I play the game for the ultimate glory. That’s what motivates me. I wouldn’t be dedicating my life to soccer, or any sport, if I didn’t set my sights on winning a championship.
So what do you do when you come so close to getting there — you’ve given all you have, and put forward perhaps the best year of your entire career — but you fall short at the last hurdle? How do you respond when you can literally see that trophy on the sideline, and yet in a defining moment, a split-second decision you made is part of the reason your team fails?
You can dwell on that moment. You can replay it in your head, questioning where you went wrong. You can feel sorry for yourself and ask why fate wasn’t good to you that day.
Or you can pick yourself up and say, “That’s that — I’m rewriting the script and refocusing myself toward my goal, starting with the next time I kick a ball.”
That’s what happened to me last December. For the first time in my professional career, I got to play for a championship. My team, Toronto FC, one of the best in Major League Soccer, hosted the MLS Cup final. We were heavily favored over the Seattle Sounders, a team that squeaked into the playoffs and yet made it all the way to the title game.
“If I made my kick, the pressure would be on Seattle to make theirs. If they missed, we’d win the title. But if I missed…”
And yet somehow, the script didn’t play out the way we expected. We had a crowd of more than 36,000 cheering us on. We just couldn’t score. After 90 minutes of regulation and another half-hour of extra time, the game was deadlocked at 0-0. We were headed to penalty kicks.
I knew I was going to take one at some point — I put my name out there to our coach, and he slotted me sixth in the order. By the time it got to me, our teams were dead even. That meant if I made my kick, the pressure would be on Seattle to make theirs. If they missed, we’d win the title. But if I missed, that opened the door for the Sounders to steal that trophy on our home field by making their next kick.
The pressure was on. When I stepped up, I was full of confidence. The most important thing when you’re taking a penalty kick is to pick your spot and stick to it. I chose high and down the middle. When I struck the ball, my initial thought was I hit it well and it was going in. But after I hit it, the ball rose up on me a little, hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced out. I was devastated; in the moment, I felt like I let the team down. Sure enough, Seattle’s Román Torres stepped up with the very next kick and buried it. The Sounders were champions, not us. I didn’t bother to stick around to see them celebrate.
In the days after, I thought back on that moment a lot: The ball was literally inches from going in. If I hit it an inch lower, maybe it ricochets the right way off the bottom of the bar and goes in. In the moment, I was confident, but I didn’t hit it exactly the way I wanted. And that, in a microcosm, illustrates the difference in sports: There’s a fine line between winning and losing. Sometimes, literally inches.
The funny thing is, I don’t have any regrets. Last season, all the way up through that final, I gave everything I had. I played nearly every game and worked tirelessly up and down the field, often breaking my opponent’s will to keep up. I even scored a career-high five goals and added four assists. I poured my heart out every time I stepped onto the field.
But I’m also human. Seeing my dream slip away after arguably the best year of soccer I’ve ever played was painful. It’s so hard to put into words how you’re feeling during that moment. As soon as it ended, I recall doing an on-camera interview (I don’t remember exactly what I said) and then I headed straight for the locker room and began what was, ironically, the shortest offseason of my career. To this moment, I haven’t seen a replay of the game. I haven’t watched the kick. I just can’t bring myself to do it. It’s part of my process: I can only look forward, not back.
“When I wake up in the morning, it’s the first thing I think about: What can I do today to make myself better?”
The lack of soccer afterwards was the hardest. The season is a grind: Eight months, then this big, long buildup during the playoffs. Then you get to final and then, in an instant, it’s over. Then there’s nothing. After the loss, the first week or so was tough. It was still so fresh, and I wasn’t around the guys anymore. I tried to keep myself busy around the house, cleaning and spending time with my baby daughter. Inevitably I’d return to soccer, often replaying the moment in my head.
ut I’m also not a guy who dwells on things too much. Once time had passed and I was able to look back on the year, I gained the perspective I needed and realized I did have my best season, both individually and as a teammate. That was very encouraging. Around the holidays, my family came in from Cleveland and I was able to relax a little bit. As soon as they left, that’s when I began to think, “OK, it’s now officially next year. Let’s get after it.”
My disappointment at how 2016 ended fuels me every day. When I wake up in the morning, it’s the first thing I think about: “What can I do today to make myself better?” I’ve spent this winter rededicating myself. During most of the offseason, I went to our team’s domed training facility here in Toronto and did the things that come naturally to me: long-distance running to keep my lungs in shape, which gradually turned into speed work. As a former track athlete, I’ve never needed motivation to run. I also spent time in the weight room, strengthening my body for the long grind ahead.
Preseason is over and the regular season starts this weekend, and I feel great. I feel as good as I ever have entering my eighth season in the league. But I need to stay focused. I can’t think about righting the wrong of last December just yet. The MLS Cup final is a long, long way away. I’m thinking about our first game in Salt Lake — how tough it is to play on the road, how hard it is to play at altitude and what my lungs will feel like. Can I concentrate when I’m tired? How am I helping my team?
And from there, as they say, it’s one game at a time. I’ve been around the league long enough to know that not every day is going to be better than the last. These seasons are long. There are going to be days where you’re not feeling well physically, or days when you’re just not at your best. But it’s about keeping the big picture in mind: In the end, can you build these little moments up to make a better big moment?
I’ve been around sports my whole life. I watch every championship, no matter the sport, and I’ve seen over and over what it’s like to celebrate. I know I want that feeling. I have an idea of what it’s like, and I can see it in my head.
I’m not going to rest until this year ends with me lifting that trophy.
— As told to Jonah Freedman