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Gravity's Chip Shot: NYCFC vs. Thomas Pynchon

Can we take any meaning from Sunday's loss? Can we take any meaning from anything at all? Thomas Pynchon says we have to be careful with cause and effect, while Jason Kreis says to be careful with performance and result.

Ninety-Plus of Blue combines aesthetic football with literary aesthetics. Every week, one match is discussed in terms of one literary quotation. This week: Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow."

"But you had taken on a greater, and more harmful, illusion. The illusion of control. That A could do B. But that was false. Completely. No one can do. Things only happen, A and B are unreal, are names for parts that ought to be inseparable...."

When one event happens after another with this awful regularity, of course you don't automatically assume that it's cause-and-effect. But you do look for some mechanism to make sense of it. You probe, you design a modest experiment....

There is to this enterprise, Pointsman knows, a danger of seduction. Because of the symmetry..... He's been led before, you know, down the garden path by symmetry: in certain test assuming that a mechanism must imply its mirror image.

— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

It’s tempting to just punt and say, "Well, nobody can do anything, really; cause-and-effect is a myth, that’s why NYCFC is losing"—tempting, but that’s not what I’m up to. Pointing to the limits of control is too convenient a way to set aside responsibility for the way things are going. What Pynchon’s causation skeptic says here, that "No one can do," is kind of like Nietzsche’s idea from The Genealogy of Morals that "‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed," which I also mentioned as an aside to last week’s post. Is control over these results merely an "illusion"? Were Jason Kreis’s "modest experiment[s]" with formation and personnel over these three games ultimately futile attempts to divine the "mechanism" of an irreducible tendency toward collapse? And how much should we be worried about the "awful regularity" of what’s looking more and more like a late-game point donation drive?

Obviously, there are football versions of these questions and then there are philosophical versions. Nevertheless, these might be fruitful terms on which to understand the recent statements of NYCFC’s optimism in the media. I should be clear: it’s an optimism I support and share. I’m referring specifically to the many statements like this one from Kreis:

"I think it’s really important we try to recognize the results aren’t going our way but the performances are. I’ve been around this league long enough to know that if the performances continue like this, then the results are right around the corner."

So how do we take this? It would be unfair to call it complacency. It’s obviously a justified attempt to redirect attention from a very ugly goal against us to our beautiful play in the first forty-five. What underlies Kreis’s statement philosophically, though, is a confidence that control can be wrought over the inherent chaos of the game, even if that control only reduces the probability of mistakes and unlucky deflections. We might understand what he’s telling us as a caution against errors like the one Pointsman makes in that last passage. We can’t assume that the "mechanism must imply its mirror image," can’t say that performance and results are as reliably linked as cause-and-effect and that therefore, since the result was lousy, so was everything that went into it. Kreis takes the middle ground, conceding that there is always a margin for error while downplaying its importance.

But there’s a real question here as to whether we should be pursuing so single-mindedly a kind of football that requires quite this much control and precision at a level we haven’t yet managed to demonstrate. It’s possible to make a (admittedly facile) distinction between two possible strategies. In one, you acknowledge the ultimately accidental nature of many of the goals against us, or even in the league—deflections, unlucky bounces, etc.—and based on this observation try to make as many opportunities as possible for accidental goals in the other direction. In the other, you try to minimize the possibility for accident entirely, asserting controlled, purposive attack as well as defense. The first could be considered a concession to indeterminacy, the second a resistance mounted against it.

I’ve been clear about my own aesthetic preference for purposive, controlling play. Not conceding to chaos and the inevitability of crap goals feels almost like a moral imperative. But let me put it this way: even though my abs are looking pretty good from learning to weather an early season full of gut-punches, I think that last one bruised my liver.

There has to be a better balance between making ugly chances and pursuing the ideal ones, at least until our finishing improves and especially when we’re beset by injury. I want to see beauties like Ballouchy’s, but I wouldn’t mind also having a few Orlando-style late deflections and Philly-style bundlings into the net. What makes me believe Kreis’s talk of results that will average out to performances is that we’ve started to increase our number of corners and crosses, which in my mind are the ultimate enablers of ugly goals in a high-possession game. In order for that to happen, though, we’ll have to be set up to take advantage of them. I’m pretty sure I could count our shots on goal from set pieces on one hand. The truth of Kreis’s claim may ultimately be judged by whether the balance we struck Sunday will average out to the right one.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a saga of conflicting interpretation, and different factions search for final explanations according to different epistemologies, any of which would cancel out the others. Seeing the variety of reactions to Sunday’s defeat, it’s hard not to think that a similar thing is happening, that interpretations abound in such a density that none of them can carry any meaning that will explain Sunday’s (still somewhat inexplicable) defeat. In this sense of things, it’s hard to justify another one. Without attempting to explain, then, I’ll only say that wherever we’re going, we know the tenacity we’ve shown will be part of it, and at some point having sat through the literal and metaphorical cold of this winless streak will be a major sign of cred.