Fan Culture

River Cup 2013: Living the dream, part 2

Photo: Earl Gardner

As my kids (and ESPN’s Stuart Scott) would say, “BOO YAH!”

That’s right, my dream of playing on the pitch at PPL Park finished with a storybook 3-1 win for the Sons of Ben in the 2013 River Cup. And while it was an extremely competitive game that we all wanted to win badly, it was the experience itself that made the day the stuff of dreams.

Pregame chills

Rewind to the day before the match, and I am walking around Boston with my wife after a work conference. The sights are a welcome distraction from my brewing nervousness about the River Cup, but I am very glad to land back in Philly without any airline delay drama and get home for a good night’s rest. I wake up super early after about the 100th dream that was somehow related to soccer, the last of which involved trying to score a ball the size of that rolling boulder from Indiana Jones while Hackworth was telling me I wasn’t “Philly Tough,” but I open my eyes realizing that it’s Game Day, and it kind of feels like Christmas. I’ve been thinking about what this game would be like for a while, and the day is finally here. But would it live up to my expectations?

SoB locker room

Photo: Scott Pugh

I get to the stadium in record time; perhaps due to the lack of regular game-day traffic, perhaps due to an overzealous lead foot. I get checked in and head to the locker room. Nothing too fancy, but the sight of our jerseys hung up and waiting for us suddenly makes the experience more real. We mostly try to relax, but as we suit up for warm up time, you can feel the team’s energy begin to pick up. Our coach, Union midfielder Mike Lahoud, talks to each of us individually, giving us our planned substitution rotation and assignments for the match. I catch a glimpse of his notes and next to my name he’s written, “runner, solid.” Very cool.

We head out for pre-game warmups and I definitely get some chills as I run out onto the field. I try to heed Matt Furlan’s advice about not being too excited in warm-ups and getting tired out, but this proves to be a difficult challenge. I feel like a kid out there seeing my beloved PPL Park from the players’ vantage point. The pitch is pristine and the ball rolls true. It’s a blur of trying to find a touch on the ball, take a few shots (after all, I have to put at least one ball into the net today), and trying not to get too distracted by the sights.

Back to the locker room for final instructions, I’m very impressed that Lahoud has changed into a suit for the event. His pregame talk is exactly what I need to hear: “Believe in yourself. We chose you for a reason.” It just shows that soccer is an incredibly mental game where confidence is key. We huddle up with a classic “WIN-on-3” that reverberates throughout the concrete halls, then line up in the tunnel under the River End where we get our first good look at the opposition. As the MLS anthem starts, so does another round of chills as I walk out of the tunnel into the sunshine of PPL Park and to the cheers of the fans and our friends and family. I spot my family, especially my two boys, and hope the moment is half as special for them as it is for me.

“This field is huge

Anthem over, whistle blows, and I’m already warming up on the sideline because I’m scheduled to be the first sub to go in. Do you know that feeling you get when, as you run onto the most beautiful pitch you could imagine in a professional soccer stadium, you see your face on the huge video screen and hear the PA announcer say, “Now entering the match for the Sons of Ben, midfielder, number 9, Scott Pugh”? Yeah…well it’s hard to put into words. Let’s just say, it’s pretty freakin’ cool.

The first thing I think to myself is that this field is huge, which gives me a much deeper appreciation for what these guys do week in week out. Tactically, the decision to push forward past a defender, or drop back to cover an attacking winger, is no simple choice. It’s a 50-yard dash to move between two adjacent players.

As for my play personally? I have a couple of early touches that are decent, turn the ball over a couple of times, and get myself into a few good attacking chances.

The Union FO strikes first. Photo: Earl Gardner.

The Union FO strikes first. Photo: Earl Gardner.

One chance that stands out is a move from the flank where I find myself attacking a big track of space up the middle. I see that I could possibly continue on past a defender and get off a shot, but I don’t want to be too selfish and unfortunately lack that final bit of confidence as I miss-hit the ball trying to push it out to a teammate making a run on the flank. Despite that, it is very impressive to see how everyone is playing as a solid unit. We move the ball around nicely and get some quality early chances. I come off after my first shift, sit down and the kids sitting behind our bench — honest to God — ask for my autograph.

