Reflections on two MLS Playoff Shootouts

I’m gonna warn you before I begin, I’m going to get way off track in this post. Soccer is going to be somewhat auxiliary here. It’s important but it’s not the most important part of this whole deal. Content warnings for mentions of depression and suicidal ideation.

This is the first post I’ve written for this site in months, at least since I moved back to Kansas City in August. I had been waiting and drafting and trying to come up with something worthy of waiting months between posts, I’m like two-thirds of the way through drafting an essay that I wanted to be the first post I made here, but its become harder and harder to keep writing it over time because it’s all tied up in trying to make sense and meaning of what I’m now recognizing will likely be deep-seated trauma that’s going to stick with me the rest of my life. So, hopefully I finish it at some point before the end of the year.

But I also just haven’t had many thoughts that lent themselves to being written out since August. I got it in my head that everything I posted here had to be important, or poignant, or something. More importantly though, I think that writing (and creativity in general) used to be fun for me and I just don’t have fun with very much anymore really. Writing used to be a fun diversion from the rest of the world, and after the pandemic hit and I went into isolation, the world became so small, everything so constantly repeated that there was nothing worthwhile. I’ve realized that the pieces of writing that I had the most fun making were thought up when I was supposed to be preoccupied with something else, and those pieces were written in a state of respite. I used to do most of my work right after I got home from school, or work, or wherever, and for a long while I was just at home all of the time. I feel some nostalgia for the nights where I’d spend hours late into the night writing out some idea that came into my head when I was out and about. Some of my favorite works were spawned that way, and that just hadn’t happened for me over the past few months.

Thankfully, I feel like things are starting to change in that regard. I have a real job now, at a grocery store, and I like that job, and I think I’m starting to enjoy living again in at least a small sense. Because, and I apologize for bringing this up on the blog where I used to write like “7 Reasons It’s Kind of Cool Squatting at This Abandoned Hollywood Video” and photoshop half of the Terminator’s face and a cigarette onto people to show that they were a dystopic cybernetic version of themselves, but I just have not really wanted to be alive at all since about April. I saw all the rhetoric about making the best of the bad situation, how we all just have to adapt to a new normal, and how I’m not alone in my struggle. But I gotta tell you, I’ve felt pretty fucking alone in the struggle so far. That’s the whole reason it’s a struggle.

I’ve just felt like I was meant to lose out during this whole deal. The world kind of turned and I haven’t been able to turn with it. Every change that’s been necessitated by COVID I just couldn’t make. I tried to make them, but I haven’t been able to do it. I couldn’t get anything out of anything online-addled. They tell me to do Tele-therapy, to go to online parties, all that shit, and I just couldn’t do it. I tried Zoom social events and they just ripped every bit of what made socializing fun out, I tried Zoom therapy and I couldn’t shake the knowledge that it was so much more effective when I wasn’t having to stop and restart the call three times each session because my therapist’s internet connection failed, I was in like twelve Discord channels at one point, I tried all the social/collaborative games and it just wasn’t enough. But believe me, I tried so hard.

I tried to make masks and lockdowns and social distancing something positive, I tried to find something good about wearing a mask everywhere but I couldn’t do it. I see people who labor to say “I actually think the masks look cool, I’m gonna wear them well after the mandates are over” and I don’t know if I envy them or just suspect that they’re lying to themselves as hard as I was trying to. I go through days where I feel myself just giving off this dead-eyed stare in public, I see everyone else giving it off too, and it’s just fucking dystopic to me and I don’t want to live in a world where it’s like this forever. I cannot deal with a life this bereft of shared humanity forever. I couldn’t make it into a personal crusade, I couldn’t make myself feel like a hero because I was suffering through it, I couldn’t lie and pretend like I loved it. Believe me, please believe me, I tried, and I just couldn’t do it.

That was the hardest thing about all of this, the recognition that living this year has been purely survival for me. I tried to adapt, and I couldn’t, and that’s just how it is. I’m only here right now because I hope, and I have reason to believe, that a life not completely mitigated by the internet is going to happen again at some point. I don’t know when – but just saying it could even make it happen. If I could know that it was going to be like this forever, the Zoom parties and working from home and never seeing another person’s facial expressions again outside of a little window on my computer screen forever, it wouldn’t be worth adapting. If the rules changed, then I lost. Whatever.

