February 11, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
To those who don’t watch the game much (or at all), it may seem a little confusing, maybe even irritating. After all … one don’t touch the ball with the hands in most instances, on pain of sanction or penalty. And it sure looks like a lot of people are falling on the ground (the floor, in the parlance) though the rules militate strongly against contact.
And the last element of the game that tends to turn off the average meat-and-potatoes American sports fan is this: the whole game can go by without a single point being scored. Why that’s … that’s … that’s not just right, man.
The sport of soccer has always struggled for acceptance in the U.S., and even though there have been multiple professional leagues – the earliest was way back in the 1920s – and despite the fact that the women’s national team has built a dynasty as indisputably the greatest side on the globe, there is still much resistance to the game. Or apathy.
However, the more one watches the game, the more its lure and nuances become apparent. It combines skill with strength, speed with endurance, strategy with freelance creativity in play, and in essence is a microcosm of the spirit of competition. The moments of excellence are brilliant, and when they come, unlike in gratuitous, point-a-minute instant gratification orgies such as in the NBA, the appreciation, recognition of a glimpse at the sublime can be life-changing, in context, of course.
And as for the contact, or lack thereof, the close observer understands that though the collisions in soccer are not head on (usually) like they are in American football, they are nonetheless very physical, at times injurious. Often taking place at angles, often involving elbows, knees and such, the physicality in the game can only be appreciated with close observation. It’s there, and it hurts.
All of this is to note that when one gets to see a quality football match between relatively equal sides, the result can often be an experience that educates as well as stimulates.
Take Tuesday’s clash between North and EHS, a fixture that traditionally provides fireworks. In the triangular grudge match that has unfolded in the past two decades, Econ has generally been the master, with intermittent periods of glory for EHS (Coach Eli’s regional-worthy group of the mid-2000s) and North (Elias Moran’s fabled foray to the final 8 in 2017). Though the Jags have won the most titles among the three, each of the other rivals has been consistently successful, and the dynamic has developed: North always gives EHS fits, while EHS perennially tests the best that the Jags have to offer.
GET WITH IT
The latest rollout of the Rivalry was more of same, as the Bobcats played from behind, the Coogs killing off the game with the lead. It was difficult to count the large number of attacks EHS marshaled once it went down 2-1, and 3-1, but suffice to say that all the elements of the game parsed earlier were on prominent display in the second half.
It had started with a bang as EHS, speedy and resolute, moved into an early chance with Kayden Moncivias and Edgar Chavez combining well, a defensive stop from North’s Francisco Roman being well-timed to defuse the bomb. Then the lightning-fast Hernan Tovar created space down the right side, playing to a corner; on the restart, EHS won a throw, whereupon Coog Angel Vazquez nixed the effort with a clearance.
Tovar is a good exemplar of the prototypical soccer kid. Somewhat small, he is nonetheless very tough, and absorbs contact without cessation, sometimes bouncing off a defender with a Parkour-like flourish and racing into the box. Watch Tovar work and be reminded that size does not always matter much in this sport. He is as brave as they come.
North, though, has a series of tall, physical kids on the back line, paced by the impressive sophomore Kenneth Reyes. Able to take over the game at times with his obvious athletic gifts, Reyes is joined by Raul Garcia, Brandon Saenz, and Carlos Gonzalez, among others. Coaches around the league have always marveled at North’s seemingly endless assembly line that produces rangy, hard-nosed defenders year after year. They are all good in the air, this latest bunch, and do not lack for speed either.
While the EHS defense is not as formidable to the eye, Adrian Taboada is certainly a mountain of a man in back. He came up with a block in deep to turn away a Cougar run, and at times, Coach Luis Cardenas is able to employ roster versatility to give Taboada some help. Cristian Castillo is a guy who has played up front in the past but against North his services were required further back. Jerry Vidal, the latest in a long line of Vidals in the program, is equally adept in an attacking position or as a sort of sweeper directly in front of the last line.
The thing that makes Vidal so dangerous is his ballhandling ability, not to mention his very strong leg. In recent times the vogue in football has been toward playing out of the back, as defenders and sometimes the keeper are increasingly called upon to not just stop the other team from scoring, but to start plays themselves with footwork in tricky places. At this, Vidal excels.
Ten minutes in, Tovar took off on an incredibly mazy run, picking his way through the defense to flip a chip shot over the keeper: alas, it bounced off the bar. North quickly countered at 27:48 as Gonzalez, the defender, pounced on a loose ball in the box that went unattended, scoring to achieve a 1-nil advantage for the visitor.
Rather than hang their heads, the Bobcats responded with a rush into the area, and gained a free kick out front after Reyes, gracefully leaping to parry away a ball, was whistled, perhaps harshly, for a high boot. After the restart went awry, EHS earned another set piece opportunity, and this time, it was successful with a little skill and a little mischief. Miguel Solis and Vidal lined up for the shot, from the extreme left, 15 yards out. Solis came to take it, moved out of the way at the last second, and Vidal struck it, looping his try high and to the far post, the angling ball coming to rest beyond the outstretched arms of the goalie, leveling the game. It was a magnificent effort from an acute angle.
Buoyed by this breakthrough, the Cats kept coming with lanky Ethan Garza showing off his dribbling prowess in maneuvering through midfield resistance. He is outstanding on the ball, and on the turn.
Observers of the game understand that football is a punch-counterpunch deal many times, with possession and momentum changing sides in a hurry. With this in mind, it came as no surprise that North ran down now for a 2-on-1, only to be whistled for offside before the clear goal-scoring chance could be consummated. Roman was the Coog who was most definitely in, but his opportunity for glory was denied.
