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"Sudden Brothers": NYCFC vs. Ovid

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What New York City FC did against Chicago was impressive. But is it really a turning point? Ovid's "Story of Cadmus" gives us another important turning point for context.

...And that madness
Raged through them all; the sudden brothers perished
By wounds they gave each other.... Only five
Were left at last, and one of these, Echion,
Let fall his weapons, as Minerva ordered,
Asked peace, and won it, from the other brothers,
And Cadmus found them helpers and companions
In the building of the town Apollo promised.
— Ovid

This week's passage didn't arrive via the usual channels. My books are scattered across stacks of boxes for an impending move, so I had to stick to a combination of sifting through memory and googling half-misquoted phrases to find a way to capture Friday's comeback. Replaying it, and thinking especially of the difference between the two halves, I remembered a phrase from The Metamorphoses that has stuck with me: "sudden brothers."1

It shows up in the story of Cadmus. The eventual founder of Thebes has just slain some kind of badass serpent with three rows of teeth after it's eaten half of his friends. He pauses to perform some distinctly unlicensed dentistry in the form of a snake-tooth extraction, pockets the result for good measure, and consults an oracle of Apollo to see what the hell to do next. When he plants said tooth in the ground as the oracle advises, a host of soldiers forms out of the clods of earth, and after warning Cadmus to mind his own business they start to hack each other down. These are the "sudden brothers" referred to above, and just as suddenly, they're becoming ex-brothers. But despite nearly extinguishing themselves in an indecipherable civil war, the most resilient of them become the first people of Thebes.

Rereading the passage, most of which I'd forgotten, I was surprised, not only because what I expected to find as a referent for the "sudden brothers" was far from what appeared, but because it describes even better the situation New York City FC finds itself in after the quintessential draw-that-feels-like-a-win against Chicago. While there's no real reason to think the team was turning on itself, you could be forgiven for wondering how long it would take after seeing the two high-profile early subs in Harrison and Villa's sour response to it. And a company that arises out of nothing only to set about defeating itself is hardly far from the mark in describing the Hudson Derby, or indeed the rest of a season in which we find ever more inventive ways to snatch poor results miraculously from a series of strong performances. It looked like the trend would continue as shockingly poor defending stretched to its breaking point, culminating in a needless free kick that led to a goal and an astoundingly stupid tackle from behind.2 Things were looking grim as the penalty hit the back of the net, and there was really nobody to blame but us. Worst was the apparent apathy that threatened to rule the day, the sporting equivalent of a running leap onto one's own sword.

What happened instead, everybody knows. Much of it comes down to an individual display of genius and determination from Villa. From a player whose occasional sulkiness when things aren't going well was becoming hard to watch, the attitude and grit displayed was nothing short of miraculous. His ability to make space for himself out of nothing led directly to both goals, so much so that you kind of have to wish he could get half of each goal in his tally instead of just two assists. But on the other hand, taking anything away from the team itself would be a mistake, however worthy a recipient of the credit Villa would be. What they managed to do in maintaining the discipline of their ten-person defense is only overshadowed by their change of heart in the second half. In the previous weeks New York had slipped away from the determination that marked the beginning of their campaign, and with their return after the half came a return to form. Putting the focus only on Villa would be an enormous mistake precisely because it was in renouncing the kind of individualism that marked the derby's failure that the comeback was possible.

The "sudden brothers" in both cases are "sudden" in two senses. They come into existence suddenly, and they have to contend with that. Out of the same soil, they've been thrown together without any instruction or guidance. But when one of them manages to bring them out of their mutual assured destruction, they become another kind of brother, and just as suddenly: they turn from the brink of their own disappearance to make something much larger than themselves. The suddenness of the existence works directly against the suddenness of their cooperation.

It's in this sense that the passage can be understood as a parable of development. First, of historical development: underlying any enduring civilization is a slew of unimaginable acts of violence.3 But more to the point, and somewhat like the evolutionary paradigm of development I talked about a few weeks ago, the self-defeat results in a core made up of only those who will be able to sue for peace (read: stability) and contribute to the founding of Thebes (read: NYCFC). The others have returned to the earth. Or, if you like, Wilmington.

This is just what has begun to happen to New York City FC. Our bench is solidifying; the lineups are still a bit more variable than you'd like, but are looking more convincing; most important, the coherence we'll need to finally break this streak (and to let it stay broken) is beginning to be visible. Villa fights like hell to create the unlikeliest chances just as the hardest-working forwards are earning their places for keeps. A solid formation is on its way, though far be it from me to say what that formation is. Tactics and rosters change, but the attitude is what will see us through it all.

As confidently as Kreis and others have pointed to this as a turning point, though, there's quite a way to go, and nothing is guaranteed. The lines for which the Cadmus story is best known give us further warning. Ovid concludes that "no man / Should ever be called happy before he's buried." Much remains to happen, and we can backslide again just as we appeared to in the previous few matches. But in the recent events and the spirit animating them, we can see a more hopeful future. The "sudden brothers" build Thebes based on a sudden turn of fortunes. NYCFC, as Kreis has recently said, is forming the basis for "a club for the next 100 years." If nothing else, let Cadmus tell us that even Thebes had a rough go of it at first.

1. This phrase is from the Rolfe Humphries translation, which has been pretty important to me over the years. I recommend it. The phrase and its concept probably stick out as much because of Humphries's translation as Ovid's original.

2. I'm willing to claim without reservation that Saunders would've had that covered had Allen not made that tackle. I have to wonder if we'll see much of him again, because of that single bad decision but also because of what he was put through down the wing in the minutes leading up to it. More positively, Shay Facey gave us a burst of defensive pace that we've sorely lacked, even though his decision-making going forward and one-on-one defending do occasionally leave you less than satisfied.

3. I'm deliberately echoing Walter Benjamin's statement that "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism" from the "Theses on the Philosophy of History."