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Week 13: Barton Wins HTUM Talent Of The Season

The last home match of the season is always a busy time for the back-office staff here at Slingsby Lane.  The Operations crew has to deal with a larger than usual crowd and the need to sell off the remaining supply of knishes, Recruitment has to begin finalizing the short list of transfer prospects for next season and to lay in earplugs against Finance’s inevitable shrieks of pain, Security needs to convince our ultras that this is not the appropriate time to set any portion of the stands ablaze and so on.  This year, I had one additional duty thrust upon me: organizing a pre-game ceremony so that some Golden League oligarch could present Alex Barton with the trophy for winning the HTUM U20 Talent of the Season Award (and to drink all the good scotch, but I digress).

Most of us here were quite pleased for Alex- this could easily have been a lost season for him after he narrowly missed out on making the USA U20 team, but instead he buckled down, focused on improving his playmaking abilities, and played a key role in our campaign.  In fact, his 85th minute goal in a 1-0 win over Owls was arguably the turning point of the season.  The one dissenting voice was manager David Jorgensen who, like the possibly apocryphal Roman slave of old, could be heard muttering “Remember, you are mortal” to Barton during his triumph.  Ok, it may have actually been “keep tracking back on defense or I’ll smack you.”  Same thing, really.

Turning to the match itself, it demonstrated precisely why Barton is both so frustrating and tantalizing as a prospect.  Asked to play in an unaccustomed forward role due to our putting Rolando Blackmon-Thomas in midfield to work on his playmaking and because Ruggero Panero is still out injured, Barton promptly embarked on a display of spin moves, rabonas and general hot-doggery that had Jorgensen gnashing his teeth in frustration.  He also chipped in two of the nicer goals you’ll ever see and sparked us to an easy 8-0 win over Dybesciaki Batory that all but clinched auto-promotion.

In the post-match press briefing, Jorgensen was asked about his plans for Division IV.  After dispensing with the obligatory cliches about not looking past bot team Steel City Chaos next week, he said “we’ll be buckling down next year and focusing on defense.  It’ll be a shock to the system for a certain Fancy Dan who shall remain nameless, but he’ll just have to adjust.  Or else.”

While this might be chalked up as a mere motivational ploy, we shortly demonstrated that it was not, as Jorgensen announced the signing of 23-year-old Ronald Sellers, a powerful Chicagoan described as our central defender of the future, for a club-record fee of $4.3 million.  So, I guess we’ll see how Barton adjusts to playing wingback next year.  It’ll be, um, interesting.

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Week 12 Recap: Sinking the Rafters

Jimmy Cannon once wrote “the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.” Such was the case yesterday, as we dispatched AC Poudre Rafters, the last human team on our schedule.

Personally, I will admit to some nerves before the match since we were clearly going to bear the burden of attacking, meaning that one fortunate counter-attack and some inspired defending from the scrappy Rafters could undo all that we’ve accomplished so far.  However, when I tried to ask manager David Jorgensen after training on Saturday how he planned to handle this, he  “Relax, it’ll be fine. Jere [Halla, our form coach] did some Finnish voodoo thing and the boys are spitting fire.  We’re going to stomp them.”  Jorgensen declined to further comment on what constituted a “Finnish voodoo thing” and, terrifyingly, only winked when I informed him that the club would not be reimbursing any reindeer-related cleaning expenses.

In any event, whatever Halla did worked.  Yesterday was the kind of day that everything just clicked for us- every pass found its target, our chances were taken with aplomb and our defense mopped up their few attacks with ease.  When the dust settled, we were 6-0 victors, as Misariscabame and Blackmon-Thomas notched a brace each, with Barton and Nick King rounding out the score sheet.  Our analytics department had it as easily our best match ever, and noted it was the first time we had ever cracked the 300-hatstat barrier.  (Our analytics department then had to sit down and attempt to explain to me what a hatstat was.  Let us just note that it involves math in some capacity and move on to happier things.).

Moving forward, we finish up with two bot teams so the league title should be secure [knock wood] and the question becomes whether we’ll have to play a qualifier afterwards.  Right now, we are above the auto-promote line by just one goal, so we may be sweating this one out.  Stay tuned.

