Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Best Team Doesn't Always Win

Watching the United States' men's national team hit a cross bar and two posts during the first half of its match against Jamaica, I started to hear a voice.  My own, to be precise.

"Maybe this is going to be one of 'those games'," the voice said.

I can't remember if I've written this before, but I've said it many times, and believe it's true: soccer is the one sport among all in which a clearly dominant team can play well and still lose, or at least not win.

Maybe it's the size of the playing field, or the number of players, that allows a true underdog, in ability and physical skill, to have "a shot" more than other sport. I tend to think it's because of the nature of the game and its running clock. 

In basketball, a vastly outgunned team used to be able to stall the game and at least stay close, if not have the opportunity to pull a huge upset. With the advent of shot clocks at the college and pro levels,  that ability no longer exists. Given the relative lack of merit in watching a 12-10 basketball game, not many would argue with the rule, although it does limit an underdog's ability to slow the game.

In American football, the constant stoppage of play means that a certain number of plays, and therefore scoring opportunities, are guaranteed. 

This isn't to say that "upsets" don't happen in basketball or football. They clearly do, and the disinterested observer almost always roots for them.

But I'm not talking about upsets here. What can happen only in soccer, I believe, on more than a very rare occasion, is when one team is clearly outplayed on the field during a contest, and still wins, or at least doesn't lose. That is one of the reasons that I believe that soccer is the most compelling of all sports.

In my time as a coach, I was on both ends of results in which the obviously better team did not win. I can still remember my son's travel team dominating a match in the West Virginia Open Cup, only to lose on a fluke goal that bounced over our keeper's head. But I can also remember several victories in which we were outmanned and outplayed, but found a way to win.

Our high school team lost at least two games in my tenure as assistant and head coach in which we dominated possession, but couldn't push that ball across the line or under the bar. The worst was in sectional play, against our biggest rival, in which we controlled the game, lost our best midfielder, kept fighting, endured a lightning delay, and lost because the other team converted its only real chance to score (at least, that's the way I remember it).

But I also remember the Regional Final in 2009, when we outplayed our AA-A rival, but headed into overtime, then the second overtime, then the third, then the fourth, tied at 0-0. And I can remember, as clear as if it happened last night, our graceful forward scoring in the last minute of the fourth sudden death overtime to send us all into a frenzy.

It's that build-up, that anticipation, that frustration, that makes soccer great.

And the U.S.? It scored in the 55th minute on a free kick and made its path to the final round of World Cup qualifying much safer. And those crossbars and posts and great saves by the keeper made it all the sweeter.

The U.S. celebrates Herculez Gomez's goal against Jamaica.

Sometimes, the best team does win.

But that voice in my head didn't stop whispering until the final whistle blew.

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