Feeling The Crushing Pain Of 'A Cruel Game'

STORRS —

For five minutes, maybe even 10, they were scattered across the field at Morrone Stadium.

Directly in front of the goal, Carlos Alvarez sat there, his head buried in his outstretched arms. To his right, there was Mamadou Doudou Diouf prone, hands covering his eyes. Out closer to midfield, there was Flo Liu kneeling, doubled over in the agony of the moment.

And, finally, there was Max Wasserman, the Connecticut guy who had dreamed since he was a kid of helping to lead UConn to a Final Four, sitting there motionless, a Buddha lost in his pain.

Four of them in all, scattered like fallen soldiers in a Civil War re-enactment. Only the emotional wounds on this surprisingly warm December day were real.

"The game is a cruel game," UConn coach Ray Reid said after Christian Blandon scored with 90 seconds left to lift Creighton to a 1-0 victory in the NCAA quarterfinals on Sunday.

For his sanity, for his career's sake, Reid can be thankful for the 2000 national title against Creighton in Charlotte. It has spared him the haunting lack of fulfillment that dogged Jim Calhoun so many springs before his first Final Four and national basketball title in 1999.

Make no mistake. The sting of ultimate defeat for these incredibly competitive men hurts. It's as intense as, if not more intense than, the high of ultimate victory. And Reid has suffered in almost every way imaginable since 2000. He has lost in the Elite Eight four times, including three since 2007. The past three years, including the 2011 Elite Eight against Charlotte, the Huskies have had their season ended on penalty kicks.

This one felt worse than penalty kicks.

"If we had more time with the character of this team, we'd probably get the goal back," Reid said. "A minute and a half, it's tough, very tough."

It certainly was tough on seniors Alvarez, Liu and Wasserman and junior scoring machine Diouf, who had so much spring from the opening whistle that it looked as if he might score five goals.

"It was almost too easy," Reid said of UConn's start.

This was a good college soccer game and, with so much on the line, a riveting one. In the second half, Creighton goalie Jeff Gal stopped a rocket off the foot of George Fochive. The leg save by sophomore goalie Andre Blake in the first half was highlight-reel spectacular, the kind of stop that would be long remembered if the Huskies had gone on to win the national title.

They won't. So the end would be hard, and it would be sad. Several minutes after the final whistle, Reid finally walked out and leaned over to console Alvarez and Diouf. With Alvarez still on his knees, athletic director Warde Manuel went over to hug the midfielder from Los Angeles. All the while, Wasserman sat there motionless.

"I never thought I would feel this way ever in my life," Wasserman said. "This is the best group of guys I've ever been around. It is a shame."

The group would finish 59-13-14 over four years. Now they lose Alvarez, Wasserman, Stephane Diop, Liu, Sean Weir and Jossimar Sanchez, and maybe Blake to the MLS. There's an outside chance Diouf could leave for the pros, too. The window of an elite core group has closed without a Final Four. It is, as Wasserman said, a shame.

"I owe a lot to this community, and I'm thankful," said Alvarez, who barely missed on a header from a corner kick with a minute left. "I'm sorry I couldn't get the job done."

If this were college basketball, Creighton would be Wisconsin. Its players are big. They are disciplined. The Blue Jays kept their defensive shape. They don't panic easily. They did not bring their outside midfielders up in the attack. So when the Huskies countered, they almost always faced eight defenders. Senior defenders Jake Brown and Brent Kallman looked as if they could play for the Nebraska football team. And senior midfielder Jose Gomez, the best player on the field, was especially deft in distributing the ball.

The Huskies were offsides a handful of times in the first half alone. "Frankly, stupidity," Reid said. "Drifting and weren't tactically smart. We rarely got in fully clean. We made some bad passes. We overdribbled. Look, there's a lot of angst. Guys wanted to win to get to the next round, but that angst takes away from their performance."

The lone score would arrive suddenly. A goal kick to midfield by Gal saw Colin Bradley lose a touch, and Gomez found a breaking Timo Pitter. Wasserman backed off, but he seemed to regain his defensive position. Still, with Sergio Campbell slow to recover on the play, Pitter sent the ball through Wasserman and past Blake. Gomez, everywhere, tracked it down and fed Blandon perfectly for the goal. Faster than anyone could say Pitter's German high school — Frankenlandschulheim — it was over. The nation's longest home unbeaten streak ended at 38.

Soccer is an unusually cruel game in one regard. In so many other sports, a mistake, a bad moment, can be quickly rebutted. One goal in soccer can mean everything. One goal with 90 seconds left does mean everything. Four years. Great group. No Final Four.

"My heart," Alvarez said after he finally picked himself up off the field, "is broken."

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