 

 

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Week 11 Recap: The Legend of Frenchy King

This past week saw another comprehensive victory for SSW, a 11-0 thrashing of Boston Celtix in a match that never saw us have to get out of second gear.  Rather than spend time analyzing every last kick of the ball, I figured that this would be the opportune time to shine the spotlight on the man of the match winner: Terry “Frenchy” King.
Terry King

Terry’s been with us for four seasons now, joining us as a 19-year-old defender from his hometown Vancouver Patriots.  Nicknamed “Frenchy” by his teammates after a certain club secretary, who shall remain nameless, accidentally typed “Quebec” instead of  “British Columbia” in the press release.  Terry decided to lean in to his new heritage, adopting a sneer worthy of a Parisian headwaiter, exclaiming “Tabernac” at opportune moments, and learning several of the words to “Alouette,” all to the immense amusement of his teammates.

On the pitch, Terry’s been nearly as adaptable, moving from central defense to wingback with aplomb and even showing some aptitude as a winger.  In all of these roles, he’s been an intelligent defender with a knack for rising above what he insists on calling “le grand achalandage” to head in set pieces.  Sadly, his progress has stalled a bit over the last couple seasons, as Jorgensen switched our training focus to playmaking and focused his efforts on others.  Nevertheless, Terry accepted the lesser role with a pseudo-Gallic shrug, has consistently been one of our best players on the pitch and has continued to be the life and soul of our clubhouse parties.

Going forward, however, there are questions as to whether Terry will be with us once this group hits its prime.  He’s a couple years older than the rest of our core trainees and the Payroll Department grumbles every time we have to pay the 20% premium for international talent, so I happen to know that our scouts have their eyes out for an American replacement.  But, whatever, the future may hold, Terry’s played a key role in making SSW what it is today, and it’ll take a heck of a player to replace him.

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Week 10 Recap: The Rise of the Back Bay Bull

I found out this week that the Back Bay Bull, Rolando Blackmon-Thomas was the son of a lovely pair of certified public accountants who came up from Brookline to watch us slaughter bot team and caps lock aficionado 4EPHO MOPE.  Frankly the news that Ro has parents came as something of a relief, as I always half-suspected that he was an anvil brought to life by some spirit who was either particularly football-obsessed or determined to spite his local blacksmith.  After all, he appears wider than he is tall and is strong enough to shrug off all but the hardest challenges.  On the other hand, most anvils have a better first touch than Ro displayed last season.Rolando Blackmon-Thomas

Ok, I’m being a little unfair.  Ro joined us last season for what is still a club record fee, and the pressure of that was clearly too much for a shy 20-year-old.  Rather than embrace the best part of his game and simply bulldoze his way past defenders, he felt that he needed to display a level of finesse and refinement that he did not possess.  The result was two goals for the entire season, what appeared to be two thousand failed stepovers, a level of frustration that caused him to repeatedly snap at the manager and, relatedly a new club record for most stairs run at Slingsby Lane in a single season.

This week’s match illustrated how much things have changed this year.  Ro notched two first-half goals off free kicks swung into the mixer when he was able to shoulder opponents out of the way and get to the ball first.  He then completed his hattrick in the second half by out-hustling a demoralized defender to get on the end of a cross from Alex Barton, a feat which represented his fourteenth goal in all competitive matches this year and put him in a tie for our league’s Golden Boot.

What’s different this year?  Well, a lot of it might simply be getting used to life in the big city, plus the team’s initial success this year meant that our fans were more inclined to forgive and forget the occasional missed chance.  But I suspect the biggest part of the change is the role of our other forward, veteran Ruggero Panero, who deployed a mixture of Zen aphorisms liberally salted with Italian expletives in order to get Ro to stop thinking so much and get back to playing more instinctively.

While this approach has worked wonders so far, who knows if the changes will last.  For one thing, Panero picked up an injury at the end of our last match and will be away from the team for the next month as he undergoes rehab.  In addition, the gaffer has sketched out a plan to spend the next season or two focusing on the team’s defensive skills, which will inevitably raise questions about Ro’s future at the club.  Will a potentially unsettled Blackmon-Thomas revert back to his bad habits, or will he be able to drown out the noise with the sound of one hand clapping?  Only time will tell.

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Week 9 Recap: Rumble in the Bronx

Forget all the platitudes, all the mealy-mouthed statements about “taking it one match at a time,” and “not looking past [insert bot team here].”  This was it.  This week’s match against Rusko Team United was the fixture we had circled on our calendars ever since it became clear in the early part of the season that the winner of this derby match would not only have local bragging rights, but would also be the presumptive league winner.

Given the importance of this match, many of our fans journeyed up to the Bronx, so it was unsurprising that Rusko were able to sell all 45,000 seats at the Nou Can Caralleu.  However, in a dastardly display of cheating (or “gamesmanship” when we did the same to them), most of our support were denied entry, ensuring that our lads would take the pitch faced with a deafening and implacably hostile crowd.

