A cold Wednesday night in North Philly

Photo: Earl Gardner

I never forget a face.

I realize that’s cliche and that a lot of people say that, but for me it’s true.

I do not ever forget a face.

Some people are athletes, some musicians, some fantastic project managers. My superpower is recognizing faces.

This isn’t a brag and of course sounds impossibly hyperbolic, but is in fact a scientific truth and a super power claim for which I have supporting evidence. There’s a test you can take, created by the joint efforts of Harvard University and Dartmouth College and widely available on various higher ed platforms, that lets you find out how well you can recognize faces with respect to the broader population.

I scored firmly in the 90s.

What this means practically is that I see people on the street and can remember right then that we were in line together at Trader Joe’s in 2007, or went on an OkCupid date sometime in the spring of 2009. When I’m feeling spirited, I’ll stop them and say hi, mentioning how we “know” each other.

It usually ends awkwardly, and I don’t recommend this strategy.

Being able to recognize faces is not a particularly useful superpower to be honest, and frankly most people think you’re crazy when you tell them about how you “know” someone you don’t really know. 

One Wednesday night several years ago however, this superpower wasn’t useless at all.

Left-footed midfielders

In the CASA Men’s Over-30 league on Wednesday night, there are a lot of decent soccer players. There aren’t really any terrible players and only a few significant studs, so the distribution is a pretty tall bell shape with short tails. When someone is terrible, he stands outs. He’s almost always a right footed player (or no-footed) playing left back, so it’s a reliable tell.

Author’s note: that I am a right footed player who often plays left back has nothing to do with this story and I am frankly offended you would bring it up at all.

When someone is really good in this league, he stands out more. He’s like the creamy chocolate in 3 Musketeers bar: even, smooth, and ever-present.

West Philly FC, founding CASA member, “noted PSP feeder club,” and herd of cats for which I currently act as Captain (because former Captain Mike Servedio decided to get actual cats and stop attempting to wrangle these grown men into showing up in North Philly at dinner time in the middle of the week), had a match several years ago where one player who no one in the league had seen before suddenly became the most decorated player to ever play in CASA.

The ringer

The game started like any other, a bunch of old guys pretending like it was the turf’s fault their first touch went awry and occasionally posturing like peacocks about some otherwise insignificant 50/50 ball. We traded early goals and settled in to the match.

Then, our opponents made an early substitution and everything changed.

A tall player, lean but impossibly strong, started gliding across the Salvation Army ground like a gazelle. His control was impeccable and his distribution sublime. Winning possession off of him just simply wasn’t going to happen.

He did not seem interested in shooting however, which is odd in an old man’s league where everyone is interested in shooting from every angle as often as possible.

I subbed myself off, both in deference to my teammates who’d been patient on the bench and to get a breather. Getting old is, as they say, not for the meek. From the sidelines however I got a better look at this ringer of a player.

I sized him up, squinting to see if I could identify him. In a league like CASA, even as huge as it has become, after a few years you can recognize just about everyone on every team in your division.

I squinted some more.

He looked a lot like then-Union midfielder Cristian Maidana. Let me rephrase that, my scientific pedigree as my platform:

It was Chaco Maidaina.

I raised an eye brow, nudging my bench mate and letting him in on the news.

“It’s not Maidana, dude,” Nate said.

“Seriously, why would Maidana be here?,” said Dan.

“Guys, that’s Maidana. I know it is,” I replied.

“It’s definitely not him,” said Ben.

Halftime came, still 1-1. No one believed me, but I didn’t care because it was Chaco and I had science on my side.

A 50/50 ball for the win

The second half started, the game opening up but the pace slowing down (an old guys league staple). Somehow West Philly found a second.

As the opposing midfielder kept stringing together passes and somehow turning right with his left foot, the game wore on into one of those low scoring and frustrating affairs where neither team has done enough to win the match but both believe they deserve to do so. Late in the second half, the good guys still had a 2-1 lead and were doing our best to bunker, milk the clock, and see out the points.

A West Philly corner with just a minute or so to go was cleared by the defense far back across the 7 v 7 pitch and I began to give chase, hoping to ride the bouncing ball out or collect it and find our keeper’s feet. That’s when I heard the footsteps.

Maidana was on my heels before I had even gotten up to speed. With respect to my cardiovascular fitness and his, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone on these pages or those who’ve met me in real life. I’m in decent shape, but I’m not in “Professional Soccer Player on a small field against a pub side in the last minute of the game” shape.

At this stage, my even using the word “running” deserves its own qualifier.

So when I say Chaco was on my heels, what I mean is that he was bearing down on the ball like a train, chugging in my ear and cow-pushing my flat feet.

But I had position on him and tried to shield, knowing if he was going to get the ball, it was going to be through me or over my dead body. At least that’s the mindset I’d like to think I have on the soccer field.

Maidana obliged my brazenness, winning the ball directly through me and obliterating me in the process. For a tall skinny guy, he’s fast and much stronger than you’d think.

Author’s note: Again, this should be obvious. HE’S A PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE.

Chaco was off toward goal with nary a defender near him, yours truly the last man back between three points and a disappointing draw… but then the whistle blew.

Foul! Blue ball!

I looked up from the cartoonish heap I had become, wiping the bits of turf tire chunks out of my eyes and beard, spiting out a synthetic few blades of grass, and smiling. I won a foul off of a professional soccer player, who was demonstrably angry with the call! I WON A FOUL, and an important one at that.

Though possession isn’t our strong suit, West Philly saw out the last 60 seconds or so of the match after that, me taking my sweet time to “recover” from my bludgeoning and our team getting our shape back for one last hurrah. All that was left was to shake hands and get a final look at our opponents, particularly the tall one with the silky touch.

“Maybe,” said Nate, when I pressed him again as to whether or not he thought our opponent might actually be a local professional.

“It’s not him,” someone else said, more to make sure I didn’t get a full head for my sporting exploits than to confirm his alleged identity.

It was him, I thought to myself, I don’t care what anybody says.

Days later, Maidana was traded to Houston, unceremoniously dumped after leading the team in assists the year before. He’d earn his revenge with a late, game-winning free kick the next time the Union went to Texas, but I’d already had mine:

I won a foul off Cristian Maidana and lived to tell the tale.


  1. Jeremy Lane says:

    WPFC 4 Life

  2. Insane story.

  3. These are the big victories

  4. “At this stage, my even using the word “running” deserves its own qualifier.”
    My favorite line from a fabulous yarn. Thank you, Chris!

  5. As a fellow right-footed defender often patrolling the left side I was worried where you were taking this story. My recall was that he wasn’t so much tall as he was lanky, being slight of frame. We saw eye to eye and after admiring his proficiency I figured my only chance to slow him down was to use my significant weight advantage. Only problem was he simply sidestepped me any time I got near him, doing so while maintaining possession or dealing out wicked passes. I couldn’t draw contact of any kind and was wondering why he didn’t just bear down on goal once turning me inside out and would instead hold up and lay the ball off to a teammate. I could almost hear him thinking “nah that was too easy, here, you take it”. I was relieved to find out after the fact who he was…

  6. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Would love to hear the story of who/how/why such a ringer was brought in to play that game.

    Knowing the long list of rules (built over years of twisting and bending) and various “personalities” involved with adult sports, I’d be shocked if people just smiled and shook their head while calling the other team a bunch of rascals for bringing in a professional like that.

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