Next it was EHS with the chance as after Reyes headed a shot away, a Bobcat got his noggin on it, clanking the post with 15 minutes left in the half. This was an actual commonplace; in the course of a night one might see the average team get 10 or 12 shots, four or five on target; if you’re the type that needs buckets of points, better to walk inside to the gym for hoops. Scores are so rare in this game, leading to a celebration of massive and cathartic proportions when they occur. If one can see more than two or three goals in a night, relatively lucky. North has put in 19 goals in six league matches, including nine against Pharr North. EHS has scored 18 times now in six outings, but Econ (eight) and Vela (eight) have been offensively challenged to date.
Dilan Cazares, who can score with the best of them, went through a difficult night against North, picking a yellow card midway through and having to sit out for stretches of the action. But he did show his all-around game by tracking back briskly to stop a North attack. The Bobcats ran with it and ended up with a shot thanks to Tovar and Castillo, who fashioned a chance necessitating a diving save from Adrian Alvarez, the stylish North minder.
North was next to find space, and re-established the lead at 2-1 as off a long throw-in, Garcia slotted home at 7:17. Again, Moran’s clubs are renowned for getting offensive production from its defenders.
At the end of the half, North was penalized somewhat unjustly when one of its kids launched a free kick as the clock ran out. The official, deeming the try to have been taken without his permission, produced a yellow card, causing the Coogs to wonder what they were supposed to have done … just let the half end without a chance at another goal? Interesting night of work from the refs, leave it at that. In the pros, the stoppage time is measured for everyone to see, via a sideline electronic board display, and usually on a larger scoreboard display, too. In high school it can be a more primitive, piecemeal and confusing thing, case in point.
REFUSING TO LOSE
Down a goal, EHS was determined to come good after the break. North and EHS are neck and neck in the 31-6A standings, trailing Juarez-Lincoln and battling with La Joya and Mission as a real five-team brawl is materializing. Econ, for so long a dominant side, has not managed a loop win so far, and dropped a decision to upstart Vela Tuesday, 3-2 in penalties.
Vidal started the try at a comeback parade with a narrow miss off a corner. Fernie Ortiz, the feisty North midfielder, would be a real warhorse in the half, leaving the pitch twice after violent collisions, but each time returning rejuvenated to fight again. Once again, anyone who tells you that football is a finesse sport is only partly right. There are some serious licks out there. When a kid gets finished with a game, he starts to catalogue the bumps and bruises. Takes a while.
EHS’s Garza now eluded a series of challenges in the middle of the park, and the ‘Cats executed a sharp switch of play, left to right, getting Tovar loose downfield until the official’s flag went up, nullifying the chance.
Soon though, Cardenas’ kids earned a free kick, only to have Saenz rush in with a kicking clearance. Tovar ended up with the ball and ran back in, right, with Reyes of North reaching the deep spot first, using his strength to shoulder the attacker off the ball, close to the byline. Reyes, in making this clever move, showed that the game is about quickness, but force as well. It can be risky to make a challenge in the box, but the North soph works with confidence and had no compunctions about making the play.
It was a frenetic first 10 minutes, the Bobcats pressuring, Coogs defending like penalty killers in hockey. When this is the flow, the danger to the attacking side – which commits major manpower upfield to try and score – is being left holding a flimsy bag if the action shifts quadrants of the field in a hurry. One waited in this second half for North, so up against it as the ‘Cats roared forward, to take a shot back up the green. It would come eventually.
But first, more EHS offense, as Vidal sent one up to Tovar, who slipped through the defense to manufacture a corner by Jesus “Chino” Garza, who had an active second half. No scratch there.
North did indeed counter now, with smooth Anthony Flores juggling his way through for a shot at 20:20. EHS zoomed back down in breakneck fashion, but Reyes was huge with a soaring effort, leaping high to chest the ball down and control. Thus began a masterful series of plays by the soph center back; he’s got the entire skill set, already, and can only improve as he matures in body and mind.
Reyes was everywhere in the last 20 minutes, as he and his mates turned away constant EHS pressure. Cazares had returned to the fold now and created a shot at 16 minutes, Garza firing over two minutes later. The ‘Cats were desperate now, but not rattled, as Solis rolled a solid wall pass to Chavez, whose shot was saved at 13:20.
Then the clincher, as EHS was caught out by a defensive mistake, Flores capitalizing with a bedtime goal at 8:13. Finally, the fierce effort to level the score had backfired, the Coogs salting the W away to put them on 14 points, tied with EHS, a point behind Lincoln, and a lone digit ahead of La Joya and Mission.
In the final stages, EHS did not relent despite the deficit, getting three chances down the stretch. On one sequence, the ‘Cats appeared to have breached the goal only to have Alvarez flap it away. Right on the doorstep, the home side could not make it happen, but not due to any lack of desire to do so.
In essence, the match was indicative of all the right things about football. There was plenty of speed, super-fast kids motoring around doing their thing. Lots of skill, with dribbling and juggling, slick passes, and deft clearances. All sorts of muscle, clashes of physicality, tackles and challenges all over the field and not a few collisions and moments of dread over possible injuries. Two fine teams, rivals to boot, letting it all hang out, to the delight of the fans. They don’t use their hands, and the final score wasn’t 135-127. They did bang each other around incessantly – usually within the parameters of the laws of the sport – and once again, we are reminded that this is the magic of o jogo bonito (from the Portuguese, by way of Brasil), the Beautiful Game.
Once you get it, you got it, and you’re hooked, never to even consider letting the spectacle relinquish its hold on your imagination.