We were headed into a corner. I was in college, and he, well, I didn’t know him. But we were battling for the ball during an indoor soccer game in north Kansas City. I gave him the traditional tactical bump just before the ball arrived to throw him off a bit. I think I won the ball and played it to a teammate. He took his fist and punched me … not in the face … somewhere else more impactful. I ached down there for days. Days. He was ejected from the game. He got the better end of the deal – less pain. Nuts.
The stakes for him were minimal. Yet for an aspiring, or established, player, at any level, ill-advised or flagrant fouls can lose a game, destroy a team’s season, and define a player’s career. Think David Beckham, England v Argentina World Cup 1998, Round of 16, an ill-advised reaction that gave him nightmares for years. Think Zinedine Zidane, France v Italy World Cup 2006, Final, a momentary lapse of reason. Or a moment of insanity for one of the greatest of all-time?
We all know that competition breeds glory, and aggression. And we all must admit that in soccer, of all sports, opportunities to gain an advantage in some way are abundant, and must be done to survive. A small bump. A pull of the jersey or hair. A “protective” raise of the elbow. An extra kick to the shin. A shove while the opponent is in the air. And we all know that actions often have reactions.
Sporting Kansas City, even more so after their 1-0 loss to 1st place Vancouver Whitecaps Saturday last, are in a battle of victories and points to gain the highly-sought after top two spots in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference and the vital first-round playoff bye and home field advantage in the semifinals they bring. Each moment, then, is magnified in their quest for glory. After Saturday’s match, striker Diego Rubio rued his missed chances, including a penalty, that could have won the day for his club and put them in first place. He took responsibility for his failure.
Go back a week-and-a-half to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final at Children’s Mercy Park against the New York Red Bulls. A Cup Final. A Cup that is more and more sought after. A Cup that New York had never won. Rubio and his Sporting KC teammates were playing a Final in their home stadium, going for their third such cup in five years, their fourth overall. In the 3rd minute, Rubio is dumped to the turf after his defense-splitting pass hard from the side by the Red Bulls’ Felipe.
A minute later, Sporting’s left back Seth Sinovic receives a yellow card for fouling Tyler Adams as he broke free near midfield, a tactical foul that was arguably necessary to prevent an Adams breakaway to goal. The match is heated even this early as players from each side gather around Adams. After Felipe stands over Sinovic and yells at him demonstratively, he turns towards the approaching Rubio who bumps Felipe and kicks him in the right shin. Histrionically, Felipe falls to the pitch. After watching the replay, espn2 commentator Jon Champion says, “A hardline referee would be justified to produce a red card for that.”
A red card for Rubio would have put Sporting Kansas City in a hole. It could have been a death knell for his team’s chances, and the repercussions for Rubio’s career could have been significant. Yes, Felipe exaggerated the foul in an effort to draw the expulsion. And, yes, Rubio was standing up for Sinovic. But Rubio’s actions were risky in the moment.
Why do players take such actions? Why risk the team’s success, the fans (who players ultimately depend on) ire, and reputation?
“It’s adrenaline. He came to speak bad with me in the face. So I just pushed him, and in the movement of pushing him, I threw the leg. But I didn’t kick him; it was more like a push – ‘Go away,’” said Rubio two days later.
He continued, “Sometimes you don’t even think about [the consequences]. In the moment that he came to me, he said something, and I was just like ‘Go away.’”
Rubio was fortunate, even more so that the U.S. Open Cup tournament, unlike MLS, does not employ Video Assistant Referee (VAR). A VAR is an off-field referee whose employs video to “check” the decisions of on-field referees in regards to goals, penalty-kicks, mistaken identity, and straight red cards, including such incidents as Rubio’s. Former Sporting KC forward Kristzian Nemeth was not so fortunate recently in his return to Kansas City with the New England Revolution. Nemeth’s elbow Graham Zusi’s face in the 10th minute (when the Revs were up 1-0) was reviewed and Nemeth was ejected, a pivotal action of “absolute stupidity” (as described by Sporting’s commentator Matt Lawrence) in an eventual 3-1 loss for the Revolution who are now four points out of the playoffs. That’s a crucial possible three points lost.
As Sporting Kansas City heads into the last four critical matches of the regular season, and, assumedly, the playoffs, adverse reactions can derail their quest. And opposing teams will try to goad Sporting Kansas City players into such reactions. Some of it is just tactics.
Is it possible that part of the Red Bulls strategy in the Open Cup Final was to negate Sporting’s advantage out wide by roughing up speedy and deceptive wingers Gerso Fernandes and Latif Blessing? Yes. Games late in the season arc up in intensity as teams look for any advantage to gain glory, or more of a paycheck that comes with winning championships. Both wingers were eventually forced from the match due to injury. Blessing, the scorer of the first goal, even before half in the 43rd minute and Gerso shortly after the half in the 56th minute. Blessing had taken “a beating” as one source from the MLS Match Timeline put it. Other comments included descriptors like “destroyed” and “nasty”. That wasn’t the half of it. The “smack” talk on the field was intense.
“Sometimes you can’t think about anything. Like when you score goals, after you don’t even know how you celebrated or how you scored. It’s like living in a dream,” Rubio stated. “Somethings you need to be more conscious of – when the players talk to you bad – you need to say, ‘Okay. I need to relax. I need to [think of the team]. I don’t need to do something bad in the game to lose the match.”
“Sometimes it is all the pressure you have from the game… It happens to all of us,” said Roger Espinoza, a player who, in his early years, was accused of careless actions. “It’s the type of game you want to win. You have fans there that pay a lot of money to go watch the game, and you want to do everything to win.”
“You feel like the referee calls something wrong or you feel like the other team is doing something wrong, and you are trying to protect your teammate. You just want to direct the game. It’s a mind-game at times. It’s a very mental and physical game. And it’s not easy,” said Espinoza.
As the pressure ramps up and the in-game intensity takes over, Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes preaches habit.
“The game is extremely emotional. People forget that there is emotion and passion in the game. Because of that, sometimes you let them get the best of you,” said Vermes. “That’s why you have to build good habits along the way that prepare you for situations like that so you don’t let your emotions get the best of you.”
Yeah, the jawing and dialed-up intensity is fun. And certainly makes things interesting.
“Anytime you are fighting for first place, it’s what you are going to be into. It’s just game-after-game. I love that. That’s why I’m here,” stated Espinoza. “And that’s why we want to be in every championship we can.”
Physical pain can last days. Yet emotional pain from “nutty” reactions can lose a game, destroy a team’s season, and define a player’s career. Here’s to passion without irresponsibility and to one hell of a ride into MLS’s final stretch and throughout the playoffs as the champion is crowned in glory, not regret and shame.