Moments before Chris Pontius scored a brilliant goal to put D.C. United up 1-0 over the Montreal Impact, Dejan Jakovic was isolated in DC's box against Sanna Nyassi yet won the ball without fouling.
The Big Moment may become a regular column, or at least semi-regular. The idea is to look past the scoresheet and find those moments that don't end up in the headlines, but do end up determining games. It could be a substitution or a tactical change; it could be a scuffle that one team responds to better than the other; it could even be something as minor as one statistically insignificant play.
My high school was strongly lacrosse-focused, much to my chagrin. In my freshman year, the JV soccer team didn't even have a real head coach in place as tryouts began. Eventually - and probably solely because there were 45 or so kids running around and no one wanted to cut over half of them - one of the school's gym teachers was put in charge. He was less a soccer coach than he was two parts fitness coach and one part babysitter. His area of expertise was basketball, and he often made us run basketball-style drills like the weave. He would generally arrive at practice wearing construction boots, and needed the whole season to learn that toeing the ball was not ideal.
However, he quickly picked up on one of the major themes in soccer. His team talks were never about specifics, because he didn't know enough to get into them. What he did know was that a) we seemed to be better at soccer than the other JV teams in our league and b) we sometimes didn't make this advantage count. For every team we thumped, there was a needlessly complicated game. As such, his favorite saying to spur us into controlling games was equal parts advice and a confession that this sport rather bewildered him: "Soccer is a crazy game."
We see the beautiful game's capriciousness all the time. Just last week, the Vancouver Whitecaps won 1-0 at the Colorado Rapids despite taking just 3 shots. Their only shot on goal was the game-winner, and it only came after both Marvell Wynne and Drew Moor - an MLS Cup-winning center back pairing - both made uncharacteristic mistakes within less than a second of one another.
This is a sport where Martin Palermo, starting for Argentina in the Copa America, can miss three penalties in one game. An on-loan goalkeeper can score the goal that literally saves his (temporary) club from going out of existence. Fans can find themselves in the position of trying to defend the character of guys like Carlos Ruiz or Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Strange things happen all the time.
The Big Moment in D.C. United's comprehensive 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact obviously didn't happen in the second half, which was basically over the moment Robbie Russell removed all hope for l'Impact. In a game like this, your crucial play has to come at 0-0, when both sides still have some kind of hope. Obviously the surface-level play that sticks in the mind is Chris Pontius spinning Calum Mallace like a top before firing across Evan Bush and in moments before halftime. You have to ask yourself, though: Did something else set the table for this play to happen?
Let's first remember that despite the way this game ended up going, the first half was less comfortable. Both teams were choppy and struggled to attack with coherence. United's possession-based moves were breaking down, and Montreal's attack consisted mostly of Nyassi going it alone or corner kicks. Far from the typical first place team thumping the expansion side, this game was looking more like a typical example of a good team being frustrated in the summer heat.
Now rewind the clock back from the latest Pontius golazo to about 50 seconds earlier. It's 0-0, and the Impact have launched an attack. Lone forward Sanna Nyassi is running at the defense. Nyassi is one of the fastest players in MLS, has some skill on the ball, and is an at least adequate finisher. United was caught off-guard. This is the kind of moment where the tired road team in MLS tends to get their goal, in other words.
Nyassi eventually picks his mark. He decides he's going to run at a backpedaling Dejan Jakovic. It's likely that the pint-sized Gambian picked Jakovic because, thanks to the spacing of everyone involved, he knew he'd have the best chance to get into the box. It's a simple decision, really: A player dribbling in the box has to be tackled, and tackles in the box are always a tricky proposition because of the danger of giving up a penalty kick. Throw in the possibility that the larger Jakovic could send the smaller Nyassi sprawling even if the tackle is legal, and the chances for a PK being given are higher.
And then there's the other side of the coin. What if Jakovic is too cautious? Any player worth his salt knows that if you're within 20 yards and people keep backpedaling, you now have a great chance to shoot (and with a screen helping you to boot). If Jakovic had kept going backward, Nyassi would have been in a great position to score without needing assistance from the referee.
The end result is our Big Moment. Jakovic decided to avoid being too cautious - in these circumstances, a wise move at all times - and also managed to make the required slide tackle without so much as grazing Nyassi. He had to thread the needle, and he did.
However, it's also important to note how Jakovic set the tackle up with his positioning. Nyassi was running left of center, trying to set up a cut inside to shoot with his preferred right foot. Jakovic, however, chose the perfect angle and didn't make his move too soon, thus forcing Nyassi to try and round him near the corner of the 18. Even if Nyassi had managed to evade the tackle, he'd have been forced wide. The chance would have been dangerous, but not nearly as dangerous as letting him cut in would have been.
We know the rest of the story: Jakovic tackles Nyassi, United moves the ball through midfield, Dwayne De Rosario finds Pontius - for his league-leading 10th assist - and Party Boy is once again pushing his case for USMNT inclusion with a goal that few if any MLS players can score. Montreal never recovered psychologically, and the game was effectively done just five minutes into the second half.
Now think of what happens if one of the numerous potential disasters happens during this Jakovic vs. Nyassi moment. If the Impact go up 1-0, they get both the lead - meaning they don't have to chase the game on tired legs during the hottest night of the season - and a huge psychological boost right before halftime. We'd be opening the door to a repeat of the Impact's first visit to RFK, which probably stands as the worst result and performance since the confidence-changing 4-1 win over FC Dallas back in April.
Furthermore, this result was a big one due to the long break between games. Stewing on a loss or tie against a gassed Impact team would have been a potentially damaging thing for United's overall mindset. At the very least, it could have become a lingering problem until our next win.
Instead of all that, however, a big play that got no attention set the table for a big play that got plenty of attention, which in turn set things up for a dominant 2nd half. From potentially 1-0 down to definitively 1-0 up, thanks in large part to a tackle. Soccer has surely been a crazier game, but one moment could have turned this stroll of a win into a gnawing tie or even a hugely disappointing loss.