Andrew Austin picked up the soccer ball near midfield at Del Luce Stadium in Ellsworth the other night, and proceeded to do what he would repeat more than 20 times during the Eagles’ 3-2 victory over Mount Desert Island.
He stepped back a few paces to get a running start along the sideline, then did a cartwheel to build even more momentum before he threw the ball into the goal crease.
Ellsworth didn’t score on the play, but short of a corner kick or a direct kick Austin’s throws are as close to instant offense as soccer gets these days.
“The long throw-ins are really effective for them, they put the ball into the box a lot in the air,” said MDI coach John Rosenfeld after the game. “The ball’s in the [penalty] box a lot in the air. They’re dangerous, they put a lot of pressure on you and you have to put more guys back on defense than you want so you’re playing on your heels more because of having to defend that.”
Long throw-ins have been a staple of Ellsworth’s offensive philosophy in recent years, one of many reasons the Eagles have ranked among the best Class B soccer programs statewide for a generation.
“A lot of times with the throw-ins you can capitalize on a mistake,” said Brian Higgins, who has more than 400 victories since taking over as the Eagles’ head coach in 1974 . “In high school ball most goals are scored on mistakes, and I think high school ball is more exciting because of that.”
Certainly those who prefer soccer as a higher-scoring sport than it is on the world stage would agree with Higgins, but he has first-hand evidence that it’s not for everybody.
Higgins took members of the Ellsworth soccer program on a 10-day tour of England and Ireland last summer, the 11th time the Eagles have taken such a summer sojourn during his coaching tenure.
And Austin’s cartwheel throw-ins served as a frequent source of scoring opportunities during their five matches, in part because the host teams weren’t expecting such a tactic.
“Those teams had just never seen it before,” said Higgins. “I half expected the referees to whistle us for an illegal throw but they never did so they knew it was legal, but they just don’t do it over there.”
In fact, the throw-in as offensive weapon is rarely seen in the upper echelons of soccer, in the World Cup or the Premier League or even MLS or major college soccer.
And in a sport that draws its primary criticism for a lack of goal scoring — or too many vuvuzelas — some of the soccer heathens among us wonder why not.
Higgins, no soccer heathen he, theorizes that the potential for instant offense is offset by the desire for ball security — citing as an example a professional match he and his team saw during their tour this summer between Arsenal of the Premier League and the Barnet FC, a Division 2 team in England.
Arsenal took the opening kickoff and subsequently maintained possession for the game’s first 2 1/2 minutes.
“The world-class teams want possession of the ball and don’t want to take a chance on a 50-50 ball that the opponent could win,” said Higgins.
That’s probably true, but I’ll take the cartwheel throw-ins anyday.