By Tim Booth
AP Sports Writer
TUKWILA, Wash. — Brad Evans is usually among the most easygoing members of the Seattle Sounders.
Which is why after saying hello, Evans gave me a chill.
“So, we get to fire at your face?” the Sounders and U.S. national team defender said with a smirk.
Suddenly, the idea of being a reporter (see: enemy), standing in goal and facing shots from a bunch of professional soccer players with international and World Cup experience didn’t seem like such a smart move. Especially with Evans’ welcoming words.
With the beginning next week of the Copa America that will have some of the best players in the world displaying their skills around the United States for the next month, the idea popped into my head to see what it would be like to face shots from some of the top talent in Major League Soccer.
What I quickly realized — and what Evans, Herculez Gomez, Andreas Ivanschitz and Jordan Morris were more than willing to point out — was that I had no business standing in front of an 8-foot-by-24-foot goal trying to stop free kicks.
More than a penalty kick and far more than most goals scored during the run of play, a free kick goal can be an uplifting moment that also defies physics. The spins, the dips, the curves can leave fans amazed and goalkeepers frozen.
There is a reason a movie was named after David Beckham’s ability to make a soccer ball spin like a baseball curve ball.
“Just an insane amount of curl on the ball,” said Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who quickly named Beckham as the best free kick specialist he’s faced. “It can be a very (simple) ball at first when it leaves his foot but the way he would hit it, it would go up and then once it would bite when it starts its curl, it would almost pick up pace it felt like.”
Ivanschitz isn’t Beckham, even if he’s been given the nickname “The Austrian Beckham.” The pace and spin he puts on free kicks come from hours of practice and experimentation.
“You have to train every week. You have to take some shots,” Ivanschitz said. “That is very important. Everybody has their different style. There are so many good specialists on set pieces. We have one, too, with Clint Dempsey and you always try to copy someone, to learn from somebody and that’s how I developed my skill.”
When it came time to step into goal, I slipped on my goalie gloves tattered from months of indoor soccer and threw on a goalkeeper shirt provided by the Sounders. Stepping onto the manicured grass of the Sounders practice field, I felt small and inadequate. And that was before the foursome started chipping shots so I could “warm up” and I realized those “warm up” shots were coming at the full speed of what I normally see playing recreationally.
Trouble was coming. I reacted slowly. My diving attempts flopped. I was completely out of place.
Ivanschitz was the kindest of the four, serving in shots to show just how much movement can be put on the ball. A shot that started at the middle of the goal often found its way into the side of the net and out of my reach.
Morris, hyped as one of stars of the next generation of American soccer, was more interested in bending shots with the outside of his right foot, slicing them from left to right. Mesmerizing? Yes. Difficult to stop? Without question.
Then there was Evans and Gomez, who seemed determined to shatter bones in my face and hands. At least that was my impression.
Evans warned me before starting that Gomez had a hammer foot and that the member of the 2010 U.S. World Cup team did not hold back. His misses were spectacular, including one shot that cleared the crossbar and fencing behind the goal and landed about 70 yards away on another field. The shots he did get on net were untouchable, including a knuckled ball to the far post where the bottom dropped like a sinker from a baseball pitcher.
Evans provided a running commentary throughout, pointing out my mistakes and deriding me for the shots I should have saved and didn’t.
“Come on, Tim. You’ve got to have that,” seemed to be a recurring comment from Evans.
Reserve goalkeeper Charlie Lyon was kind enough to stand next to the goal giving me tips. Simple things like coming off the line to cut down the available angles for the shots.
They were useful suggestions that in the end made no difference in how many shots ended up ruffling against the back of the net. The final total: 43 shots on goal, 10 saved, a couple of bruises and no broken bones.
I think I’ll go back to just looking foolish against amateurs my age.