By Ian L. (@ahandleforian)
I was five years old when I made my first team debut for the Kickerz’ Recreational Soccer League Under seven Reds. I'll never forget what it felt like to pull on that red tee shirt with the number 59 emblazoned across the back in the traditional white Bauhaus ITC font. After our customary pre-match traditions, the lineups were announced and I made my way to the substitutes bench. I waited with equal parts anticipation and dread for the gaffer to call my number. I wasn’t made to wait long. We were 12 minutes into our opening 15 minute half when I was summoned to midfield to make my long awaited entrance. I was told that I was to play “stopper” I had never heard of this position before, and little did I know at the time that I was playing an integral role in the tactical development of the defensive midfielder. Too nervous to ask for further clarification on my role in the boss’ system, I just assumed that as I was QUITE bad, I was meant to play some form of defense.
I tried not to be overcome by the occasion, but it was difficult not to notice the two dozen eyes of our most ardent supporters follow me as I nervously ambled to more or less where I remembered the coach indicating on his fancy clipboard that had a small white-board with the general outlines of a soccer pitch on the back. I should speak to the game state a bit here. As far as I can recall it was a tightly contested 2-2 draw, but the match had grown somewhat chaotic as the managers sent their second and third choice players out either because it was mandated by the league, or because they wanted to give their stars a chance to catch their breath, grab some water, and tie their shoes.
The squad hadn’t had much time together on the training ground, but for two entire practice sessions, I had purposefully avoided ever putting myself in a position where I would be required to head the ball. To be frank, it terrified me and it looked like it probably hurt a lot. It should come as no surprise that within 30 seconds of my introduction I was faced with a wildly kicked ball that was plummeting towards my head. They say when you’re “in the zone” that time seems to slow down. When you have achieved this perfect confluence of coordination and anticipation you can make incredible movement and athleticism appear ordinary and effortless. I’m here to tell you that you can also enter this zone when you are about to do something very terribly.
As time slowed down and the ball continued its trajectory toward my head, I decided to do something I had never done before and have never done since. I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes, and decided to meet my fears (quite literally) head on. As I mentioned, I hadn’t done much of anything in the way of training for this moment. I did not know that our creator in his infinite wisdom and love of the game had provided us with a convenient frontal bone on our forehead which protected the brain from things like soccer balls. As such, I attempted to head the ball with the very top of my head, and I was immediately able to confirm two suspicions. First, Yes. This really did hurt - and second, this wasn’t going to go like I had hoped.
The ball flew off my head somewhere in the direction of behind me. I could hear gasps as I crumpled to the ground. I saw the faces of our supporters before I was able to see where I had accidentally directed the ball. Their looks of horror told me all I needed to know. Had I been deployed in my preferred role as an enganche in the attacking part of the pitch such a touch of the head would have been celebrated, but alas the only goalkeeper I would beat that day was my own.
There have been numerous instances of players being reduced to tears. Sometimes they are tears of joy - an overwhelming response to support. Sometimes they are tears of bitter sadness and regret - a realization that you will never get another chance to undo the thing that just happened. Mine were more out of terror and confusion. As I wept, a supporter shouted from the sideline “Don’t worry Ian! It’s ok! That doesn’t count!” I wasn’t always a soccer analyst, and so I didn’t know that she was lying to make me feel better. In fact I didn’t realize it until a few years later when I saw a similar fate befall a professional player on television. The coach mercifully pulled me back to the sidelines where I would remain for the rest of the match, the rest of my life really.
All of this is just to say that I know a thing or two about memorable debuts, and Alejandro Pozuelo’s debut for Toronto FC on Friday night was just about the best I’ve ever seen in this league. Yes, I know, ZLATAN, and it’s a hard call between these two but Pozuelo’s 90 minute swagger made all of Toronto FC’s heartache and hopelessness of the last year vanish without a trace. SEBASTIAN WHO? cried a commentator. Indeed sir. Indeed.
NARRATIVE: Alejandro Pozuelo’s work explores the form and metaphor of lines as it relates to the progressing and linear nature of modernity. Through the use of trickery, movement, and swagger, the work explores the temporal and fragile nature of our lives as individuals taking part in a collective/single-entity existence.
In his debut appearance, Pozuelo wasn’t content to merely make good passes and accurate shots. In much the same way that it would be reductive to call the work of Rem Koolhaas “good buildings”, to see anything but artistry in Pozuelo’s audacious debut would be willful ignorance of an appalling caliber.
Pozuelo’s early entry into the goal of the year competition will live long in my memory. A deft flick over a good goalkeeper, a touch that displayed the casual indifference of a hobbyist, but betrayed the precision and skill of an artisan. This strike wasn’t merely laying down a marker, it was a ferocious rebuke to all of those who hate opera or order something with the sauce on the side. It was indulgent - a rococo goal - a rocogoal? Did I just invent something? Yes? Let me have this one.
So are Toronto FC good now? Probably! While we’re at it, what are we to make of NYCFC? They used to be good! In fact just one year ago they looked poised to ascend from the second tier of MLS into the rarified air of MLS Cup contenders but then none of that happened. At all.
As a person who lives in constant fear of change, I can easily identify with NYCFC’s situation. It’s difficult to lose a coach, particularly one as good as Patrick Vieira was. Domenec Torrent certainly had the resume to suggest that he would be a good replacement, but thus far we haven’t seen any actual signs that this is or will be true. Additionally, NYCFC also lost two of their three best players in David Villa and Yangel Herrera.
