clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

MLS is back. Death is real. Let’s soccer.

we’re in this together until we’re not. enjoy it while you can.

MLS: Sporting KC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

MLS is back and you are going to die.

One will hopefully happen sooner than the other. But these are facts.

This is an opinion: Soccer isn’t going to lengthen your time here on earth but it’s going to lessen the burden of it. The *This* of it all means that your existence probably sucks more often than it doesn’t. If your existence isn’t like this, congratulations.


If the success or failure of the moments of your existence were measurable, would it change how you define good days versus bad days?

There are, of course, no statistics for existence. So you don’t have to worry about it or other pointless hypotheticals used to relative effectiveness by bloggers in coffeeshops You can just exist and hope the feelings you have when you sort through blurry memories add up to more positive feelings than negative.

Sports are one of the few places where the success of your actions can be objectively measured. Random strangers are still going to fight about how successful you were on the internet, but for the most part, you can tell who’s had a good day and who has a bad day by looking at the numbers. There are a few career paths in life, like...I don’t know sales (?) where numbers define your success. But very few people in sales have worked more than ¾ of their life towards being a salesperson and aren’t in jail or running for office.

For professional athletes who have worked ¾ of their life and maybe more towards becoming highly skilled at a sport, there’s a sense from the outside that their existence can be defined by their numbers. Soccer is often the last to accept statistics as definitive, but there are still conclusions that are inarguable. If Josef scores 30 goals in a season, he’s done well.

Normally statistics like Josef’s, the ones on the good end of a bell curve, are the ones we look at and write about and bring up in conversations with strangers as we assess whether or not they share similar interests in things such as “zone 14” and “lines of confrontation” or enjoy soccer in a much healthier, casual way.

We don’t talk about the ones on the other end of the curve much. At least not in soccer. Admittedly, for 10/11 of the players on the field, judging poor performances is mostly subjective.

The other 1/11 are goalkeepers.

Rigor mortis, Latin for “stiffness of death,” is the process the body goes through after death in which your arms and legs and neck and everything else stiffen due to chemical changes in your muscles that occur post-mortem. It is the third stage of death.

It’s a bit disconcerting to think there are stages of death. You kind of just figure that it happens and that’s it and you just stay there until someone comes to wheel you away to prepare you for an extremely overpriced party that none of your friends will have any fun at, hopefully.

But nope. Stages.

  1. Palor mortis or “paleness of death.” You just kind of get pale. Very unexciting for an opening stage.
  2. Algor mortis or “coldness of death.” You get real cold. More exciting but less noticeable.
  3. Rigor mortis.

There actually five more scientific stages, but honestly they get kind of dark. None of them include the unscientific stage where your pet may or may not eat your face if you die alone.

As a goalkeeper you have one central task: Do not allow the other team to score. If the other team scores you have failed in this task. No matter how much of the blame rests on your teammates, you have still failed at the task if the ball goes in the net.

It’s a brutalist way to live. In a sense, your task is to deny joy. Saves are celebrated but goals are instant cues for an extreme release of emotion. There’s no telling how much a save will mean in the course of a game. There may be plenty more coming or none at all, but goals carry a weight that’s inherently understood by those following the game.

That doesn’t lessen how sharply you’re judged for your success in completing your task. Did you allow the other team to score less than your team, or did you not?

In the 25-year history of MLS, there have been a handful of goalkeepers who have gotten one chance to succeed at that task, failed, and never gotten that chance again. As far as I can tell, it’s the most objective—and cruel—measure corresponding to a lack of success as you can find in soccer. Others got the chance to at least try multiple times. Others at least got a full game.

There are 10 goalkeepers in MLS history that have officially entered a game but have yet to play 90 minutes of soccer.

There’s Alec Dufty, who played one game and 82 minutes for the New York Red Bulls in 2009 and made two saves. Kyle Singer, who played in one game for nine minutes for the New England Revolution in 2003. And then there’s Paul Marcoullier, listed at 5’ 6”, who entered one game for D.C. United in 2000 for a grand total of two minutes.

Six of them allowed goals.

There’s Trevor Spangenberg, who played once for Chivas USA in 2014, allowing one goal and making one save in 22 minutes without officially earning a result to his name. Terry Boss, who played one full half for Seattle in 2010 and allowed one goal and made a save in a tie. And then there’s the only player to play two games on this list, Russel Payne. In 22 minutes over two games—one for the Colorado Rapids in 1999 and one for the MetroStars in 2000—Payne allowed four goals, one less than the five teams he is listed as playing for over a two-year MLS career. He is not credited with a result in either. Likely because he entered games where the goals he allowed had no impact on the result.

Four of them allowed goals and lost.

Like Ben Dragavon, who played 61 minutes for Seattle in 2009. He made two saves and allowed a goal in the loss.