However, while this might have cowed our young side in the past, it had no effect today.  Our manager, David Jorgensen, gave the pre-match pep talk of his life, tearfully relaying the words of little Billy Jorgensen who, on his deathbed, begged his beloved uncle David for just one more Wanderers victory.  Afterwards, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, and even I was willing to run through walls for SSW, even though I was the one charged with keeping the “miraculously healed” Billy out of sight until he could be loosed on the post-game spread.

Of course, the other guys must have had a fradulently comatose second cousin or something, because Rusko was up for battle as well and probably would have overrun us but for the heroic man-marking efforts of Janos Pailing who left an indelible, cleat-shaped impression on their best midfielder.  As it was, unlike the cagey, tactical skirmish of our first meeting, this was simply a firefight, a coruscating, end-to-end roller coaster ride, as we spent most of the first half trading haymakers, but unable to draw blood.

Finally, in the 35th minute, a breakthrough!  Our strongest player, Rolando Blackmon-Thomas, simply out-muscled two Rusko defenders to get to a rebound and slam it in for a 1-0 lead.

Rusko began to claw their way back into it, but a second goal right after halftime by The Notorious R.B.T. (as our marketing department sadly insists on calling him) took any remaining win out of their sails.  Terry King neatly headed in a corner kick to add an insurance goal, and we left as 3-0 winners.

With the win, SSW is well set-up for the rest of the season, with four bot games and a home game against the 4th-best team in the league.  The next major question is whether we will face a qualifier to get back to Div IV.  We’re currently level on points with the cut line, but 20 goals back in terms of goal differential.  Between attrition and all the bot games, we can probably close the gap by the end of the season, but it’ll be a close-run thing.

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Break Out the Fainting Couch: We Actually Spent Money

There are few worse ways to start the day than to be roused from sleep at the infernal hour of 10am by the incessant blaring of the phone.  Worse still, after blearily activating the infernal devices, I was treated to the dulcet tones of the Chairman as he held forth on my many perceived failings of personality and character, before inviting me to put together a press conference at my earliest convenience.

In any event, having duly purchased bagels for the ungrateful knights of the fourth estate, I watched as the Chairman and Manager Jorgensen trundled out to announce that Wanderers had signed a new keeper.  SpecificallyDavid Yates, our new No. 1 is a certain Senor David Yates, purportedly a 30 year old Chilean keeper who has spent the bulk of his career as a backup in the South African second division.  He apparently meets the requirements to start for us, however, to wit: (a) not pushing 40, (b) being available on the cheap  and (c) having comical hair (a mullet in this specific case).

In any event, when asked if he had signed a keeper due to our key tie against Rusko, Jorgensen denied it, saying that the move had nothing whatsoever to do with that game, but rather represented a chance to pick up a long-term answer at keeper.  Seldom have I heard a man speak with such deep insincerity.

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Week 8 Recap: The Hammer

The latter half of the season began with us taking on the Great Grey Owls for the second straight week, this time at home.  As befit a match of this import (i.e. one accompanied by a sale on beer), Slingsby Lane was sold out, with 42,000 of our screaming faithful baying for blood, and not especially caring whose.

Buoyed by the noise, both sides came out with a wild, passionate intensity, that lead to any number of crunching tackles and overhit passes.  Through it all, a pattern quickly emerged- the Owls would once again gladly cede midfield to us and watch our attacks founder against their packed-in defense, only this time they were more adventurous in their counter-attacks, hoping to nab a goal and return to Oregon with an ill-gotten win.

It was a sound plan, and it may well have worked but for the efforts of one man:  the Hammer himself, Leslaw Malolepszy.  With a calm alien to his fellow Wanderers, Malolepszy took it upon himself to foil each Strigiform counter and to make the vital pass to start our attacks anew.  Finally, in the 62nd minute, he took matters into his own hands, pouncing on a loose ball at the edge of the box and blasting home what would be the only goal of the match.

With the win, we remain level on points with Rusko for first place, trailing only on goal differential, and our match with them next week will almost certainly decide the league title.  We also make our Golden League debut this week, hosting FC Prauge Silvers on “Senior Citizens’ Day,” where all fans in attendance will receive commemorative Matlock DVD’s and the chance to witness a back line with an average age well in excess of 38.

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Week 7 Recap: Escape From Oregon

There are days where soccer is truly the beautiful game, where a brightly shining sun turns the pitch into a green and holy stage befitting the most skilled of performers, the men who live to turn sport into poetry.  Turns out that those days generally don’t happen during February in Oregon.  Instead, our match against the Great Grey Owls would be played in the dreaded wintry mix- freezing, driving rain that left turned half the pitch to mud and the other half to ice.

