The man at the corner table strokes his beard nervously. Beside him, another simply sits and stares, eyes locked on the three giant high definition TVs behind the bar. The New York Red Bulls are 1-0 up in their do-or-die playoff match against FC Dallas. At Woodwork, this Park Slope bar with an all-soccer TV schedule, there is palpable tension. Patrons seated at the bar cup their hands over their mouths, tipping their bar stools forward to rest on their elbows. The match is drawing to a close, and the Texans are on the attack.
This attack culminates with a long, floating pass into the penalty box. It’s hoofed away into the stratosphere by the New York defense. At Woodwork, the tension eases a bit. A nervous murmur spreads around the room.
“Yes,” the bearded man says softly, at the floor.
Then Woodwork sees just where that clearance is going to land. In haste to find a late equalizer, Dallas has thrown all their players forward, leaving a lone defender behind. But that defender seems to have forgotten that New York striker Thierry Henry, one of the finest goal scorers of his generation, is lurking just behind him. The ball floats over the halfway line, and Henry turns to run on to it.
“Yes…,” the bearded man says, louder this time. The bar patrons push their bar stools back, rising to their feet. Doing this provides no noticeable improvement in viewing angle.
The first touch. It’s one of soccer’s simplest skills – where you put the ball when it comes to you – and also one of the most important. In a developing league like Major League Soccer, a good first touch can separate a great player from a good one.
Henry is a great player. With the defender in hot pursuit, Henry allows the ball to bounce once before gracefully nudging it forward with his head, on the run. The velocity and placement is such that the defender becomes a non-factor, and the goalkeeper is stuck in no-man’s land. Woodwork realizes this, and volume rises. Nobody sits. The faint murmur that greeted the defensive clearance has developed into a frenzied cacophony of imploring cries. In the middle of it, the bearded man sets his beer on the table, and yells loud enough to be heard over the crowd.
The goal that would clinch a place in the MLS playoffs’ second round is at Henry’s feet. With signature nonchalance, he attempts to thread the needle between the goalkeeper’s arm and torso on as he slides to the ground to block the shot. The goalkeeper’s left hand flails outward, slapping the ball off its path.
“NO!!!!,” the bearded man yells.
There is frustration in his voice, but a smile on his face. After all, time is almost up. New York is probably going to win anyways. But, man, a second goal would have been nice.
Just then, Henry races in from off screen. The goalkeeper had saved his initial shot, but the ball still trickles towards the goalmouth. The Dallas defender and goalkeeper lay out on the ground, spectators. Henry sprints past them, tapping the ball over the goal line. In celebration, he holds a finger to his lips, shushing the Dallas fans.
Woodwork, just seconds ago hanging on Henry’s every movement, ignores this command.