Two of them allowed goals, lost and played for Atlanta United.

Alex Tambakis, the first signing in Atlanta United history and former starter for Greece’s Panathinaikos, played 28 minutes of an insane 2017 match against Minnesota United and allowed two goals in a loss. He never played for the team again and has yet to return to MLS.

Then there’s Paul Christensen.

Two of them played in one game, played for less than 90 minutes, allowed goals, were 22-years-old, played at the same university for the same legendary goalkeeping coach, and lost.

That’s also Paul Christensen.

Then there’s Curtis Spiteri.

Baseball writer Sam Miller once said this about rigor mortis. And I guess, you know, baseball too.

“There is no scenario where the universe will care or remember who the best team was out of this collection of collections. It only matters inasmuch as we create this illusion that it matters.

If you lose even the illusion, then it becomes problematic. But the point is not to have the illusion: the point is to entertain people and make them forget that we are all dying right in front of each other — that this is just this horrible, rotten slog to rigor mortis, that we are going to lose everybody we know, that we are going to lose everything we have and the only way to distract ourselves is by separating our day into distractions,”

He’s wrong. The slog is actually towards palor mortis. The first stage of death. Remember?

Curtis Spiteri entered his first MLS game on October 27, 2003, at halftime of a regular-season finale between the Chicago Fire and the Columbus Crew. Chicago led 2-0. 45 minutes later Curtis had played his last MLS game and the Columbus had won 6-2.

That’s a goal allowed every 7.5 minutes. A record. And, due to the fact that he plays the only position where failure is measurable, the worst game in MLS history.

Footage of this game probably exists. If it does, it’s *literally* locked in some kind of digital vault somewhere in New Jersey. It’s hard to get though, because when you ask for footage of the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire from October of 2003 in a regular-season game that held no real meaning, you get a return question of “Are you ok?”

All we really have from the game is a Chicago Tribune recap. Chicago coach Dave Sarachan passed of the six goals as the team looking ahead to the playoffs. And maybe he’s right. Spiteri only entered the game because they were resting starter Zach Thornton and backup keeper Henry Ring had been injured.

Besides that, we know that Columbus switched to a four-man front and that Brian McBride and Edson Buddle each had two goals.

Curtis existed after that though. Before that too.

He grew up in the San Diego area before heading to the University of Portland to play keeper under the legendary Bill Irwin. Irwin’s list of goalkeeping progeny at UP includes eight keepers who went on to play professionally. Curtis, Casey Keller, Luis Robles and eventually, Paul Christensen among them. Expectations are generally high for Irwin products.

Spiteri balled out at Portland. It’s not surprising. Professional athletes have to be incredible at every other level to get there in the first place. The worst player on any professional team is almost definitely absurdly better than you at the sport they play and probably several others. Spiteri earned all-conference honors his senior season on his way to being drafted by the then USL Portland Timbers in 2002.

Before he headed to the Timbers though, Curtis earned a spot in preseason camp with Chicago in 2003. They offered a developmental spot (essentially third-team with a loan probably on the way) but Curtis decided to turn it down. He played the first dozen or so games with the Timbers before heading to Europe to pursue a dream of playing overseas. He ended up receiving a tryout and an offer from Aberdeen in Scotland to be the team’s backup keeper. However, work permits kept him from joining.

“I felt deflated for sure,” Spiteri told me over the phone in July. “It seemed like a very good opportunity. You just never know what can happen next and being overseas, I think that’s anyone’s dream as a player.”

Spiteri headed back to San Diego and began thinking about his future.

Jeff Tweedy, lead singer and songwriter of the Chicago band Wilco, wrote in his autobiography that conversation in Chicago often turns to the local sports teams.

“Every time somebody asks me, ‘How ‘bout the Cubs.’ I want to respond with “Yeah, the Cubs, they’re going to die someday. Do you ever think about that? All of them. All of them. Rizzo. Bryant. The one with the goatee. The other ones. The entire team. Some of them probably soon, you don’t know. They could be dying right now while we’re here making conversation about baseball. Death is lurking.”

In October, the Fire called Spiteri and offered him a spot on the team. Curtis, who had been considering going back to school, took it.

Then came the game. A game that you wouldn’t even know about if some hack blogger hadn’t absent-mindedly began messing with stats on the MLS website one day.

A game that Curtis wouldn’t have been in if his work permits had worked out. Or if he hadn’t been with the team earlier in the year. Or if the backup keeper hadn’t been hurt. Or if the Fire weren’t resting players for the playoffs. Or if Curtis hadn’t been born with the genetics that made him tall, and a gifted athlete. Or if he hadn’t practiced over the course of his life to get to a level plenty only dream of.

A game Curtis might not have been in if he knew that his professional career would have stopped in two years anyway because his life was in danger.

