I started my drive from Golden, Colorado before dawn on October 10 and pulled over to sleep under the stars south of Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. The federal shutdown was still in effect, so I drove from the locked gate to find a subtle wash that opened into a secret canyon. I sketched a little before sunset and completed a few more drawings in the morning before pulling into Casa Grande for the Columbus Cup masters soccer tournament on Friday.

This was my first tournament with FTI, a veteran team playing under the title of a company formerly known as Fatigue Technology Inc. founded in 1969. With fully loaded rosters for over-30, over-40, and over-48 competitions, FTI continues the “fatigue” theme for opponents. The resumes are astounding. We played our first two group stage games with only 11 players. We had two more players for the quarterfinal and another pair for the semifinal. Our 15-man roster included:

  1. Mike, goalie
  2. Ty Keough, left back
  3. Mike Greiner, right back
  4. Patrick Shea, center back
  5. Stefan Cobb, center back
  6. Doug, center back
  7. Bernie James, center midfield
  8. Stavros Anastasiou, FTI head man and midfielder
  9. Graham Drake, midfield
  10. Fred Hamel, center midfield
  11. David Ravenhill, forward
  12. Peter Hattrup, forward
  13. Byron Miller, forward
  14. Mark, center forward
  15. Lee Eckmann, forward
  16. Alan Hinton was on the sideline for all our victories and draws. The former English national team and top-flight player made the trip to see many of his former players compete. FTI won the over-48 division in 2012, and Alan knows many of the characters from the old days of American professional soccer. Many others knew Alan from his success at Derby County, Nottingham Forrest, and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Alan had to catch the Sounders/Timbers game at 6:00 on Sunday, so he missed our 1-0 semifinal loss at 7:00. He motivated us to come from behind for our 1-1 group play game, and I think he would have been a boost for the semifinal.

We won our first game 3-0, tied the second 1-1, and won the third by forfeit. We won our quarterfinal 1-0, but we lost the semifinal by the same score.

Since Mike the keeper took our goal kicks, I did not play a single long ball all weekend. In four games, I won tackles, head-balls, and melees, but then I’d play it on the ground and run to support the pass. I had two chances to score off set plays in the penalty box, but the spinning ball eluded my touch (or my spinning touch eluded good contact). Regardless, I didn’t score.

The weekend was a slow blur of new faces. Five of the 15 players in Casa Grande also play for another Seattle team called Tri-Alliance 2002 (TA2). Stefan, Graham, Freddy, Lee, and I were part of the TA2 group that won the Veterans Cup Over-50 division in Escondido, California this June. Of the 22-player roster in June, 15 also played for the original TA2 Veterans Cup championship team from 2003. I was also on the 2005 Veterans Cup championship team.

TA2 and FTI are long-time rivals in Seattle, despite sharing personnel for tournaments. For decades, they have faced each other in Greater Seattle Soccer League games and local tournaments. Some of the more mobile players also compete on the younger versions of FTI and TA2, blending rosters yet further. The only thing more important than winning and losing is playing.

Our FTI roster in Casa Grande was a Who’s Who of top-flight players from the past. Ty has seven caps with the USMNT, and his professional career stretched from 1978 to 1986. Many people recognize him from TV commentator gigs, and he’s the son of Harry Keough, a member of the U.S. squad that upset England in the 1950 World Cup. Ty didn’t make a mistake all weekend, and he sent some nice balls forward after winning possession.

Bernie is perhaps the only American to play professionally in four separate decades. He signed with the Seattle Sounders in 1977, played with teams in Edmonton, Tacoma, Cleveland, and Seattle, ultimately finishing with the Sounders in 2000. Bernie is the current Director of Coaching at the Crossfire Premier Soccer Club in Seattle. Bernie patrolled the center of the midfield. When we got the ball to his feet, we could do whatever we wanted.

A solid right back, Mike Greiner is Bernie’s assistant with the U-16 boys team in the United States Soccer Developmental Academy (USSDA) league.

