg of an attacker like a twig with a late tackle, so it could be argued that this is more late-onset wisdom than cowardice. It also doesn’t help that I’m now playing at 180 instead of 190, which helps with the speed and endurance, but puts you at a distinct disadvantage when going shoulder-to-shoulder with a 200-pound defender.

Anyhow, I had a distressingly bad game last week. Even when I am overmatched in terms of speed or fitness I can usually keep at least the defensive half of my wing under control, but the left defender and I were completely out of sync and allowed two crosses that led to goals, at least one of which should have never happened. We both stood there, waiting for the other to close on the guy with the ball, and gave him the opening he needed to cross it. In fairness, I probably shouldn’t have been playing at that point, as I’d already taken myself out of the game earlier after receiving a hard knee to the thigh that left me limping for three days afterward. But still, I had told the captain I was okay to go back in, so that was entirely on me.

The problem was that the bruise slowed me down just enough to inhibit me from trying to move the ball forward myself, and we had changed our stopper from an attack-minded player to a defensive-minded one, so when I received the ball on the wing, I looked to pass it in to the middle right away rather than pushing it up myself. This would normally have been all right, but with our new stopper, instead of advancing the ball he invariably passed it back to one of the other defenders. More than once, I ended up with the ball again, which meant our attacks were going precisely nowhere.

It was probably one of the worst games I’ve ever played, and my on-field plus-minus was uncharacteristically negative at net -1, but fortunately we were playing a weak team so we ended up winning 5-3 anyhow. The problem was that our next game was against the second-best team in the league, and one which we have always had to be on our game in order to beat. And, of course, at my age, there is always the looming possibility that one simply can’t play anymore.

At practice, I played hard for more than two hours despite the bruised thigh, finished fourth in the team penalty kick competition, and that served to get my mindset back to normal, more or less. However, on game night I knew we were in trouble when two of our three best players showed up but did not suit up due to injury, and was even more alarmed when the captain started me at attacker despite last week’s debacle. I like playing up front, but not when both our starting wings are more inclined to push forward and assist the attack than getting back to help out the defense. Sure enough, despite controlling the ball for most of the first 10 minutes, we went down 1-0 on their first serious attack coming from the wing. We produced little in the way of chances, except for a header on a corner that just missed and one cross that I put just inches too deep in front of our other striker. At halftime were down 2-0 on a beautiful free kick that struck the underside of the far corner and banked in. It wasn’t even one of their best players taking it either; these guys are really good. Not even Buffon at his best could have saved that one.

I was out for a while, and we went down another goal, but they were starting to wear down a bit, and I went back in on the left wing, which helped us start putting pressure on both wings. I burned the defender on the side once, but my pull-back pass into the box was too fast for our captain to put in the net, although he scored a beautiful goal on the following post-corner chaos. The ball came low and hard, bounced off my shins on the far side, and ricocheted off a defender. As they pushed forward on the clearance, our captain retrieved it, turned, and shot high just as the goalie was moving up, catching him completely off-guard. 3-1.

We kept attacking, but that was all we managed and that’s how it ended. It was a good game, all in all, and they deserved to win. We get along with them well despite last season’s unfortunate incident, and there were two or three amusing “here, it’s your ball – no, really, it’s your ball” situations after someone went down and both sides called for a halt in play. It was a festive evening, as Ender’s team was playing on our other field and won their game 5-2. It was fun to introduce him afterwards to one of the former pros who plays for the team that beat us, as Ender has a lot of respect for the retired pros and internationals, and they are always pleased to be recognized by the younger generation of players.

So, false alarm on the age front. The former pro and I were talking about the challenges our years pose, as we are of an age, and he figures we can both play until at least 55. My original goal was to make it to 50, but I am happy to revise that in view of his professional opinion.