A couple of weeks ago, I didn’t think I could be more proud of my soccer team. We had just faced a higher-ranked club in a tournament and managed to score goals against them even though we were shorthanded, having lost four people to injuries. It was our first tournament as a team, and my first tournament as a player.
This week, we had another chance to prove ourselves: Our club hosted a tournament that was attended by hundreds of teams from all over the region. With so many injured players and not a win to our name, I didn’t have high hopes going in. And things didn’t look good for us for a while—our goalkeeper broke two fingers on the field during the first game and is now out for the season! Without the time to find a substitute, we threw the first volunteer in front of the net and kept playing.
And then…we won. We won our first two games!
They were scrappy wins. 1–0 on Friday night, 2–1 on Saturday. Sunday afternoon, we stood on the field exchanging glances with our opponents in their white-and-gold jerseys.
“We have to win this,” I said to a teammate. We couldn’t afford to tie or to lose; only a win would get us through to the championship match.
It was a wild game, a constant back-and-forth against a group of girls who were clearly more technically skilled than we were. Our only hope was to keep them from scoring for as long as we could.
The match was still scoreless when we played a ball close to their goal and a girl from the other team shoved our forward to the ground in desperation. The referee’s whistle blew and a roar went up from all around the field: parents, players, coaches. The play was going to a penalty kick.
There’s a designated area close to each goal that’s called the penalty box. If a player breaks a rule—say they’re too close to their own goal when they foul the other team, or they touch the ball with their hands—the referee can call a penalty kick. That’s when a player from the non-rule-breaking team gets to stand 12 yards from the goal and make a shot, unblocked by anyone but the goalkeeper. Penalty kicks almost always result in goals; it takes considerable skill (and a good dose of luck) for a keeper to prevent the ball from going in.
It was our substitute goalie who ran the length of the field to take the kick, sank the ball into the net, and put us up 1–0. And that was how the game stayed to the end.
When the final whistle blew, none of us could believe we had won. We sprinted around hugging each other, hyped up on adrenaline. I found out later that our opponents were ranked 12th in their state, and yet our scrappy little team managed to stop them from scoring for an entire game.
“You played fantastic. Fantastic,” said our coach in the huddle after the game. “We meet back here in half an hour. We have a championship to win.”
On to game number four. We were up against the very team we had lost to in the last tournament. My only responsibility as a center defender was to stop them from scoring at all costs.
They didn’t score. The game was 0–0 after the full regulation time. It was still 0–0 after 10 minutes of overtime.
Soccer players can’t keep going forever. Eventually, the only way to settle a match is through a penalty shootout: Each team gets five kicks, and whoever scores more wins.
We didn’t win.
We missed only one of our penalty kicks, but it was enough to give us the loss. As disappointed as we all were, I forced myself to keep my head high. Both of the teams we played in this tournament Sunday were ranked higher than we were, but we beat one of them and took the other to the most dramatic end possible to a soccer match. That is something to be proud of, and I think we all understood that on some level. We took our team photo with our finalists’ medals around our necks and tears of joy and frustration in our eyes. ♦