“Playing Forward” is a five-part report on 2010′s Street Soccer USA Cup, a 4 v 4 tournament contested between homeless or recently homeless soccer players and held in Washington, DC from July 30 to August 1. It is being printed here in advance of this year’s event, which is scheduled for June 10-12 in DC.
Time has expired as Braxton Wellons waits over the ball, teammates and opponents arrayed on the line behind him. His Denver team is down 2-1 to Seattle; the game would already be over if the referee hadn’t called a foul and pointed to the spot with 13 seconds remaining. Since the clock runs constantly here and there is no stoppage time, the foul effectively ended the game.
Except this penalty still has to be taken.
A miss and it’s all over for Denver. Make it and the game continues, not with extra time but with more penalties, jumping straight to sudden death. If it does get there, then one would have to think Seattle would be favored. A.J., Denver’s goalie, has been improving rapidly throughout the tournament, but the guy wearing Seattle’s gloves is 6 feet tall, young and fast. One of the court-side announcers has been referring to him as “The Nightcrawler” throughout the tournament, which isn’t the kind of nickname you would want to bet against in a penalty shootout.
The 2-1 scoreline is inexplicable, an anomaly for this tournament. Seattle has scored at least five goals in every game they’ve played, and Denver’s last two losses saw them outscored 14-3 and 6-0. Goals are supposed to come early and often here. The crowd could feel the tension of the defensive battle; they’re cheering the goalkeepers after every save. During a stoppage of play with just a couple of minutes left, someone in the crowd calls A.J. over. It’s Will, the Richmond team’s goalie, who’s popular among players and fans for his intensity.
“What’s the first letter of my name?” Will asks A.J.
“W?” A.J. says, a little confused.
“Show me,” Will tells him, and A.J. jogs back to his crease, brimming with his newfound wisdom.
Denver’s come a long way since 20-3. Watching those games, I thought there was nothing wrong with this team that six months to a year of practice wouldn’t fix. Now, it seems there was nothing wrong that two days couldn’t fix. Earlier in the day, they won their first game of the tournament, a 6-3 victory over Ann Arbor in which they scored six unanswered goals after going down 3-0. Now they’re neck-and-neck with a quality Seattle squad. It seems at some point since Friday, they’ve figured out how to play this game.
There’s a bit of disagreement leading up to the kick. I hear someone saying that Yidne should take it, not Braxton. Whoever it is makes a good point; Yidne is probably the most skilled player on Denver’s team, though his outfield teammates Braxton and Sean are quicker. Braxton, however, is probably better suited to taking a PK under circumstances like this. He’s got confidence, an extroversion, self-assuredness, and love of the spotlight that makes him one of those players who walks out onto the court before the second half flapping his outstretched arms palms-up in the air, imploring the crowd to make some noise for his team. When I was interviewing the Denver squad at one of their practices two weeks before the tournament, it was tough to get him to stop talking so he could go back out onto the field and play. “I have to talk and yell and scream,” he said then. “We need a team leader.”
At the time of the tournament, the game, the penalty, Braxton had been playing soccer for only three and a half months. He’s a basketball man, he told me, a point guard. He loves being the guy with the ball in his hands. Playing with him and his teammates out in Denver — in the summers they scrimmage members of a local high school team for practice — you can see how the basketball helps his game. His quick lateral movement makes him a superb defender; he waits until the man he’s guarding takes a touch to go around him then slides over and makes off with the ball. After this last game, I hear a Seattle coach telling someone about how Braxton was so fast, he seemed to have won every loose ball.
The goal looks small from the stands, and at 4 meters by 1.3 meters it is small, roughly half the size of a regulation goal. Considering the size of the goalie in relation to that, a penalty isn’t as enticing of a prospect as it should be. I’ve seen previous penalty shoot-outs in the tournament where neither team has scored on their first two attempts, and those were players and teams with a lot more experience than Denver has.
So I don’t envy Braxton as he nudges the ball off its spot at midfield. He takes that first touch, then another little one, then another, each time pushing the ball forward at a slow roll. He can’t stop its forward momentum, or the penalty is over, and he’s missed it. The Nightcrawler has run out to the top of his crease. Braxton shoots. The keeper drops to his side to make the save. Braxton falls to the plastic court in dismay.
Part II to follow. Follow us on Twitter, @O87Minutes, for content updates.
 Will’s ready stance as a goalkeeper looks like a boxer advancing on his opponent, gloved hands balled into fists and out in front of him at chest height, eyes narrowed into an angry squint.
 “Probably” because it really is close.
 13.123 by 4.265 feet. You’re welcome.