Bellevue 1-2 Skyline
32nd min Skyline goal from 5yds
37th min Skyline goal #21 dribblepalooze
58th min Alex (Maddy)
It had to end sometime. And if it had to end, conceding two goals to defending 4A state champions Skyline is an understandable and honorable ending. But we don't have to like it. We didn't earn our defeat with generally poor play, nor did we get outplayed (shots, corners, and possession, were all in our favor), but Skyline won the statistic that matters most: goals scored. And so yours truly has to exercise "moral victory" coaching cliche muscles that have nearly atrophied from disuse. Our last varsity loss in a non-shootout regular season game was on October 5th, 2021 against Mercer Island when several players were still wearing masks, almost two full years ago. Many players on our varsity roster have never lost a game while wearing a Bellevue uniform...but perfection is unrealistic (although worthy to pursue), so it had to end sometime. Our sport is too fickle to maintain our VIP access pass to Club Perfect forever. And the strongest lessons are those when the scoreboard isn't flattering to your side (oh yes, the coaching cliches are still there and ready to flex again...but hopefully not too often).
First, playing in big games takes additional focus on the little things. Small mistakes are magnified and punished by better teams: First-touches, poor positioning and field awareness, bobbled passing, over-dribbling in silly places, sloppy tackling, wasteful finishing...all little things that we usually overcome with overall quality. But we weren't quite good enough on Tuesday to get it done. Which isn't to say that I'm totally displeased with our performance, on the contrary, I thought that for most of the night, our team rose to the challenge. The effort was excellent, and there were delightful phases when we looked unstoppable going forward, and relentlessly tough in our defense. We outshot the Spartans comfortably 16/3 to 7/2 shots/corners. And our second half was significantly better than our first, as we chased an equalizer, and then the tying goal. There was a lot of good in our disappointing result.
The atmosphere at Spartan Stadium felt like playoff soccer. Both sides knew that they were playing a formidable opponent. Pre-game was as sharp as it's been all season. And the first-half was generally good. We opened with a very solid 20 minutes in which we were on the ascendancy...but slowly the Skyline team began regaining momentum (as good teams will), and the last phase of the first-half was decidedly in their favor. Especially the last 8 minutes, in which we conceded the deciding goals. The first came from an innocuous throw-in deep on our left side, our positioning and balance were just slightly off, and we deflected the long throw in the wrong direction and it fell directly to the Skyline striker who opportunistically poked it home from 5yds. It was a goal from nowhere, for although Skyline was pressing their advantage with more possession, they hadn't created all that many chances, and none that were particularly worrying. Then, as the shock of allowing a soft goal was just sinking in, we allowed another. This time Skyline's very talented and speedy #21 (a lefty playing on the right wing), picked up the ball on the right wing and ran laterally across the entire field. At first, we did a great job of running with her for most of the journey, even doing a smooth transition from defender to midfielder as she continued running sideways. Until we didn't. In the end, we lost our concentration for just a brief moment, dangled a leg, and let her split two Bellevue defenders on the far left sideline before she rifled a speculative shot from a very narrow-angle that somehow found its way into the back of the net. I take nothing away from the quality of the shot, it was glorious. But it was also an extremely low probability choice from that angle, especially when she had just run 60 yards sideways and we had her surrounded. But shooters shoot, good players change games, the margins get very thin against competitive opponents, and suddenly we found ourselves down 0-2 at halftime.
And this is where the character of a team really gets tested. Two goals down despite creating more and better chances, but down to a very good opponent who had talent at every position and would relish making a statement with a potential blow-out of the defending 3A champion. Would we fold, or rally? In the locker room at half, the team self-diagnosed our issues from the first half (more patience in possession, less sticky dribbling, better team balance, and a gut-check on winning more midfield duels). And then we began to play, and we chose "rally" over "fold." The next 40 minutes were emphatically ours. We got around their flanks consistently and had several fantastic opportunities to score. We finally stopped trying to dribble out of every situation and began to open up passing lanes while trusting our teammates. And then we got our reward for our determined rally. In the 58th minute, Maddy won the ball that had been looped into midfield by the Skyline backline and sent a pass to Alex who was central and about 40yds from goal. One touch to get around her defender and the ball was screaming into the lower right corner of the goal from over 30yds. Game on, And we still had 20 minutes left to find an equalizer. which seemed inevitable given how well we were playing....but....it just didn't happen. Yes, we had lots of chances in the final 20 minutes. Yes, we should've equalized several times. But we didn't. The Skyline defense was solid, and although we had several gilt-edged chances that seemed destined to score, we didn't. It happens. 1-2 final score. And the bitter taste of ashes and defeat.
But on the "moral victory" side of the ledger, we passed our halftime test, and played a magnificent second half that had everything but the three goals we were seeking. The next test is how we handle our first defeat. Our next game is at home against Hazen on Thursday at Bellevue Stadium. I'm hopeful that the feeling we experienced at the final whistle tonight is so distasteful that we come sharp and ready for Thursday with proper motivation, conviction, and confidence that our non-conference result against the defending 4A champs was an aberration and something that we collectively try to avoid for the rest of the season. And the next opportunity to put it right is Hazen. Thursday.
Lessons learned. Our story continues. Our ambitions remain unchanged.