Opinion / Union

This is why we love the game

Photo: Earl Gardner

We love soccer for these kinds of moments.

A young, athletic marvel streaking full-speed across the field to make a reality-defying, game-saving tackle to stop a breakaway.

The inch-perfect free kick into the upper 90 that wins the game in the final minutes.

The moment before that free kick. (The waiting. Heart in your throat, pumping. Playoffs on the line. It will be heartbreak or elation and nothing in between. And you’re so sure it will be heartbreak that when that ball punches the the net, you can’t believe it, and it makes the sudden rush of joy that much more overwhelming.)

The fight. The tempers. The diving, faking, lying, manipulative cheater on the ground whose actions represent all that’s wrong with the game (and who may have deserved to get stomped on, just not then, not that softly, not at that key moment, but later, in the alley, maybe with a surreptitious plank to the head for his Oscar-worthy performance).

Red card. Anger. Down a man. That pit in your stomach that heralds despair.

Overcome it all anyway.

No, we don’t come for ugly soccer. We don’t come for pragmatism. Diving is for pansies, liars and cheaters. Defense is hugely important, but that’s not why we watch this sport.

We love for the game for its unbelievable feats of transcendent athleticism.

For the cathartic moment during which a person overcomes daunting odds to triumph over an adversary.

We love the game for the act of human achievement. For the ascendance beyond the mundane. For reaching something we had not previously thought possible. For being, at its best, the beautiful game.

Every great sport has this to a degree. Defenses may win championships in the NFL, but it’s Barry Sanders and his remarkable runs that left us awestruck. A great pitching staff may be the bedrock of a great baseball team, but does it compare to the true legend of Bo Jackson and his All-Star Game home run, bats broken over his leg, run up the outfield wall, and famous tunnel run? And what of Michael Jordan and his gravity-defying acts? Katharina Witt’s ethereal grace and multiple Olympic golds?

Now take these individual moments of athletic greatness and put them in the context of soccer, a sport that rockets the emotions from the mundane to elation or despair more suddenly and powerfully than any other.

Philadelphia Union fans had missed that this year. They wanted to see these memorable moments from their team, and they just hadn’t gotten it. Instead, they got a decent, hard-working, but unspectacular club that fought its way back in ugly games to claw within reach of the playoffs.

Then the spectacular arrived Saturday night.

First, there was Ray Gaddis and his full-on sprint back to stop that 87th minute breakaway by Toronto FC’s Robert Earnshaw. The cynic might say Gaddis did it only after an initial poor play on the preceding corner kick. But that’s what makes the play so amazing. It’s the nature of youth, to make those kinds of mistakes, and the test of character and ability in life is whether you can compensate for it. Through sheer determination and pure athleticism, Gaddis may have saved the game and the Union’s season. How many people, after running for nearly 90 minutes, could make that sprint? No play encapsulates the best of the Union like that one.

Then, of course, there was Kleberson’s game-winner. Before the free kick, you saw the discussion between Kleberson and Sebastien Le Toux, who would typically take this kick. It was unclear what was being said, but it was crystal clear that Kleberson was not surrendering that opportunity to anyone. Here was a guy in the twilight of his career, who achieved a great deal but probably never fulfilled his perceived potential, basically telling the world, “I still got it.” He took the put-up-or-shut-up moment, and he put up.

Pragmatism may get the Union to the playoffs. It may make 2013 an improbable success, despite the challenges this team faced.

But it’s these moments we’ll remember years from now.

Ray’s run.

Kleberson’s kick.

And the feelings they stirred.

This is why we love the game.

16 Comments

  1. Southside Johnny says:

    Nice.

  2. Stirring Dan. Hack should invite you into the locker room to get the boys fired up before their next game.

    • Agreed. Also, Sugarman should invite you into the front office to get the sales staff fired up before playoff tickets go on sale!

  3. Brilliant. Well said. You feel bad for the people who think 0-0 and 1-0 games are boring. The tension and realization that a single goal can change everything is what makes this game such a joy.
    .
    As for entertaining athleticism…that costs money.

    • To be fair the first 65 minutes of the game were pretty brutal to watch.

      • Well, that’s part of my point. Those first 65 minutes were not why people love the game. The rest of the game was. In the off-season, as the team considers personnel changes, that’s the sort of thing to keep in mind.

  4. soccerdad1150 says:

    YUP. Well said. Not many articles have me saying ‘hell yeah’ at the end. This was one. Thanks. I’m still feeling that elation of that goal.

  5. ebradlee10 says:

    TODAY WE CELEBRATE OUR INDEPENDENCE DAY

    Well done, Dan. Hairs on the back of my neck and all that…

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Well done.
    .
    @sieve! – Really? Typical Negadelphia… just enjoy it all!

  7. Greg Williams says:

    All well said…especially the part about not believing the goal happened for a split second before the elation that follows….I had to wait to see the referee pointing to midfield to believe it from my angle.

  8. kingkowboys says:

    Awesome article. Re-living these moments and the sheer joy after that free kick is now forcing me to hold back those emotions again as I sit at my desk.
    _
    Gaddis’ play and run downs may have been spurred by previous mistakes but that insane speed and determination to stop TFC at all costs has gained my utmost respect. I’m so proud to have seen that, and that it was our guy. Despite Gaddis’ ups and downs due to his youth and playing out of position I want him in the starting 11. His performance has now gained my complete support. He’s the left back from here on out and that’s the way it is, win or lose.
    _
    Kleberson’s free kick was equal determination. Determination to prove he still has it and to prove he deserves more minutes. He clearly told Le Toux he had to take this kick. As soon as we earned the free kick I knew it had to be Kleberson’s kick. Le Toux or anyone else drives in into the wall or over the goal. I saw the wall, Bendik, Kleberson, and knew that this was our best goal scoring opportunity of the night. If he could get it up, over, and back down it was 3 points.

  9. Cajua Robinson says:

    The futbol God’s have finally shown the U favor. DOOP

  10. I just watched the replay for the fifth time today.

  11. Great article, Dan.

    The thing that I loved the most was watching the reaction of our players and coaches. It’s that moment when you remember that they’re people just like us and this means a lot to them as well, considering all of the hard work that they’ve put in to get to that point.

    Out on the pitch after that match, I saw Albright approach Curtin to shake his hand and they both gave each other a “do you believe that just happened?” look. If two grizzled bets who have been around the game for the entire lives have that kind of reaction, it makes me realize how even more special it was.

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