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Sports Column by Andy Kirkaldy: Local words of wisdom apply on the world stage

Typically, it’s reassuring when people who know more than you agree with your point of view.
On June 8 I was covering the Vergennes-U-32 quarterfinal softball game when someone with a more than casual interest showed up, Otter Valley coach Pattie Candon. Candon’s Otters had a potential semifinal matchup with the winner of that Saturday game, and was scouting.
One of the glories of watching baseball and softball games is the time it offers to chat, and we spoke about her team briefly. While we talked, Candon told a recent anecdote about encouraging her talented shortstop, junior Cortney Poljacik.
Candon said Cortney struck out in an at-bat, after which she was visibly frustrated. Candon didn’t say anything right away, but when Cortney shortly afterward made two excellent plays in the field, Candon went over to her in the dugout and talked to her.
The message?
“Offense wins games,” Candon said. “Defense wins championships.”
Well, yes, it is a variation on an old adage, but one doesn’t have to look too far to find evidence of its truth.
The championship Mount Abraham girls’ basketball team allowed fewer points in four Division II tournament games this past winter than any D-II title-winning girls’ squad in more than two decades.
Coach David Saward’s Middlebury College men’s soccer team did not allow a goal in NCAA Division III tournament play the fall the Panthers claimed the crown.
The Pittsburgh Penguins entered their Stanley Cup semifinal series against the Boston Bruins as the highest-scoring bunch in the regular season and the playoffs to that point. They exited after having scored twice in four games and seeing black and gold sweaters and Bs’ goalie Tuukka Rask everywhere they turned.
As an aside, the most similar comeback I’ve ever witnessed to the Bruins’ incredible third-period, Game 7 rally from a 4-1 deficit came on the Panther men’s soccer field. In 2004, Saward’s side trailed Tufts, 3-0, in a NESCAC playoff game with about 16 minutes to go, and won, 4-3, 55 seconds into overtime. Much like the Bruins, Middlebury even pulled its goalie, Cornwall’s David Lindholm, and sent him into the opposing box during the game-tying play in the final seconds of regulation.
Further afield, while Spain’s national football team is justifiably celebrated for its remarkable ball-control skills, one shouldn’t overlook the fact that La Roja allowed just two goals in seven games during its winning 2010 World Cup performance.
In fact, it was football — oh, all right, I’ll switch to soccer now — that got me thinking once again about defense. I recently watched the better part of the USA-Germany national soccer teams’ exhibition match and the replay of the ending of the USA-Jamaica World Cup qualifying game.
The USA-Germany match came first, and it was the first win for the Americans over the Germans in many years, by a 4-3 final. The USA scored twice in the first half, one a volley from Jozy Altidore that was a thing of beauty, and one an own-goal that only the Americans’ mothers could love.
The Germans came out strong in the second half and scored an excellent goal and were controlling play, but the USA suddenly countered with two excellent strikes by Clint Dempsey, one set up by Altidore. Up by 4-1, all looked safe and sound with 20 minutes to play, and honestly with a professional defense it should have been.
Instead, the Germans — despite missing several key players — consistently exposed weaknesses on the left and in the center of the American defense, found the net twice, and looked for all the world as if they were ready to knot the score as time — mercifully for the home side — finally ran out.
A couple days later, Altidore — for whose recent revival one muse gave new coach Jurgen Klinsmann credit — staked visiting USA to a 1-0 lead with a strong header. But as regulation wore down, so again did the defense, surrendering the lead on a late Jamaica set play.
Fortunately, defender Brad Evans stepped into the attack and surprised the home team to score the game-winner in injury time, giving the Americans a rare positive result in Jamaica, 2-1 — again, for which Klinsmann deserves credit.
But where is the late lockdown defense? The level of soccer in this country will not soon produce the wonderful level of skill seen by the Spanish and Brazilian national teams, but we should be able to develop athletes with the level of skill, tenacity, speed and stamina to lock down late leads.
Until we do, our national team will win games, but not championships. 

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