When the news covers a negative event, quite often you will hear a news anchor say, “So-and-so is searching for answers.” It’s a cliche that speaks to a truth about all of us. We know, intellectually, that life is not fair and doesn’t make sense… but we really, really want it to.
This is why we would refuse to accept nonsense in our narratives. We would dismiss a film in which the hero, having made his impassioned speech and saved the family business and won back his woman, was pecked to death by a heretofore-unseen flock of seagulls. That makes no sense, and we want the stories we tell each other to make sense.
Sports, after all, are their own kind of narratives. We struggle to make them fair in all sorts of ways – new rules, salary caps, drafts in reverse order of previous league finish, et cetera. We even set up frameworks so that fairness can undoubtedly follow; games last a predetermined amount of time, and just to be on the safe side, we put a referee or an umpire on the field of play, making sure that everything runs smoothly.
And yet, stubbornly, annoyingly, sports refuse to stop being exactly like real life. Sometimes – often, if you’re a Minnesotan – your team loses. Even when the season chugs along unswervingly, following the course of the narrative that makes the most sense, sometimes it can take a hard turn, right at the end.
For most of 2014, Minnesota United’s season followed the narrative. The franchise rescued from the brink of folding, and the team on the field re-formed around a group of veterans, Minnesota had transformed from the plucky “team that nobody wanted” into an all-conquering powerhouse. They sprinted to a spring-season title. They clinched the league’s best overall record with two games still remaining in the year. Christian Ramirez emerged as the league’s best young striker, tying a league record with 20 goals. Miguel Ibarra came into his own, earning a call-up to the USA national team in the process. The veteran core – Tiago Calvano, Cristiano Dias, Juliano Vicentini and Aaron Pitchkolan chief among them – formed the backbone of a juggernaut that could not be stopped.
When Ibarra knifed in behind the Fort Lauderdale defense in the first half of the NASL semifinals, stealing the ball from a defender and lobbing the Strikers keeper to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead, things made sense. When Minnesota’s defense held firm through the second half, things made sense. When Fort Lauderdale coach Gunter Kronsteiner lost it and screamed at the referee until he was sent off, things made sense.
Even in stoppage time, when Strikers midfielder Mark Anderson poked a ball through the United line that deflected off of United defender Kevin Venegas and to a waiting Martin Nuñez, things still made sense, because even as Nuñez smashed the ball into the net, the linesman was raising his flag, denoting that the Strikers forward was two yards offside.
It was only then that the narrative fell apart, as Nuñez and his teammates surrounded the assistant referee to argue the call, as referee Fotis Bazakos walked over to confer with his assistant and to decide that yes, in fact, the goal would count. While Nuñez was clearly offside, the referee had adjuged that the ball had not simply deflected off Venegas, but instead had been kicked by Venegas into Nuñez’s path.
Was it the right call? The debate rages, even now. But, from a narrative standpoint, whether the call was correct made very little difference.
There was one final chance to restore that narrative, after extra time had produced no tiebreaking goal. Venegas had missed his penalty in the shootout, opening the door for Fort Lauderdale to take the game. The Strikers’ Jenison Brito, needing only to score the fifth and decisive penalty, instead clanked his shot off the left-hand post, and the Minnesota crowd jumped and shouted and screamed, the narrative redeemed. Pablo Campos – the returning hero, he of the torn ACL and MCL in preseason, returning to the field – scored his to send the shootout into sudden-death overtime.
Moments later, Pecka made his penalty, giving the Strikers the lead. Moments later, Pitchkolan’s effort was saved. Fort Lauderdale moves on; Minnesota’s season comes to a halting stop. From a narrative standpoint, it makes no sense.
Is that a flock of seagulls?
We’re left searching for answers.