I inch up to the mid-line keeping their forward about five yards in front of me. Three strides. I need three strides in an open field for acceleration, adjustment and positioning. Their keeper sets the ball down at the corner of his box and backs up to run into his goal kick.
I glance up at the clock. Eight-six minutes. Four minutes left. Four long minutes. Most goals in a match come in the last ten minutes of the half. We are up by one, but don't become complacent. Tighten up. I am an impassable barrier. Impassable barrier. I am impassable.
The keeper's kick sends the ball in a powerful parabolic curve dropping to their mid-fielder on the left side, my side. Our midfielder challenges the player with the ball. Their right wing, my primary responsibility, tenses and bobbles on his feet, waiting for a clue or inspiration about how to position himself for a pass. I give him three strides and wait for his move.
The ball handler starts an aggressive dribble out toward the side-line. The forward, my man, anticipates a chip and sprints down-field. I stay with him. I stay goal-side. I am close. I am making him an unattractive target. I am in control of my space. I own the field.
My midfielder, fifteen yards up field, overcommits when the ball handler feints to the outside. The opposing ball handler comes away clean with the ball, gliding toward our goal. I am the only defender capable of challenging the ball carrier, but I will have to give up my man and let him lag behind me. I check for offside but my mates cross-field have sagged back and given the attackers too much maneuvering room.
I can't let the ball handler continue unaccosted, I leave my man and strike out toward the ball hoping the center-back will pull the defensive line up and hobble the forward with the threat of an offside call.
The ball carrier has me at a disadvantage. He has the center-field and I will have to come at him from the outside. Our vectors converge and we start running shoulder to shoulder. I hear a roar from the crowd and my opponent begins to pick up speed as though surfing the sound waves. I dig, pull and stretch, lengthening my stride. I will myself into flight.
He will be in range of a credible shot within five strides. I can see the outline of the penalty box in my peripheral vision. I don't want to foul unless absolutely necessary. To make a clean tackle I cannot slide from behind. I must be even with the ball handler. I am a hair behind. I must gain. I must fly.
He redirects the ball, but the move costs him a fraction of a second. Our shoulders buffet one another back and forth in an attempt to unbalance the other. My shoulder comes up in front of his. I am more than even. I am clear to slide. One more touch and he will shoot with his left foot: the far side of my challenge. I will have to cross in front of him. I must deflect the ball. Time it. Time it. Now....
My right foot lands out far ahead and as I come over it I straighten my left knee and sling my body forward. My left foots points forward and reaches for the ball. My body hits the ground as gently as an airplane touching down on the runway and slides. I feel the satisfying tap on the ball on the toe of my soft leather shoe, followed immediately by the slap of his boot under my ankle.
He goes down hard, sprawled out in front of me. Still on the ground I push up on my elbows to see what has happened. The ball rolls harmlessly to our keeper who pushes it forward as he surveys the field. The crowd is booing. I am inside the penalty area. My opposing forward is curled up in a fetal position in a pathetic plea for sympathy.
I was even. I was more than even. It was clean. I didn't tackle from behind. Anxiously, I look around for the referee hoping he saw it my way.