Most of an athlete's career plays out in the daily routines of the practice field far from the awareness of their fans. But if you watch carefully over time you can catch glimpses of the fruits of those labors. And occasionally players can surprise you.
During the second half of the game against San Jose I found myself captivated by a seemingly innocuous moment during the run of play. Mario Martinez slotted the ball to DeAndre Yedlin on a simple overlapping run up the right side of the pitch. I cheered. Out loud. To say I got some strange looks from the fans around me is an understatement. I quickly described Mario's early season struggles with using DeAndre's movement and the moment swept by and folded into the rest of a pleasant afternoon.
Perhaps it was my mother sitting next to me in the stands at her first soccer game. Perhaps it's my background as a teacher. But I find fascination in the small victories of growth that punctuate every athlete's career. They are a very human thing. We can all relate to both the triumph of the moment and the frustration of waiting for them to finally occur. We all know how easily they drift by and are lost in time. A child's first tentative steps are vitally important to the child and his parents. A player's first goal is a milestone. But it is easy for the rest of us to become jaded. To let those moments of wonder pass us by. We get wrapped up in our daily concerns or the score line and forget to enjoy the simple things that make a life or comprise a career.
The current MLS rules allow teams to carry up to 30 men on their rosters. Only 14 of those men can play in any given game. Only 18 can even dress. The rest of the roster competes in Reserve matches, secondary competitions and practices. Most of an athlete's career is practice, not competition. Practice and learning. They work to make their decisions and movement second nature. Slowing the game down and seeing the field takes time and effort. It is an effort that we as fans rarely glimpse first hand.
For the past year and a half, Servando Carrasco has toiled in relative anonymity. The additions of Andy Rose, Alex Caskey, Shalrie Joseph and Christian Tiffert ate into the available minutes. His MLS playing time evaporated. During that time he got more media coverage for his personal relationship to Alex Morgan and acting as an occasional interpreter than he did on the pitch. Last year his limited time on the field was one dimensional and when he was paired with Osvaldo Alonso bordered on calamitous. It wasn't uncommon to hear fans question why he was still on the roster. Yet, for the past two weeks he has stepped into the void and claimed a spot on the Starting 11 beside Ozzie in the center midfield. They were two of his best weeks as a Sounder. His game is more complete and his connection to Ozzie has improved dramatically. Somewhere on the practice field Servando Carrasco learned to complement Alonso, not merely emulate him.
It is the same practice field where Mario Martinez is learning to mesh as a Sounder. The same practice field where Andy Rose is undoubtedly working on learning to control his first touch. It is where Steve Zakuani and David Estrada work to broaden their arsenal and regain the learning curve that their injuries interrupted. Veterans like Zach Scott and Marcus Hahnemann use practice to tend their bodies and hone their guile for the moment the team needs them. That moment when Zach Scott gauges the angle of his run because he never had DeAndre Yedlin's pace. It is where Sigi Schmid and the coaches refine the team's tactics leveraging the roster that they have been given this year. The mass of all of these men's professional careers lurks out of sight on the grass at Starfire Sports Complex. Mass results in gravity and gravity sneaks up on you when you least expect it.
We all make first impressions. If we are lucky, these impressions are gilded. But eventually the luster fades and what remains is the substance of a man. But the consequences of those first impressions linger long after the gleam fades from a fan's eyes. We think we know what a player brings to the bench. We think we know what it means to be a Sounder. Our expectations warp our perspective. We consistently write off players as past their prime, poor roster fits or as simply mediocre. We wonder openly how they will fit now that the team has brought in new players who are still shiny.
But this ignores the substance of a man. It ignores the reality that every team presents a unique opportunity to redefine how a player fits into the overall matrix. Each year the roster churn means that the Sounders are a new team and that the team must gel anew. And into that new matrix each player must find their place. They must find which of the facets of their personnel skill set suits this particular team. Zach Scott is now primarily a CB. Lamar Neagle slots into the role of Forward as opposed to the Wide Midfield role he previously occupied with the Sounders. Ozzie, Brad Evans, Alex Caskey, Andy Rose and Servando Carrasco find a new place along side of Shalrie Joseph. Mario Martinez learns to be a Sounder and how that differs than playing for Honduras. Eddie Johnson learns to play alongside Obafemi Martins. And so on down the line.
And it trickles down into the stands. Each week the fans get to challenge their expectations of what the players bring to the game. Each week we have an opportunity to see the players with fresh eyes. And maybe, once in a while we can take a look through the other end of the telescope and catch an inkling of the measure of each man that takes the pitch. We can see something we have never seen from them before and watch it dance across a fine Spring day like a firefly at dusk. Perhaps we will even cheer...