Chapter 3: Reception

I can’t believe such feat.

For years, AC McKinley has been one of the league leaders in the Professional League, the top-level football division. Now I’m getting a phone call from its manager, Sonny Burch – only a day after winning the Colleagiate League with Columbia Avenue FC.

I feel my hands becoming cold and clammy while picking up the phone.

‘Hello, may I speak with Yom?’

I almost twirled my tongue. ‘Y-y-yeah, speaking.’

The voice on the other line suddenly changed tones. ‘I hope I didn’t disrupt your sleep. You guys still have some hangover from celebrating the championship, I bet?’

We both chuckle.

He continues, ‘I’d really like to congratulate you for achieving a marvellous feat. The team has struggled for five years to grab the elusive championship yet no one gave up. And with a player of your calibre, the second tier has indeed entered another level of competitiveness.’

‘Thank you for the kind words, sir. It’s all for the love of the game. The championship is for the team, for me, and for the fans. That’s what we have always wished for. But I know that the journey doesn’t end with one trophy.’

‘Truly a champion’s mindset!’ Sonny replies with much vigour this time. ‘If you are free tomorrow, drop by at North Empire and have some pre-season tune-up.’

Adrenaline surges up inside me. This is AC McKinley, offering an opportunity to train with the best folks in town – athletes who have experienced hard-fought battles, developed themselves to adapt to different situations, and created a very distinct identity.

The squad that looks beyond winning titles.
I don’t need to pause.

‘Well, see you on the pitch tomorrow! Wear your signature orange cleats!’

***

I am a champion from the second tier.

Yet the vibe feels different on the first tier – even when you’re just training with them. The drills require more precise forms. Passes should exhibit a player’s power over the ball. Not to mention striking and overall ball control, along with stamina.

I can see myself stepping up to a higher level. Everyone looks competitive, maintaining focus and dedication in improving their respective skill sets.

Just an hour after doing the basic drills and having a water break, Coach Sonny gathers us for scrimmages.

Titan Newport, AC McKinley’s star player, suddenly tapped me. ‘Hey man, good showing during the drills. What position do you want to play?’

‘Thanks man,’ I replied with a smile. ‘Will take left mid.’

And the whistle blows.

The first five minutes has been intense – and that’s the the top league culture. I have driven the ball up, passed it to the center striker, and created other chances. The defence also benefitted from my play as I have helped in marking and making interceptions.

It’s the sixth minute now. Then the tempo changes.

The level of play is gradually building tension in me. Centre back passes the ball to me, only to lose control of it. Left back has made a line pass earlier – and the same thing happened. On another instance, I have intercepted the ball aimed at the opponent’s striker. Although a great move, mindlessly passing the ball negated the benefits of the act.

We’re approaching the tenth minute. Left back once again passes the ball to me. Finally I have controlled it upon reception. Yet the defender tackles the ball, then clears it past the centre field.

All boils done to one thing: possession wasted, opportunities unrealised.

More of these happened until the twentieth minute. After the game, I find myself evidently unfulfilled with my performance.

One member approached me as we head to the bench, ‘Next time, let not the ball control you. Always think you have more control over it regardless of speed or trajectory.’

His words strike me on my chest. He’s right.

The sun radiates its last hurrah for the day when Sonny walked towards my direction. ‘You’re man enough to control your tears and take it constructively. Good control overall. Keep it up, and I hope to see you on Thursday.’

Suddenly my phone beeps. It’s been full of text messages and missed calls from Columbia’s coach, Chris Avery.

At that moment, I know it’s going to happen over and over again during the summer.

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