Of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4
Last week we travelled to New Mexico to play against the #5 ranked team in the country, New Mexico, in a Friday night matchup. Before the flight I was texting Matt Uy, who was a senior when I was a freshman at Fairfield. Matt had played on the U-17 US national team before Fairfield and is a player and a person who I have a huge amount of respect for. While we were talking, he suggested that I read “The Warrior of Light” by Paolo Coelho. I decided to take it on the plane with me, and it was so good I couldn’t put it down. One of the many meaningful quotes from it that stuck with me was,
“He accepts that his opponents are there to test his valor, his persistence, his ability to make decisions. They force him to fight for his dreams. It is the experience of battle that strengthens the warrior of light.”
I have to be completely honest and say I wasn’t expecting to play much, if any, during the New Mexico game. I hadn’t had the best week of training, I think primarily because I was still trying to shake the feeling of our 1-0 loss to Northeastern from the Saturday before. I had been out of the starting 11 in training and replaced by one of my good friends on the team Jon Clements, who usually plays as a striker. I told myself I wasn’t going to read into it too much and just try and focus on the things I could control.
We arrived in New Mexico around 9:00 pm local time, checked into the hotel around 11, and went to bed. In the morning we had breakfast and went on our way to check out the New Mexico Stadium. On the way to the field, on every restaurant and convenient store sign had the message, “GO LOBOS”. It was as if we were not only playing the #5 team in the country, but the entire state of New Mexico. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Friday Night Lights” when all of the store signs say “Go Panthers!” you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
After they announced our starting 11, we all stood shoulder to shoulder in front of 3,000 noisy fans, who were all shouting and banging their drums and other noisemakers they had brought with them. While the New Mexico team all got together and started doing their pregame routine of trying to intimidate the opposition by holding arms and swaying side to side to Eminem’s “Til I Collapse”, we all huddled together and waited for them to finish. We didn’t look at them because we didn’t care about what kind of desert dance they were doing before the match. Nothing they did really mattered to us. It was all going to be about us, and how we handled the environment that we found ourselves in. Our goalkeeper, Michael O’Keeffe, who played at Old Trafford in the Olympics for New Zealand over the summer, looked around at us and told us that this was going to be the turning point in our season. He was confidant and believed in each of us and told us that we were each going to be accountable to everyone we were holding onto. Finally, UNM finished their song and dance, and it was time to do the only thing that mattered, play football.
We continued to battle with New Mexico for the rest of the game. It remained 1-0 until I came off in the 75th minute. Then, about 5 minutes later, our center back was shown a straight red. He stood there with his head in his hands, pleading with the referee and asking “Why?! For what?!” We found out later that it was apparently for “punching” their striker off the ball, but I felt that if that was the case both benches would’ve ran onto the pitch. The video of the game pans away from the incident just as it happens. With only 10 men and chasing an equalizing goal, New Mexico finally got their second goal, a header off a rebound. The crowd erupted again. 2-0 New Mexico.
Finally the final whistle sounded. We hadn’t been able to pull the upset that we desperately wanted, but we had fought valiantly. New Mexico hasn’t lost at home in over 2 years, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The game could have easily been 2-2 or 2-1 us, with the referee missing 2 huge shouts for penalties on handballs in the box. Despite the score line, I again remembered the Warrior of Light quote. We had learned valuable lessons from this match and there was a lot that we could take from it and apply to our conference schedule.
I’m a little behind on my blogging, so to catch you all up we fell to Denver 2-1 two days later. We scored first and I got my first assist, but they scored 2 very lucky goals (one was a deflection off a clearance that hit the crossbar and went in). We then beat URI at home 2-0 and drew with Brown 0-0 on the road. I think the Brown game took a lot out of us, because we were very flat against Iona in our first conference game. They came out wanting to knock off the defending MAAC champions, and they did it 4-2. We now have a week to prepare for St. Peters and Manhattan, who are two tough places to play because of the environment. I think we will have a very good week of training and will bounce back with two wins this coming weekend. Thank you all for reading, God bless, and Go Stags!