This is why we love the game

(Published by The Philly Soccer Page on Oct. 9, 2013)

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.