Congratulations are in order to those who played. Congratulations, as well, to those who watched the longest NCAA championship soccer game ever.
How long was it?
In dog years, Lassie went to college and came home already.
He: Wake me when it's over.
She: Sure, Rip. Have a nice nap.
Eight overtimes! One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. I realize it's hard to score in soccer, but eight overtimes? The standard 90-minute game followed by 76 minutes' worth of OT. Whew! Your fingers and toes can cramp just counting that high. When I heard that American and UCLA were scoreless through seven overtimes I assumed there'd been some mistake; the only team I knew that could go that long without scoring was the Indiana Pacers.
The Battle in Seattle began at 10 p.m. Eastern time, and ended about 2 a.m., making it only slightly longer than the Industrial Revolution. For those of you who missed it there's always the five-volume video set of the game -- makes a great stocking stuffer. A friend of mine gathered his wife and his three sons to watch the game. When it ended, the only ones left in the room were my friend and his wife's divorce lawyer.
"If you aren't a real fan it wasn't the kind of game you would enjoy," Pete Mehlert, American's forthright coach, was saying yesterday. "It was exhausting, wasn't it? But if you know something about the game, it had everything: You saw individual skills, flair, defensively and attacking; good teamwork, defensively and attacking; physical and mental efforts." Mehlert spoke as if in awe of what he had seen. "Effort when fresh, effort when tired; controversy. Everything. It was end to end."
In a game like this, a game of abnormal circumstance and attrition, perhaps it should not matter who won and who lost -- only that such a game was played, and that it was survived. The honor comes from the brave, enduring effort. For what it's worth, though, Mehlert didn't think American would lose. In a team meeting on Saturday morning he sensed a "readiness" in his players, and nothing in the game -- not even seeing Serge Torreilles ejected on a foul call, forcing American to play one man down for the final four overtimes -- changed his mind.
"In the first half we were simply the better team," Mehlert said matter of factly. "In the second half, too." He dismissed UCLA with a slight wave of his hand. "I felt we'd win it. We'd absorbed all their movements. Even when we were a man down I thought to myself: 'They're never going to score. We could play the game all night, and they aren't going to score one goal.' " Mehlert explained his thought, saying, "They didn't have that flair in the attacking zone. They didn't have anything that was any extra."
When UCLA finally did score, Mehlert felt what he recalled as "a very sudden and very brief disappointment," more like a sting than a gash. And then Mehlert "very quickly felt a relief." The American players had a similar reaction. They did not feel bitter, or angry, or particularly disappointed at losing. There is one thing they all felt: tired.
Even if American had won, it's doubtful the plane ride home would have been much of a party. Number one, this is exams week and the players had studying to do. Number two, it's hard to be a party animal when you're snoring.
The game was over about 11 p.m. Seattle time. The players didn't get to the hotel until after midnight, and surely didn't go straight to sleep. The wake-up call came at 4:30 a.m. for a 5:30 bus ride to the airport. Their section of the plane looked like an ad for industrial strength Sominex.
Did the better team win?
It depends on who you talk to. Torreilles said American "is a more complete team." Mehlert said his team "showed we were the best team in the country," and that we should ignore the final score because the game had gone on far too long for one goal to prove anything. For those of us who were taken by surprise that the American soccer team was good enough to make the NCAA tournament, let alone the final, Mehlert admonished us, saying that "it's not a shock, it's not an impossible dream." Mehlert considered UCLA "possibly the best team we played all season," emphasizing "possibly," rating Clemson and Hartwick at least UCLA's equal.
But what is winning?
Is it everything? Is it the only thing?
What do you carry home from an experience like this and tuck away there, in the soft, velvet folds of your heart?
For Torreilles, it will be coming back to the American campus late Sunday afternoon and seeing all those proud, adoring, smiling faces greeting the team, their smiles telling the players what the scoreboard wouldn't -- that American didn't lose, that American couldn't lose, not here, not now.