The London streets were abustle with people on the early evening, readying themselves to march over to Stamford Bridge for the Chelsea-Everton match. I asked the cabby who he favored — "Aye, mate, I am'n Arsenal man, so Everton, the easier!" But then, how about Freddy Ljungberg, did you know him? " Aye, Ljungberg, a fast one, that Freddy, and a one hundred percenter!"
Such a sport, soccer. At a difficult moment, one player may rush to console another by saying "unlucky," with no exclamation point, a very subtle judgment and one not often used in American sport jargon. Soccer has some kin to ballet: anyone can watch and enjoy but the more you watch, the more you know, then the more you will see and anticipate and acknowledge and marvel or lament or remember. (London, April 2009)
The Sounders recovered nicely from their two-game losing stretch and defeated the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday evening, 2-0. San Jose, in the league now for their second year, is a good, not great team but not coal miners, either, and they stayed a danger in this match until the second goal, in the 50th minute.
Seattle made adjustments at the start, adding Nathan Sturgis on defense and Steve Zakuani as a left midfielder, both 21 years old and both with a clear preference to heading upfield into the offense. It appeared in the early minutes that Sturgis would be overmatched with the San Jose attack, in particular Campos, but the young defender seemed to gain strength and composure, and by the 20th minute, he had stripped the ball from Alvarez and was moving up into the offense. As he became comfortable with his own ball control and passing, so then did his defense gain control.
His venturing is made possible, of course, by the considerable and attentive force of the two central defenders behind him, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Tyrone Marshall, a very physical pair, the true and literal enforcers of order and boundary. These two patrol the gates to the vault, charged with the task to unravel and wreck the best designs, schemes, and misfortunes that might amass, from the best minds and talent of the league, in hopes of getting to that very vault. Watch their faces when a drive or attack is turned back, when the ball is again heading up field, especially when that attack has been unusually devious and willful, for theirs is a boundary's edge position and allows only the slightest smile or nod.
There must have been a very clear moment for this team when the detail of headers came up, for no other club in the league seems as obsessed as the Sounders about winning headers. It is a difficult, physical, painful, and even dangerous task, best done as a mania, and for some undisclosed reason, the Sounders play as if every header were their last. Done perfectly, a header changes possession and control. At their best, the Sounders will gain considerable chance from the very single intent to challenge every single header, and by game's end, chance has tilted to their favor. They leave no header unchallenged.
The Sounders had not scored for over two games. Their offense appeared to be forcing itself. Zakuani, a player of wonderful grace, seemed to stretch and relax the stiff fabric and open much of the field. For moments, the Sounder offense moved with considerably more vast and intricate detail. San Jose was now playing from the downhill side.
In the 41st minute, Ljungberg was fouled just outside the box on the right, a no-choice foul for a defender that Ljungberg had crisscrossed into a braid. There was a delay as Freddy insisted, three times, that the San Jose wall was not giving precisely 10 yards (minutes before, Ljungberg himself had set up a wall that had crept within 6 yards and been caught by the umpire). He will do this arguing in a game, he may even be doing it in Swedish; whatever the case suddenly he bolted up to the ball and crossed it, San Jose stumbled with the clear, Montero headed it up to Hurtado, who kicked to Marshall who headed to Zakuani, who had circled behind and had a clear shot, bouncing his header in for the first goal of the game.
A moment later, the game would have been over. Zakuani gave two fakes from the left wing to free himself for a lovely cross to Nate Jaqua at the goal front — it should have been the second goal, boom, boom. Jaqua will make that header nine out of ten times, so perhaps it is good luck to get the one miss out of the way and save the nine for the rest of the season.
There was yet one more moment to the first half — Ljungberg had not finished making his position clear. He proceeded to take the ball down the left side, dribbling past four defenders, one at a time. He does not run around them, that is the long way. He runs precisely at them and emerges at the other side with the ball. It is a pure act of will and Swedish math and if it is not always the only solution, it is always a call to arms and a straight announcement. The ball was finally cleared out of bounds but he had made his point, to San Jose and to his teammates.
San Jose had played from the downhill but was only off one goal when they opened the second half. In that first minute, from a corner kick, their forward Ryan Johnson perfectly headed the cross to goal. Kasey Keller, the Sounders captain and goal keeper, who would later that evening set an MLS record for scoreless minutes, is now 41 years old, and there are some things he does not do as well as he once could. But for this moment, for this save, for holding San Jose off, he was perfect. Had it been lower, wider, maybe even just to the left side, then goal. Keller jerked to his left with his arm, the ball deflected wide and whatever gates were about to open for San Jose, whatever hopes that finally they were here, godammit, that finally all that training and running and bruising was coming right here to be cashed in — it all stopped. As Sigi Schmid later points out, that is the pleasure of having a true goal keeper.
Less than a minute later, the Sounders scored, Zakuani chipping a ball downfield to Jaqua, one on one to the keeper and he rolls it across to Evans, who ends the game right there.
Next up will be the Chicago Fire, on Saturday outside Chicago. The Fire are undefeated, but have four ties to their record, including Kansas City and these San Jose Earthquakes. Chicago has been in the league for 10 years and has played over 300 games. This will be the Sounders seventh game ever. Time is no longer kind, even to bankers, and Seattle should go as they are — brash, young, and a very good future.
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