Doubt begins to creep in when the Union score first off a corner, but we respond beautifully and score an equalizer just a few minutes later. Halftime, and we’re back to the locker room where I find out I’ll be starting the second half.

“We know what we have to do”

At this point, we know what we have to do. I take the field and have another surreal moment when I see myself on the video board during the first-half highlights.

As the game pushes on, I find my groove a bit more and am satisfied when my number is called. I head to the bench, get a high five from the ball kid and hear a couple of “Nice game, number 9,” comments from the crowd. Thinking my day is over, I’m surprised when Sebastien Le Toux calls me over to the coaches before I could sit down. Lahoud asks me if I can go again. Luckily I have enough breath left to squeak out a “You bet” before Lahoud replies with, “Good, you’re going back on in five minutes!”

At this point, I’m driven not just by the fear of letting my team down, but by a deep desire to win, and I push myself beyond some tired moments in search of a goal. I have to admit, I had some fantasies about what it would be like to score, and I had already decided that I would have to celebrate in some fashion — probably with a sprint and knee-slide to the sideline.

But I don’t get the game winner. No, that would have been too much for my brain to handle. I come off and am happy to watch some incredibly talented players finish the last ten minutes. We score a beautiful second goal and fight off the Union’s increasingly dangerous chances at an equalizer.

The Cup-winning SoBs. Photo: Earl Gardner.

The Cup-winning SoBs. Photo: Earl Gardner.

Deep into a suspiciously long stoppage time, the icing on the cake comes with a third goal from Justin List, who celebrates exactly as I had imagined I would. It’s too much to take and, knowing now that we’ve won the game, we all sprint from the bench down the sideline to join him in jubilation. The whistle finally comes and the celebration continues on the pitch.

I spot my family, my boys waving happily, and realize just how lucky I am for this extraordinary dream of an opportunity.

Kids ask for more autographs and beg for me to give them my jersey, or even “just one boot.” I politely try to explain that I’m not a professional and only have one of everything. We hit the showers then head to a wonderful catered dinner in the Stadium Club.

I am incredibly thankful to the Union, the Sons of Ben, and the many volunteers for putting together this amazing event. It was an honor to play and a privilege to do so alongside a wonderful team of great people. On the one hand, I feel like I shouldn’t try out for next year’s team, just so someone else can get a chance to experience what I did. But looking out over the empty pitch of PPL Park, I’m overcome by one single thought: I want to do that again!

 To read the first part of Scott’s series, which is about anxiety and excitement of trying out for the Sons of Ben team, click here.

 

7 Comments

  1. Good stuff, Scott! Congrats on playing, and on beating Sugarman’s Evil Empire!
    .
    Any truth to the rumor that Hack suggested you guys bunker in once the score was tied 1-1?

  2. Weren’t you the one wearing number 13 in warmups?

    • If Scott was the one wearing 13 during warmups, then that dude was all over the place! Impressive!

    • yeah…it’s been pretty funny when we wear those shirts in the YSC men’s league and opposing teams call out their defensive marks. “Who’s got 13!?” It always takes them a few minutes before they start laughing.

  3. Wish I could still play but too old and slow. Had my son at tryouts last year and he was too young; go figure!
    .
    Looks like the SOB team is getting strong each year and that it is becoming an event everyone should attend!

  4. Great stuff, Scott.

    The worst thing about getting older is not be able to play competitive team sports any more. In my experiences, you just can’t duplicate that mix of excitement and tension in other avenues of life that sport brings. Reading your account of the River Cup brought back those memories for me so I thank you for that.

  5. Matt Schiff says:

    Scott,

    I am honored to be on your over 35 team at YSC. It must have been SOOOOO much fun to be on the field at PPL park and if you do play next year, the WHOLE team will be there to cheer you on. Great article.

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