Steamboat Springs In the fluidity of soccer, it’s one of the lone moments when everything stops.
The free kick — direct or indirect — is an athletic art form. It takes a certain type of player, when all eyes are watching and waiting, to take the kick. It takes someone even more special to make something positive result.
“It really is the moment the game stops and people watch,” Battle Mountain coach Dave Cope said.
It’s helped make England’s David Beckham a fortune, as well as a hero in his native country.
In 2001, England needed a win or a draw against Greece to qualify outright for the World Cup. Down 2-1 with little time remaining, Beckham hit a bending laser that found the net, earning England a bid into the World Cup and turning the soccer star from proverbial villain to hero with one swipe of the leg.
But what does it take be good at free kicks?
Cope, who coaches the girls and boys programs at Battle Mountain, said when it comes to free kicks there are two distinct things he looks for.
“One is the kid has to have that personality that they want that ball at their feet,” he said. “It’s like the kid who wants to shoot free throws at the end of the game.
“The second is the kid that stays after practice and hits free kicks after free kicks.”
When you talk soccer on the Western Slope, Battle Mountain and Steamboat are the two programs that rise to the top. It’s no coincidence then, that each school has a sniper at free kicks.
Battle Mountain has Lizzie Seibert, a technical striker who likes to bend and finesse shots. Steamboat has Emi Birch, who bends her shot but is more of a power striker.
Each has that personality and each has spent countless hours working on her art form.
For Birch, whose brother Connor played goalkeeper in the fall for Steamboat, it’s taken years of practice.
With Emi striking and Connor in goal, it was easy to get repetitions growing up.
“Must have been at least 10 years we’ve been practicing,” Emi Birch said. “It’s just tons of shots when we go out.”
That’s the biggest thing — repetition. Asked about the science and technique of a free kick on Thursday, Birch paused.
When she steps up to the still ball, it’s now just natural.
“It’s almost an innate thing at this point for her,” Steamboat coach Rob Bohlmann said.
But there is science and reason behind it.
Birch, whose shot curves from right to left, feels most comfortable from 25 yards from the goal and closer. She prefers the ball to be set up on the left side of the field, much like a golfer with a draw who likes to tee up from the left side of the tee box.
Birch starts by making note of where the goalkeeper is positioned. The wall of defenders usually covers the near post with the keeper at the far post.
From there, Birch tries to hit the center of the ball with her toes down. Ideally, she’ll make contact with the laces of her shoe.
If she needs more lift to get it over the wall or if she’s farther out from the goal, Birch will try to hit the ball a little bit lower.
She aims for a spot on the goal, generally the upper corner where it’s tough for the keeper to get to.
“But at this point, I’ve done it so many times I don’t really think,” she said. “It’s just doing it.”
And when done well, it’s quite the weapon.
Take the April 8 game between Battle Mountain and Steamboat.
With the game knotted at zero, Seibert was given a direct kick in the 42nd minute. She hit it well, but it struck the crossbar.
In the 65th minute, with the score 1-1, Birch had a direct kick on the left side from the 18-yard line, her ideal position.
She hit it over the wall of defenders, bended it left, and coaxed it into the upper left corner of the goal for the game-winner.
“It’s lethal,” Bohlmann said. “Anytime, whether it’s direct or indirect, we’re within 25 yards, she’s a threat to goal. It’s very effective. It’s always an opportunity.”