… because I might change my mind.

NaBloPoMo 2009 Day 21 — NAIA playoffs report

So I drove the nearly 4 hours to Pulaski, Tennessee today for the NAIA playoff match between Asbury College and the home team, Martin Methodist College. The drive was a pleasant one, although it would’ve been spectacular three weeks ago before the leaves fell from the trees.

I arrived about 10 minutes before kick-off — having learned late that the NAIA had moved the start time up 2 hours. The weather was comfortable: partly sunny with some wispy clouds ribboning the pale blue sky.
The game started quickly for Asbury, with freshman Rebecca Batey putting the visitors on top in the 4th minute on a breakaway. Batey calmly slotting the ball past the MMC keeper. My first thought was that the Eagles scored a little too quickly. But it did seem to settle the women down and confirm that they could play with the 2-time NAIA champs (2005 and 2007).
After the quick start, I took a minute to look at my program, and by “program” I mean the 2 pieces of paper that had the team rosters and team season statistics listed. The thing that jumped out to me right away was that MMC’s roster of 23 players included 12 women who were not from the United States. Then, I looked on the field and started matching shirt numbers with names and countries on the roster sheet. All 11 MMC starters were foreign-born. Asbury has one non-U.S. player on the roster, and she’s from Canada (a well-known soccer hotbed).
After absorbing the initial blow from Asbury, MMC started to maintain possession of the ball and dictate play a bit. The quality of the MMC players also emerged. MMC equalized in the 16th minute on a corner kick. Poor marking resulted in a powerful header that skimmed off the keeper’s hand and cross bar back to another unmarked MMC player to tidy up.
A mere 4 minutes later, MMC went ahead 2-1 in transition showcasing speed and skill. Within another 10 minutes, the home team went up 3-1 on a corner kick doomed by more poor marking. It was clear at half-time that MMC was the more physical squad and were wearing down the Eagles.
The second half was a better half for Asbury, but they did concede a final goal on a free kick in the 70th minute. The kick, from about 25-yards out just to the right of center was taken well. The shot rose and fell into the far left corner. The strike reminded me of many shots I’ve seem Cristiano Ronaldo take for Manchester United and Real Madrid. Cristiano would’ve been proud of this one for a couple of reasons: (1) the technique was spot on; and (2) the MMC player was a fellow Portuguese countrymen.
For the rest of the match, the Eagles did a good job playing an offsides trap to foil a number of goal chances for MMC. They sprinkled in a couple of breakaway attempts of their own, but the Martin Methodist squad was never in danger. The final whistle saw the result 4-1 in MMC’s favor.
The match is a great stepping stone for the Asbury women’s program. This was an eye-opener in many ways. The women now know what it will take to compete at this level. I trust it will push them in the off-season and push them throughout next season as well. They know they need to increase their fitness, their technique, their intensity, and their physicality. I’m excited to see how they respond next year.
But I’m left wondering about the climate in NAIA soccer. The make-up of the MMC team — especially the starting XI — is typical of the better teams in the NAIA. Unlike the NCAA, there is no clearinghouse to evaluate the eligibility of the foreign players. If you look at the best men’s and women’s teams in the NAIA, you will see as many or more non-U.S. players on those squads. This situation has been building since I last played in college. In 1991, Lindsey Wilson was just starting to build its program, but they were doing it with foreign players. At the time, I enjoyed the challenge those players brought, but to say that it has gotten out of hand is an understatement.
Without a clearinghouse, the NAIA teams who want to can field teams of foreign players who may have played in semi-pro situations overseas — something that the NCAA would never allow. In fact, the NCAA has been known to disallow players who were not paid but who played on club teams with other players who were. I am encouraged to hear that the NAIA will be introducing a clearinghouse that, hopefully, will level the playing field a bit more.
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