Stefan played striker for the University of Washington after graduating from high school in the Seattle area. Stefan moved to Sweden from Seattle when he was eight years old, returning five years later with soccer chops and a taste for team handball.

Working with the Seattle Sounders in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Alan drafted Freddy Hamel out of high school, along with Brian Schmetzer, Billy Crook, and Chance Fry. Billy’s daughter had a pair of collegiate games, so couldn’t make the trip to Casa Grande. Chance suffered an injury earlier in the week and also stayed home. A host of other great FTI players couldn’t make it, but we were lucky that Fred flew in on Sunday. He had an avalanche of work for the University of Puget Sound, so he couldn’t make it until our final group stage battle. The forfeiture robbed him of a game, although it allowed him to catch up on work for a few hours before the quarterfinal.

Lee had it worse. His flight from his daughter’s game in California was delayed, so he didn’t arrive at the field until the second half of the semifinal. This was less than 30 minutes of soccer. Still, he made an immediate impact on the game, teaming up with David, Peter, and everyone else in pursuit of the equalizer. Like all our TA2 championships, he was key to our success. If we had more time, I believe we would have equalized and steamrolled eventually.

Graham had an excellent tournament. As one of the more mobile midfielders, he made a number of heroic runs in all the games, but particularly in the first two sub-less games. Shorthanded, most players bunker down in survival mode and retreat. But Graham dribbled the ball forward, held it under pressure, and played positively. It tipped the momentum forward to our best players on the field.

Bernie and Stavros worked like the hub of a wheel in the first two games. They slowed down attacks, and they rarely lost the ball when we worked it through their feet. Graham had to cover for them on occasion, and Peter and David frequently retreated into midfield to get the ball and help defend. For me as a center back, I like the way Peter also did the vocal work of a sweeper, but from a different perspective. Stefan and I both defend intuitively as plays develop. When you’re down a man on a particular sequence, we buy time and remain vague about our marking while other players retreat into position. Peter barked out adjustments to make from his view up front, and it worked. We also enjoyed the extra benefit of knowing his position better for the counterattack.

Peter scored three goals in four games. He set up David for the first goal, tallied the second, and fed Byron a perfect ball for the third. Peter rifled an 85th-minute equalizer into the upper corner for our second game. With two subs for the quarterfinal, Peter came on in the second half and Cruyff-cut the defenders to set up a left-footed blast that sent us to the semifinal. Peter was our primary go-to attacker who proved his prowess for 12 indoor and outdoor pro teams between 1984 and 2001.

David terrorized every defender, often more than one at a time. A former Canadian national team player who played many years for Canadian teams, David came back to Ty to collect the ball near midfield, but then he’d snake his way to the corner flag or cut inside the box. Peter held the ball up well on other plays, frequently releasing David down the left wing, switching it to Graham on the right, or turning mischief straight up the middle.

Byron had severe bronchitis and was recovering from knee surgery in July, but he still managed to hold the ball up enough to give us chances. He made opposing defenders work hard, scored the third goal in our first game, and rose to the challenge in the semifinal. Although he never played professionally, Byron was a top-ranked downhill ski racer familiar with the rigors of championship competition.

Mark arrived with Freddy for the third group game, despite hyper-extending his knee last week. He strapped on a brace from Mike the goalkeeper and had a few runs up front. But after his first serious sprint in the semifinal, he was done.

Mark’s friend Doug drove down to watch the quarterfinal. We all dug through our bags for extra cleats, socks, and shin guards for Doug to line up next to me in central defense for the semifinal. He was strong in the air and on the ground, and he pushed forward on set pieces to nearly score a couple times.

I came to Casa Grande prepared to conduct extensive interviews with my new teammates. I had my recorder handy all weekend, and Freddy and Byron were already prepared to talk. But then I realized it would mess up our good vibe. So I experienced the tournament as a player instead of documenting it as a journalist. It’s an excellent tournament, and the FTI guys are top-notch.