After the Fire, Curtis went back to school to get a helluva degree combination. English and Social Justice with a minor in Business. He graduated and quickly found a job in financial services.

His first day on the job, Curtis found out he had a tumor. A big one. Seven whole-ass pounds of tumor.

All of this during what he called a bit of “post-soccer depression.”

“It’s a big part of your life and you know, it ends for a host of reasons. You can kind of weigh the pros and cons and realities of things, but you’ve given so much into this one huge dream and goal that I think anyone goes through a period of kind of separation,” Spiteri said. “I mean everyone goes through that and guys that I was playing with, we’ve all stopped playing years ago and you go through this transition in life. It’s a difficult thing. What’s your perspective now? Well, everything happens for a reason.”

Curtis left the hospital a couple of weeks later. A soccer career that would have ended anyway after complications from a seven-pound tumor didn’t seem like much anymore.

“It was so gnarly that the perspective was completely different. I was lucky. I had just gotten a job as a great employer. You kind of can look back now and say, you know, it wouldn’t have really mattered had I kept playing beyond what I had hoped to because I don’t think I would’ve been able to play beyond [the tumor.],” he said.

You don’t really know what’s going to happen after the slog ends. You can have faith that something will and faith that something won’t. All theories have potential in some form if we’re being honest here simply because we’re reading this, which means we haven’t died yet.

Paul Christensen absolutely was not supposed to be in the game against Kansas City. An ATL UTD 2 player who had just signed a four-day contract with the MLS team wasn’t supposed to play in front of 45,000 people. But people were injured and Brad Guzan had just picked up a red card. And thus, Paul Christensen, MLS statistical anomaly.

He played pretty well all considered. Sporting Kansas City scored twice and one of those could probably be described as “unsaveable” but everyone pretty much agreed he did as well as he could in that situation. A bit different from Curtis’s situation where he readily admits he didn’t put his best foot forward. But like Curtis, Paul existed before and after.

A Sounders academy product who of course played at UP under Bill Irwin, he spent the time since his 53 minutes in goal for Atlanta United trying to improve with ATL UTD 2.

“My mindset with it is it’s not necessarily like ‘Oh, we made it, now we’re done. It’s okay. You got a taste of it now. How do we get back?” Christensen said in a phone interview last August. “I believe in myself. I think I can get better. Obviously, there’s some things that are out of my control in the situation, but if I start worrying about if I’m going to ever make it back or get back, then I’m not really focusing on getting better in the moment.”

This year he left ATL UTD 2 for USL League One’s Greenville Triumph.

It’s a step-down. But when talking with Paul last year, it’s clear that it’s far from the end.

“It’s just trying to get better everyday and kind of cross that bridge when it comes. But also, it’s understanding that soccer doesn’t define me. It’s a part of what I do and it’s what I’ve love and it’s what I want to have a career in. But it doesn’t tell me what kind of person I am or the kind of guy I am,” he said.

“I think that has a lot to do with character. And I think what’s very important to me is not only how well my career goes, but the way I go about it. I want people that have dealt with me to say, even if they don’t know me for long or we don’t get along, can at least say he was a good teammate. He was a good guy who worked hard every day and he tried to push the people around him and he was always respectful and professional. And so I think that if I can look back on my career and know that it was like that, then I’ll be okay at the end of the day.”

Paul credits his faith for that perspective. And sure it’s kind of strange to talk about faith and character in the context of a career that probably ends with one game at top of the pyramid. But it’s also reassuring to know that there’s more left for Paul.

When talking to Curtis about Paul, he said that he hoped Paul continued to trust his ability, but also that he was simply enjoying what he was doing. He knows how quickly careers at any level can come to an end.

But there’s always more.

In addition to a very successful career in finance, soccer is still a part of Curtis’s life. Just in a different way than he may have imagined when he was dreaming of playing professionally.

“The fun thing is when you have kids and they get into the sport too and you’re able to kind of just watch it through their eyes now and be a part of coaching their team...doing all that is pretty awesome,” he said.

Death is lurking. We are slogging. There is an end coming sooner or later.

There’s something to be said then for appreciating every aspect of a season. The players who don’t start every game. The ones who do. The ones you yell at for not living up to your unearned, lofty athletic standards. The people you interact with at games and elsewhere who you love and who you hate. The workers at the stadium. The front office. All of them. Each piece of the community.

There’s always more than soccer, good and bad. It’s why it’s necessary. And everyone involved in any way is a part of the great distraction. Some just happen to be cosmically unfair sacrifices on the horrible slog to palor mortis. The ones who don’t get murals or chants or universal remembrance and who were placed there due to circumstances no one can blame them for.

Curtis was. Paul might be. The least we can do is try to understand their existence beyond their numbers, say thanks and be grateful for every damn bit of the distraction.

MLS is back and you are going to die.

These are facts.

This is an opinion: Thank, God.