For the second consecutive U.S. Open Cup game, the Philadelphia Union overcame enormous adversity to advance to the next round. Traveling to the New York Red Bulls for the quarterfinals on Tuesday, Philadelphia won 4-3 on penalties after regulation ended with the score tied at one. A red card issued to striker Conor Casey just before halftime left the Union a man down for nearly 80 minutes including extra time. For head coach Jim Curtin, overcoming this challenge showed the character of his players. “I thought that our players showed a ton of heart, the heart of a lion. I couldn’t be more proud. They represented the badge very well…they left everything on the field.” Union goalkeeper John McCarthy also recognized the importance of having faced similar adversity three weeks ago. “We’ve been there before, a man down. We had the same exact experience against D.C. United. So we just [knew] that it was mental…we had to stay mentally focused the whole game.” After taking the lead early in the second half despite playing with only 10 men, the Union almost won the game in regulation, until New York equalized in the 90th minute. “Most teams [at that point] would quit and collapse but our guys kept fighting,” Curtin said. “…Something inside of us kept going.” After neither team scored in extra time, the Union prevailed in a shootout, with Fernando Aristeguieta converting the winning penalty after playing all 30 minutes of extra time, despite having been out for the last month and a half with an ankle injury. “He was gassed and exhausted,” Curtin said. “But he had enough legs to step up… and take the fifth spot. That’s not an easy one. It comes from within you, the guys who step up in those big moments and come through.”
Despite your best preparation and all the time and energy you’ve put into developing technically and tactically as a player, there will be games in which you need to rely on sheer effort and determination to get a result. When adversity (e.g., a red card) is working against you, and you are exhausted, it can certainly be difficult to meet the game’s demands and perform your role effectively on the field. As a player, your inner voice may even be giving you permission to give up under the circumstances. However, in these moments, it’s important to recognize that your effort is one of the few things under your control. Players, like Aristeguieta, who do rise to the occasion in these situations, are often the ones who are able to dig a little deeper and find something within themselves to overcome the physical and mental fatigue. Managing your self-talk during these moments is essential, and it needs to start long before the moment itself. For example, when you are tired during training, try to build an inner dialogue that motivates you to dig a little deeper. Identify one or more refocusing cues (e.g., “Keep pushing” or “I’ve got this”) that will help you overcome the challenge in front of you. You may not control the outcome, but you do control whether or not you choose to leave everything on the field in an effort to be successful. In these moments, it’s also important to communicate effectively with the players around you to make their job (and yours) easier, and to also focus on playing smart rather than playing hard. In other words, there may be times when it is wiser and more efficient for you to conserve energy and get yourself into good positions, rather than chasing down a ball in the corner that you may not reach. Finally, as McCarthy pointed out, it can help to rely on past experiences in these moments, recognizing that you have overcome adversity of many shapes and sizes before and know how to do so again – an effective source of confidence. Heading back into league play, and eventually the Open Cup semifinals, the Union players certainly have enough evidence thus far this season to show that they are more than capable of finding a result even when their backs are against the wall.
High Performance Sports provides sport psychology services to athletes for performance enhancement