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"What Might Have Been": NYCFC vs. T. S. Eliot

What might this season have looked like with a few more favorable bounces? Ninety-Plus of Blue and T. S. Eliot think it's worth asking.

T. S. Eliot and Jason Kreis hold a presser
T. S. Eliot and Jason Kreis hold a presser
Ninety-Plus of Blue

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
— T. S. Eliot

"What might have been...." A common beginning to thoughts in more minds than my own, I'm sure. How different might things look had the bounce gone differently in that late free kick against us in Orlando? Or the deflection against Portland? If Mix's pivoting rocket last week had dipped just a little more? For every one of these moments, of course, there are a few more that are simply errors or great play from the other team. But we haven't seen too many of these marginal moments, moments where anything seems possible, that go our way. There are enough such moments that you can construct an alternate beginning to our history by reversing them, in which case I suspect many of us would be in quite a better mood indeed.

Say you only reversed shots against us that were the result of odd bobbles or deflections, the only kind of chance moment that's easy to isolate and adjust for. In this case, New York City would be just above Philadelphia (12 points with a better goal differential) and have a game in hand. No history-making start, but nor is it dead last. Extending this speculation to injury is more complicated, and less clearly a reversal of chance per se, but let's try it: no absent Villa speaks for itself; Calle creating some consistency at left back and Hernandez dodging his spell on the bench could have resolved our backline problem and negated the Allen catastrophe; Nemec was less clearly a big miss, but who knows. I won't start going into calls against us or those not made in our favor, because I wouldn't be able to find a publisher for the resultant book. But you add some better fortune, and maybe you avoid the highly pressurized atmosphere surrounding the whole club. You avoid that atmosphere, and by my estimation, everything begins to look quite distinct from how things have actually turned out.

"But to what purpose / Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves / I do not know." Of course everything could be different. I could invent scenarios in which we're top of the league. But there are risks to doing so, and anyway, why bother?

The late poems of Eliot's Four Quartets mark a flowering of the mysticism that runs, in a more diluted form, through the rest of his work. In these poems, as in the present essay, the leaps of "speculation" only become more obvious and less apologetic. This kind of departure from reality is dangerous, and Eliot knows it: elsewhere its danger's embodied clearly in the "deception" of a duplicitous thrush. The risk is losing touch with the reality that (as Eliot claims later) humankind can't bear much of, an observation only too clearly borne out by NYC's fortunes this season.

But the less mystical argument of the passage, and to my mind the more compelling one, is that these speculative futures and alternate histories are never quite absent from the present. True, "what might have been" is available solely "in a world of speculation," but it is also united with "what has been" in that they both "Point to one end, which is always present." And the "Footfalls...Down the passage we did not take" live in the memory along with events we know actually did happen (much as we try not to). Our experience of the past comes to look a lot more like our experience of the future: mere speculation, deductions made from the only truly knowable point, the present. What might have been and what might be involve the same act of mind, and their relation to the present is identical but flipped, as in a mirror. That is to say, the present in this view is only a nexus of possibilities shooting off in both directions.

So it is with this moment in the history of the club. I'm not bothering with these strange contortions of the table solely for chuckles (though, yeah, some of those). Rather, I want to record that if you were to watch highlights reels only, you'd have a very thin version of the truth. A thicker description requires every bad, deflected chance, every shot from Mix that caroms off the crossbar, the expression on Nemec's giant face every time he misses a clear chance. At the very least it requires attendance numbers, from which you can deduce thesoul that keeps people watching—an attribute that's hard to measure directly. Our season at this moment is not just everything that has happened, in other words, but everything that almost did, and everything that might.


Curiously, what makes me take this tack now is a penalty call going our way for the first time this season, and in just such a marginal situation as those I've described. Not that there was any real doubt about the call itself: it's just the kind that can go unseen or uncalled, and so far this season, has. And in the other direction, part of what was so satisfying about this match, even though the result was extraordinarily disappointing once again, is that what went against us just came down to skill from the other side or not quite executing difficult chances that, nevertheless, were attempted. There was excellent play in both directions, and the result reflected the balance. There's growing consensus that our game was considerably more directed for a much greater portion of the match, and I think we can also agree that this is precisely what is called for. It was a departure from the more ponderous play of previous matches, a decisive intervention even though it didn't come to much.

I almost used Jorge Luis Borges's "The Garden of Forking Paths" instead of "Burnt Norton," and I don't think I can keep it out entirely: while very similar in a lot of ways, it contains one very important difference in comparison to Eliot's version of the idea, a difference that is needed to fully represent what was refreshing about Saturday.

I'll have to be careful not to give away too much (everyone should go read it, right now): In the middle of an important intelligence mission during World War Two, a man comes across a novel written by an ancestor that contains all possible iterations of the events that define it. In every version, it ends with the sentence, "Thus the heroes fought, their admirable hearts calm, their swords violent, they themselves resigned to killing and to dying." The thing that distinguishes this story from the opening to Eliot's poem occurs when the man strikes through this confluence of possibilities to find a solution to his own mission, doing so in a way that seems to demonstrate intentional navigation through these streams of possibility. He negates the paralysis of all possible worlds by selecting one while still remaining conscious of the multiplicity. The mantra according to which he executes his task is that by "imagin[ing] to himself that it is already done, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past."

I'm obscuring some important context here, but my point is this: the awareness of all the ways things might be different have to guide NYC's strategy going forward. Based on this week, I'm heartened to say, it seems to be.