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Monday
Dec282009

Coach Dicce and the Underdog Gameplan

I love soccer and have played it since I was 6, but, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t play on a team with an actual coach between elementary school and my senior year in college. In the spring of 1998, I started playing pickup games with some of my friends from the team, and one thing led to another. I ran and played soccer six days a week over the summer, tried out in the fall, and made the team, earning a decent chunk of playing time over the course of the season. The team was not particularly strong compared to past and present Swarthmore teams, and our opponents were generally much better than us. That’s why I remember our 11th game of the season so well.

We came into the game with one win in the 10 games we had played, and we had lost our last eight. Our 11th game was against Widener University, just a few miles away. It didn’t boost our confidence to know that several of our best players were going to arrive late because they had academic conflicts and that Widener was a solid team with a decent record.

We warmed up as usual, and when we circled up, our coach, Peter Dicce, told us what to expect, “I know their coach, and I was talking to him before the game. That team over there isn’t doing very well. They have some good players and they can score, but they’re not getting along very well. I think they’re right on the edge. If we can survive the first 10 minutes, they’ll get frustrated and start arguing with each other, then their level of play will drop.” It sounded good, and I think the team was in a mood to give it our all. Because of the absences, several players (including me) were getting our first starts of the season, and we had to expect to play more minutes than we were accustomed to.

The first couple of minutes were exactly as he had predicted: they controlled the ball and peppered our goal. I remember very distinctly one shot that whistled towards the upper right corner of the goal from about 30 yards out. I think our whole team held our breath, but the ball swung just a little wide, and I noted that the shooter acted much more frustrated than necessary. The next phase of the coach’s prediction started to play out as well: Widener started rushing, missing passes, getting frustrated, and started trying to make individual plays against numerous defenders. We responded pretty well, and started to keep the ball in their end of the field a little more. Soon, we actually started mounting a little offense, and earned what was for us a rarity: a corner kick.

The exact details of what transpired next are a little hazy, but I was standing at the near post for the corner and the ball came in to one of our mid-fielders, Tirian Mink. He flicked the ball towards the net and as it came towards me, I moved out of the way. The ball bounced near the goal-line and the
Widener goalie and a defender looked at each other as if they were expecting the other to get the ball. Instead, nobody touched it, the ball rolled into the net, and we had the lead. One of the best moments of the season was the amount of surprise on the faces of the starters when they showed up and saw that we were ahead. One of our captains told me he saw 1-0 on the scoreboard but didn’t look at it thinking that we’d possibly be ahead, so he was relieved because he thought we were only down 1-0. Good times. Widener never really got their groove back. We held the lead the rest of the way, and they got more and more frustrated.

Anyway, the result of the game was great for us, but since then, I’ve been trying to figure out my coach’s pre-game speech. Why did he tell us what he did? And how does that apply to other situations? A big component of his speech may have just been tactical: we were not a team that scored a lot of goals, so if we fell behind early, we were likely in a lot of trouble. We also knew that our starters would arrive at some point in the game, so we would get a boost at that point. If we could hold it even until then, we’d have a chance. Because of this, Coach did a great job of giving us a small task to accomplish early on: frustrate them and hold the fort. None of their shots quite found the mark in those first few minutes, which was a combination of our defensive pressure and a little luck.

There was also some interesting stuff happening with the two teams’ dynamics. Coach Dicce set up an interesting contrast: if we play together, we can get them to break apart. This helped us focus on working as a team. Teams that are not unified have a hard time being resilient. In this case, despite being shorthanded, we shut out a team that was much more talented than us. If we played them a hundred times, my guess is that they’d score in 99 of the games (In our 19 other games, we gave up 87 goals and only shut out one other team.). But on this day, our defense held early, and, after the first few minutes, their frustration crippled their attack more than anything we did.

This was a game where just about everything went right for us. The course of the game could have followed many paths, but the one that it did follow was exactly what our coach had laid out for us. There’s no way to know whether we could repeat that performance, but I do know that it was one of our best games of the year. We went on to win just one more game, and rarely were competitive for more than a few minutes at a time. But that day, our coach got the most out of us, and if there was ever a reason to keep playing hard when your team isn’t that strong, it is to play a game like this one.

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