Unsurprisingly, the defenders were able to make common cause with the weather, conspiring to drain all joy from the affair.  The Owls, a team that lives and dies by its defense even under the best of conditions, embraced the occasion, choosing to press and harry our more skilled players all over the pitch, sacrificing their own chances to score in hopes of creating a stalemate.  Why Owls would want a home draw that would effectively end their chances of a league title I do not know but, by gum, did they set their cap for one.

For most of the game, their plan worked.  Wanderers had a few half-chances here and there, but nothing that looked like scoring.  Then, in the 76th minute, it appeared that the Owls’ Fabian tactics would net them a staggering reward as their winger Luis Alberto Carlos was able to press Abel Jonas into a silly turnover in our own end.  Given their defense, it is no exaggeration to say that Carlos had the game on his foot, but his shot trickled wide.

Finally, in the 85th minute, Wanderers made the most of their reprieve.  Jonas atoned for his earlier error, muscling an Owl off the ball and sending a pass up the wing to Terry King, who heading the ball into the space behind the pressing defenders.  Alex Barton, somehow finding a burst of speed despite the mud, was able to beat their fullbacks to the ball, whereupon he calmly rounded the keeper to slot home the only goal of the day and, quite possibly, save our season.

Despite the win, SSW falls into second on goal differential.  Still, our destiny is firmly within our own hands.   We get Owls again this week, but this time at the friendly confines of Slingsby Lane, before heading up to the Bronx for the return fixture against Rusko.  Win both and we win the league.   Of course, it’ll still be February and probably still be raining, but at least it will be a good, wholesome New York City rain.

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Week 7 Preview: The Dubious Wisdom of Owls

This week, SSW travels to the west coast for the first of back-to-back matches against Oregon-based Great Grey Owls.  As two of the three teams in our division with plausible hopes of winning the title, this promises to be an absolutely vital match.  Win and we stay in the mix, anything else and things get very difficult.  For their part, the Owls boast probably the best defense in the division, but have struggled to control midfield, are dealing with a bit of an injury crisis and in a position where a draw does them no good at all.   If we can conjure up a goal or two, we’ll be fine, but it might take a moment of magic from someone to break through.

Following that, we venture to the fabled Richfield Coliseum to take on F.C. Westchester in the Enterprise (Sapphire) Cup.  Despite Jorgensen’s insistence that we focus solely on the league, the lads are more than a bit excited for their first-ever match in the national stadium.  Sadly, given the midfield Westchester puts up, there’s a better-than-decent chance that it’ll be our only appearance there this season.

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Week 6: Living to Fight Another Day

Today, we had what was probably the toughest of the four-match stretch against the two other contenders in our league.  Rusko Team United are a Bronx-based side that’s been yo-yoing between Divisions 4 and 5 since season 60 or so.  Stylistically, they’re fairly similar to us- roughly comparable in midfield, with the defense stronger than the offense.  We’re better attacking from the flanks, they’re best attacking up the middle, but really you wouldn’t think there’s much between us.

In any event, Jorgensen anticipated that Rusko would be fired up for the derby match and come out aggressively.  While we, rather than fight fire with fire, would set our lads out in a defensively-oriented 4-5-1 in the hopes of either catching them on the counter or relying on our superior stamina to edge them out at the death.

It was a good plan.  But like most good plans, it did not survive first contact with the enemy.   18 minutes in, veteran Rusko forward Jorge Vargas scored his 75th career goal at the worst possible moment, getting on the end of a through ball and calmly slotting it home.

Forced to come forward a bit more, SSW was struggling to create openings when, in the 39th minute, Alex Barton decided to create one for himself, blazing past a couple Rusko defenders and blasting home the equalizer.

From that point, it looked like momentum might see us through.  But then, things got weird.  On the stroke of halftime, our starting keeper, Ferdynand Pasieska, went down with a six-week knee injury, placing our hopes on the rickety shoulders of our geriatric Estonian reserve keeper.  Then, in the second half, Janos Pailing picked up a second (and admittedly deserved) yellow card for scything down a Rusko winger.  With no other option, Jorgenson had no choice but to trim sails and see out a 1-1 draw.

In terms of this season, the draw keeps our fate in our hands, but without little margin for error going forward, and practically ensures that we would face a qualifier even if we manage the league title.  Our brain trust faces the question of whether we can manage with a senior citizen in goal for the vital part of our season, or whether we should mortgage the future to bring in some short term help.  For tonight, however, we can breathe a sigh of relief as we’ve managed to live to fight another day.