A soccer story

by Brian Clarey

I hadn’t planned on getting caught up in this year’s World Cup, thinking instead that I would spend the duration of the tournament making jokes about shin guards, hooliganism and tie games. And yet there I was on a sweltering Saturday afternoon heeding the clarion call of the vuvuzuela, cheering on our homeboys against Ghana in what would be our final World Cup appearance of the season.

Oh yeah, I jumped right on that bandwagon just minutes after we snuck one past England’s goalie in that fateful first-round tie.

Who thought a tie could be so exhilarating? It’s precisely that preponderance of matches played to a draw — especially in the first round of play — that gets held up as the reason why soccer will never catch on in the US, even when played at the highest level on the world’s largest stage.

It’s pure crap, of course, as exemplified by high television ratings, throngs of people watching the games in the nation’s bars and restaurants, skyrocketing sales of vuvuzuelas adorned with American flags, even the introduction of the word “vuvuzuela” into the national lexicon.

Sounds kinda dirty, doesn’t it? The fact is that soccer has been a big part of American life since the 1970s, when Pel’ from Brazil became one of the world’s first onename superstars and signed on with the New York Cosmos in the old North American Soccer League. Who among us remembers watching Shep Messing, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia play in their home whites?

I do. I came along in the 1970s, along with all the other suburban kids who enjoyed — endured? — soccer as a rite of passage.

I played soccer — unspectacularly, mind you — for five or six years in the village league of my Long Island hometown, the Garden City Centennials. We all did. We practiced in fields after school, wore inordinately heavy blue-and-yellow reversible jerseys on spring weekends, ate cut-up oranges at halftime. We wore the jackets with our first names stitched on the breasts. We attended Soccer Fest every summer, watched our dads play in the fathers’ game, drenched our coaches in the dunking booth. And some of us were fortunate enough to hone our skills at Long Island Soccer Camp held each summer at Adelphi University, right in the middle of our hometown.

That was me in the summer of 1977, constantly adjusting my shin guards while learning the difference between a corner kick and a side kick. And yeah, that was me in ’79 acquiring the skill of goaltending after the ability to dribble proved insurmountable.

By summer 1980 I was the official goalie of my soccer camp team

— I forget our team name, but I remember I won the position from a kid named Brett Epstein, by far the best athlete on our squad whose talents were better suited to the other side of the field. We had a good season, I remember, and cruised through the playoffs to the championship largely on the foot of Brett Epstein. And in the final game, we played to a draw, necessitating a shootout at the end of regulation.

I was 10 years old and I swear I will never forget it: After the three long whistles had blown, my coach — who seemed pretty old but was probably just a college kid — took a knee beside me.

“You want to stay in the goal?” he asked me. I looked over at Brett Epstein, a far superior goaltender than I, juggling a soccer ball on the sidelines. I remember thinking about it, but not for too long.

“You better put Epstein in,” I said. I think about that moment often, believe it or not. When I was a younger man I recalled it with shame, a moment of revealed weakness. If I had just stayed in that game, I thought, had participated in the shootout and emerged victorious,… why, my whole life might have been different.

But regrets, I’ve learned, are for fools and dreamers. And more importantly, I’ve come to look at my evaporated moment in a different light.

True, I could have stayed in, mustered what I could to affect the outcome. But I now realize that I was one of a team on that summer afternoon, that I had performed ably all season long, and also that, dammit, I wanted to win this thing, and we had a hell of a lot better chance of taking the championship with Epstein in the goal. It was an act of sacrificing my ego for the greater good.

We won that game. Epstein was phenomenal, stopping most of our opponents’ shots and helping our cause by knocking one in from the box. I was elated. We were elated, all 15 or so of us in that summer of 1980. And Brett Epstein was our hero.

He won most of the team awards at the end of our term: Most Goals, Best Passer, Best Shooter and the like. And when they announced the Best Goalie award, I assumed Coach was going to call his name again.

But he didn’t. He called mine. I know: stupid, right? But for some reason it’s stuck with me. Does it matter why?

I played soccer for several more years after that summer, each of them in the goal where I distinguished myself in the village league as having the biggest mouth and the weirdest jerseys. When the time came for the more serious players to move on, I was not one of them.

No biggie, not in the grand scheme of things. And I didn’t leave the sport empty-handed. I’ve got a certificate, and that memory of Brett Epstein’s game-winning performance.