23 November 2003

Pinch Me, I Must be Dreaming

What an incredible, incredible season. What an incredible conclusion.

Set the rewind tape back the start of the season. It wasn't a pretty picture. MLS goalkeeper of the year: Gone. Leading scorer: Gone. Defender nominated for defender of the year and named to league best XI: Gone. Another key central defender: Gone. First string goalie (to take up reins from goalie of the year): Out injured for months. Veteran central defender: Out injured for months. Starting forward: Out injured for months. All the smart money said this was a year for rebuilding and struggle and bitter tears.

As the season progressed the picture didn't get prettier: one injury after another. Key players out for weeks, or months. Oh, to say nothing of having the heart of defense, midfield, and the attack all off at one time or another for weeks of national team duties. Oh, and the starting goalie off for national team duty on some occasions as well. The Golden Boy even had national team duties for three levels. Meanwhile the Great Bleeding Injury Dike was getting plugged by rookies and second stringer cast-offs, guys who had barely any playing time with their former clubs.

In 28 regular season games, this team had 130 player absences due to national team duty and injury, far more than any other team. For a manager who has a habit of sticking with a winning lineup, weeks would go by without a stable pairing up front or consistent back four.

But somehow or other, the rookies and cast-offs did the job. Todd Dunivant played like a veteran all season, but for some serious trouble in the Endless September of LA Games. A grave injustice that he didn't even get consideration for rookie of the year. Brian Ching was tearing up defenses until his season-ending injury, and on the few occasions he and Landon Donovan were actually on the field at the same time, the pairing looked unstoppable. Brian Mullen, a bench-sitter for LA, put in one fast and determined performance after another, essentially playing three positions simultaneously -- right back, right forward, and right midfield -- no matter what the lineup card happened to say he was on any given day.

The press is always going on about Landon Donovan, and the Poster Boy of US Men's Soccer is a rare and special talent, no doubt about it. You sad folks who only ever get to see him on TV (or you even sadder folks who never see him at all) miss most of what makes him special because it is happening well away from the ball. The truth is, however, the Quakes success does not revolve around one star. Poster Boy was benched for a couple of games mid-season when he was sleepwalking through games. No, San JosÚ is about a team of largely undersung but incredibly hard-working guys. Listen to them talk, and they talk about not wanting to disappoint their teammates. They talk about how they know that when Landon plays the ball so, he wants it back thus and so they set him up that way. They talk about how much the fans mean to them, and when you see Poster Boy out signing autographs past midnight after a hard loss, you know they mean it.

The kids and cast-offs work hard and work hard for each other. A mark of a champion is the ability to grind out results even when they aren't playing all that well. To be sure, the Quakes had games like that, games where determination trumps skill. But they also had games, oh my!, games where they would string together 5 and 6 short one-touch passes, switch the play long, and string together a few more passes before slotting the ball home. Beautiful, beautiful stuff, pretty football that wouldn't disgrace Anfield or Neu Camp. There were flashes of it in the final, and more in the conference final with Kansas City.

So put it all together, and what have we? A team that plays with grit, skill, and verve. A team with no star, not even the superstar. A team that led their conference all year, and spent most of the year near the top in both defensive and offensive stats. Who'da thunk it? Lesson one: smart money doesn't have a clue.

Then we get to the bizzareness of having to play the same damned team, LA bloody Galaxy, four times in a row, twice in regular season, after having already locked in home field advantage for the playoffs, and then in the conference semis. After three poor performances against LA all the smart money is on LA to put the Quakes out. But instead the kids and cast-offs put in one of the most astonishing displays of pure will ever, to climb out of a four goal cavern. So now all the smart money is on Kansas City to take out a tired and emotionally drained team. But instead the kids and cast-offs work hard to come back not once but twice, and scoring some beautifully made goals to win it. Lesson two: see lesson one.

And so, the final. And once again all the smart money is on the other team. Chicago, the winners of the Open Cup. Chicago, with the best regular season record. Chicago, with defender of the year, and rookie of the year, and coach of the year, and blah blah Armas and blah blah Razov and blah blah Beasley and blah blah blah blah blah. But we have learned our lesson by now, have we not? Here's the difference in the game: Chicago has a collection of great players; San JosÚ has a great team. As a team San JosÚ defended well, closing down space and cutting off passing lanes at the back. As a team they dominated the much-vaunted Chicago midfield and won every battle there. As a team they worked some great combinations and took their chances when they had them. As a team, they believed they could win.

Lesson three: sometimes it takes skill, sometimes it takes guts, sometimes it takes luck, and sometimes it takes all three.

Goal 1:
A tremendous freekick strike from Ekelund, following a foul on Walker to kill off a series of probing passes around the box.
Goal 2:
A sweet pass from Walker to a strong run by Donovan, who finished it perfectly.
Chicago Goal 1:
A lovely pass wide, and great finishing by Beasley.
Goal 3:
Wonderful long ball from Mullen over a napping Chicago defense to Mulrooney who picked his spot, and took it.
Chicago Goal 2:
A strong cross and a forceful header, by RonÚr. Too bad about him being our defender. (Cringe.)
Goal 4:
Another lovely finish on another perfect run from Donovan, one-timing a ball skipping across the face of the goal on yet another lovely pass, this one from DeRosario.

Donovan got man of the match, but that's a tough call for me. Onstad made some great saves, including stopping Razov's telegraphed penalty shot. Mullen had another outstanding hard-working game, covering for Waibel's pathetic slowness in defense and springing the forwards up top. Mulrooney beat out the Great Armas hands down and if Bruce Arena is half as smart as I think he is, Mulrooney gets a shot at Armas' spot on the national team. Agoos showed why he has 5 championship rings, and how smart defending can trump raw speed. How can you choose? It was a team effort.

For three weeks in a row, I have shouted and sung so much and so loudly I've just about lost my voice. For three weeks in a row, I have clapped so much that I have abbrasions on my palms where the skin is coming off. For three weeks in a row, I have been on such a rocket rollercoaster of emotions that I'm left in a state of impervious joy, utterly drained.

Thirty and some years I've been out in the stands, and its another thirty before I'll see a season like this again, or a team.