So what are you left with at that point? Well, you’re left with a team that has Maxi Moralez on it, a coach that shadowed Pep Guardiola for a few years, by far the most extravagantly wealthy ownership group in the history of the league, and the nation’s largest media market. So, like, a whole lot.
The calls for Dome’s head are starting to become an audible chorus, but it’s anybody’s guess just how much attention the people at CFG are paying at any given time. I suspect he’s got more rope left than some NYCFC fans would like, but four wins in 20 matches is a pretty bad return for any team, much less one with the resources from which NYC can draw.
I wish that I could show NYCFC fans some underlying numbers that would indicate that the first few matches of 2019 have been some sort of cosmic joke, but no I really can’t. Thus far they’re sporting a rather drab 4.6 xGF with four goals to show for the effort. Defensively, it’s a 6.5 xGA (4th worst in the East) and an unfortunate eight goals against (we’ll call this slight discrepancy the Pozuelo effect). This would suggest that NYCFC is more or less right where they deserve to be. So why should we give Dome more time?
Cometh the hour, cometh the man - and NYCFC seem to have finally gotten their guy. I’m of course talking about Araujo dos Santos Heber. The Brazilian winger who will be tasked with NYCFC’s #9 role sports some impressive goalscoring numbers in the Croatian league, an opportunity to prove himself, and one of the biggest foreheads I’ve ever seen. This man was born to head a soccer ball well.
This is where we come to the hope part of our story. Since David Villa’s departure, NYCFC’s lineup has featured players playing in roles that are somewhat alien to them. Moralez, one of the best 10s in the league has been twice deployed as a center forward, Alexander Ring one of the league’s best defensive midfielders has been playing a sort of roaming CAM kind of thing, and as such NYCFC looks pretty disjointed.
Ideally, Heber’s inclusion in the lineup will return Maxi back to his preferred creator role, which will in turn absolve Ring of his creative duties and get him back to doing what he’s best at which is mopping up wayward passes.
All of that to say, that we may see a different looking NYCFC when all of the pieces are present.
Let’s give Dome a couple of games with a full deck before we toss him out of the casino.
Luis Felipe Fernades finally made a matchday squad but did not see the field in San Jose’s latest piece de resistance, a 5-0 loss to LAFC. This isn’t the response I was hoping to see form Almeyda after I publicly chastised him for forsaking Luis, but it’s progress. Sometimes progress has to be enough.
Taking it to the corner:
Ok, so this week I decided to power rank something non-MLS related. I was hoping to think of something good, but I only have like half an hour to finish this thing so I just asked everybody at ASA what they had for lunch today. You don’t have to read this.
ASA Staff Lunches - A Power Ranking by Ian
1. Kevin - Flank Steak and Brussel Sprouts.
I wonder how Kevin knew I’d be judging this today, because he brought the hammer. Flank steak often gets a bad rap for being one of the “lower” cuts of meat, but these are the thoughts of fools and vagabonds. A well made flank steak is a perfect cut for lunch. Tender, light, and very receptive to a variety of marinades. Flank steak is the Dax McCarty of beef cuts. Those who know me will know that this is a great compliment to both flank steak and Dax McCarty.
One of the few fun things about getting older is rediscovering things that you thought were once lost to you. If you had told 10 year old me that 20 years later I’d be super into brussel sprouts he likely would have laughed and then thrown a ninja turtle action figure at you. Nonetheless here I am, a fan. Roasting up some of them b sprouts (as the cool kids call them) is one of my favorite vegetable sides.
2. Eliot - Spaghetti and Meatballs with a JKL-A recipe sauce, Mandarin Orange
For those of you that aren’t hip to JKL-A, this refers to chef J. Kenji Lopez- Alt whose cookbook “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” is the best cookbook I have ever owned, and I recommend it to anybody who enjoys preparing food. It’s been a big year for Eliot, and this lunch only continues his fine run of form. I don’t really get the Mandarin Orange on the side, but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt.
3. Drew - Santa Fe Quesadilla
I don’t’ have a ton of details from Drew for what a Santa Fe Quesadilla actually entails, but what I’m imagining here is chicken, whole grain rice, some jack cheese, corn and black or red beans (maybe both?). Quesadillas are one of nature’s best food delivery systems and I applaud Drew for eating a delicious and nutrient filled lunch.
4. Eric - Spaghetti Squash and Meatballs
More spaghetti and meatballs!
I was worried that I was going to google “Spaghetti Squash” and learn that Eric was not in fact eating regular spaghetti and meatballs with some squash in there, but rather spaghetti noodles formed from squash. It looks like we’re dealing with the latter here. Somebody added a clapping emoji to his entry, so maybe I’m just missing out. Whereas I’ve done a complete 180 on brussel sprouts in my life, I remain just as suspicious and dismissive of squash as ever.
5. Matthias - An array of snacks, the headliner of which was Chef Robert Irvine’s Fit Crunch chocolate peanut butter bar.
We’re unfortunately going to be getting into the part of this list where we’re no longer eating lunch but rather just a collection of foods that happen to be within reaching distance. I’m going to give Matthias the top spot on this tier because he makes the interactive table app work and seemed genuinely excited about his peanut butter bar.
6. Ryan - Ramen, pretzels, apple, banana
I’m going to assume this wasn’t fancy ramen, and was just the instant kind. This random assortment of foods makes me sad. Ryan is a very busy man.
7. Jared - Carrots and an apple.
Well gosh Jared, don’t go all out on my account.
That’s all we’ve got this time around. I’ll be back next week to talk about whatever we’re talking about.