The best analogy (and I realize I’m mixing metaphors because this is supposed to be a soccer post, and I will get to soccer sometime, please bear with me) that I can come up with is that of those college basketball players who are really dominant at the college-style game, guys like Jeff Withey, who’s probably still the most dominant player I can remember seeing in a Kansas uniform, but who have little chance in the professional ranks because their skillset has been rendered irrelevant by developments in the modern game. You hear like “If he played twenty years ago? He’d be the first pick in the draft.” That’s how I’ve felt. I feel like I was doing great in the old normal, and I’m just not cut out for a new normal. Whatever.

The good news is that I know it won’t be like that forever. When all of my communication had to be social media mitigated, I would see people like “I love working from home! I don’t have to talk to any other people and I don’t have to commute. I can keep social with my Zoom parties. The masks keep my face warm in the cold and I feel like a ninja!” and I would feel, y’know, maybe I’m the only one really suffering as bad as I am, maybe everyone else wants this online bullshit forever and I’m gonna be left out of it. Once I started working at the grocery store, I realized that that was not the case. Most people that I chat with tell me they’re suffering just as badly for the same reasons that I am, people who are desperate for a return to a life where people can have face-to-face, person-to-person interactions just as I am. I know vaccine rollout theoretically starts in the middle of next month, which I imagine will be the first step towards getting a life that I consider to be worth living back.

Saturday and Sunday featured two MLS matches – one between Orlando City and New York City, and the other between Sporting Kansas City and the San Jose Earthquakes – that had me thinking about what I’m here for. I used to listen to this podcast, Laser Time, which covered these assorted artifacts of pop culture history. The main host of that show, a guy named Chris, had a point when discussing the 2017 reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that I was thinking back on in the past few days, one which basically boiled down to “I watched this series and afterwards I felt so stupid about every time in my life I’d ever wanted to take my own life because I would’ve missed this series.” This is flippant, I know, but after experiencing these two matches, I felt something similar.

The match in Orlando was so stupid, but as I was watching it was thinking of how deeply entrenched in the league’s lore it could become. It was so fitting for Orlando to host New York City, the club which accompanied them into the league in 2015, the club against whom they’d played their first match, the club that has notched two finishes atop the Eastern Conference since 2015 while Orlando struggled to even compete for playoff spots until this season. Compared to NYCFC, Orlando did all everything right – they aren’t renting a stadium from a baseball team, they made savvy signings of big-name players not yet washed up and developed their own talent while NYC went after guys like Frank Lampard, they have a big presence in their city – and yet, NYC has been so much better on the pitch. Orlando scores early, NYC immediately scores to level it, and they stay basically deadlocked for the rest of normal time. Orlando has a player, Ruan, sent off in the 87th for basically trying to sterilize an opposing player in anger. They go to extra time, Orlando very nearly ends it with a chance at goal from Tesho Akindele, which he mishandles, but it ends up level after 120 minutes and they go to penalties.

In penalties, OCSC Goalkeeper Pedro Gallese saves Maxi Moralez’s first penalty, then both teams make each shot over the next four rounds, leading to Orlando having a 4-3 lead on penalties in the decisive fifth round. The best explanation of what happened next I read from SomethingAwful user SirFozzie, so I’ll just put the link to his post and post the screenshot of it here.

I was listening to this in my car while running errands on Saturday and at the moment when it was confirmed that Gallese was sent off for jumping off of his line early, and then when Brian Rowe came out and then went back to the sideline and came back in and went back out again, I started to basically clap like a seal in my car because I knew something stupid was happening. The radio guys in Orlando did a great job at describing how confusing the whole situation was, especially the fact that the team shot off this purple smoke in celebration, which had basically blanketed the pitch and made everything even more confusing.

Orlando thought they had won like three times before they actually finally did win, they had to put in a left back at goal, and that left back actually made a save, which was even more ridiculous than the fact that he was back there to begin with, and Orlando ended up winning their first ever playoff game after six seasons of trying in the most beautifully stupid manner I’ve ever seen.

And if I’d died back during any of the many times that I thought I wanted to this year, I would’ve missed it. That’s just one thing, obviously, and it’s not enough, but it’s more than nothing. I was just glad to see that something ridiculous like that could happen again. It’s obviously not going to be like last year, nobody’s going to be in the stands (at the majority of stadiums) to throw the can of beer that Nouhou Tolo volleys back. Which is a shame, but it’s the reality of the time and I’m glad that even in a part-empty stadium or a completely empty stadium, drama and emotion like this can still rise.

And I will admit, while I know it’s probably the wrong decision to have people in attendance like there was in Orlando and Kansas City, even with everybody in masks and standing feet apart from each other, both of those games felt bigger than the Dallas/Portland shootout played in front of nobody later in the night. Hopefully vaccine rollout will lead to those restrictions being lifted sometime next year. My dream is to have opening day in April at full-capacity (and I suspect a combination of extended rollout and the economic necessity the league’s going to face will allow this in some places) but I don’t know what the next few months will look like and I’ve had to really stop myself from getting too worked up about anything I can’t honestly control because the ultimate paradox of how much is put in front of the face to focus on and the relative futility of being who I am was one of the plentiful things that led me to stare as far into the proverbial void as I did.

But… Yeah, anyway, I know we’ll get this back fully one day, and I’m glad we have it in the form that we have it now. This was echoed on Sunday when Sporting KC played an absolutely ridiculous match against San Jose, which ended up also in a shootout. I spent basically all of last week thinking about this match, basically convincing myself that KC was a better team overall, but their one huge problem (defensive backline has a tendency to fall asleep late on and let opposing goal-scorers slip through) matched up perfectly with San Jose’s biggest strength (has the best guy ever at slipping through and scoring late when your defensive backline falls asleep).

I legitimately had trouble thinking about anything else on Sunday morning. Then, when precisely what I thought would happen, done in by precisely the guy who I thought would do Sporting in, it just sort of felt right. I was upset when Wondo scored but there was a part of me that recognized and appreciated how perfect it all was even in the moment. I talk about how one of the quietly positive things about sports is that they provide these gut-punches in loss that don’t cause real, long lasting suffering. I think it’s good, even necessary, to have that, especially given how many gut punches have been delivered by reality not just to me, but to everybody this year. There were no real consequences, and there would be no real consequences, if San Jose had ended up winning in extra time or in the shootout. But for a brief moment there, at work, with a customer right in front of me, I saw that happen on the TV and I felt like I was going to puke. Nothing else quite provides that for me. I appreciate sports for that, they make me feel like I’m still living, instead of simply surviving.

And how many times this year have I spent an entire week anticipating something coming up on the weekend? Probably none since early February at least for me.

Two of the worst aspects of COVID were the recognition that there was nothing in-place to look forward to either in the short nor the long term, at least nothing set in stone. I took at one point to planning out what I wanted out of the 2026 World Cup because I had a decent feeling that, at least, I could be fairly sure that would eventually happen. Just to have that excitement back was incredible, and I appreciate sports for that as well.

About a month or two ago I made up an image I called the “MLS Lore Iceberg”, which is still visible on Reddit thankfully even after I deleted my account last month in one of the few moments of lucidity I’ve had this year. As I listened to the call of Rodrigo Schlegel making the last save for Orlando, I thought, “Oh, wow, that would definitely go on the iceberg.” Tim Melia managing two 3-0 shutouts against MLS teams a decade apart would probably go on the iceberg as well. These moments will be remembered for years, just like the playoff moments of yore – the Rumble at RFK, the Nick Deleon Game, the Double Post, and the Other Nick Deleon Game. It was very cool to recognize I was watching moments in history while it was happening, especially during a personal year I feel like I’m going to try to forget. I’m happy to be able to say that I’m excited for the next ones to come.

About Joe Bush

The guy behind JoeBush.net and a lot of other things
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