By Carlos Toro
It was a routine play: a simple exchange between two opposing soccer players, vying for ball control after a goal kick.
During the struggle, senior forward Christian Flath said he felt the opposing player’s arm hit him. And then came the blood.
“I remember every second of it,” Flath said. “It was a goal kick that was kicked long. I went up for the header and when I jumped, I felt that he hit me. I immediately thought that something hit me and that my nose was broken. When I closed my eyes, I kept them closed. The athletic trainer came and told me I had a cut, but I wasn’t sure if it was just the cut that I felt or if something was actually broken.”
However, it wasn’t simply a cut that he suffered, as most, including Head Coach Charlie Inverso, thought.
Flath said the bleeding continued for hours and he had to be sent to a hospital, where an X-ray revealed that it was, in fact, a broken nose. Nasal surgery followed because there was a chance he would suffer breathing problems for the rest of his life if it was not fixed.
Flath has yet to play since the incident occurred, missing a total of six games, which is the longest the team has ever been without Flath.
During that span, Flath showed up to Rider’s Senior Night game with scars still appearing on his nose from surgery and fresh off bandages and wrapping. Watching from the sidelines, Flath said, was “bittersweet.”
“It was a good feeling [getting recognized], but also very sad at the same time,” Flath said. “I was honored to be a part of this and to hear all these nice things about me and all the other guys. We came here three years ago, and the program wasn’t good. Now we’re MAAC champions. It was sad because I wanted to play and help the team and I just couldn’t.”
The program was in a different shape when it did not have the native from Germany suit up for them, Inverso said.
“That third year for us was so critical because in my first two years coaching at Rider, we only won seven games,” he said. “Christian and that entire class came in and did wonders for the program from the get go.”
As an athlete, Flath said, it is hard to stay away from the field of play. As captain of the team, he knew it was his responsibility to go out and support his team, even if he couldn’t take the field with them.
“At first, I was really disappointed when it happened and when I heard the news from my doctor,” Flath said. “But there was nothing I could do. I could be sad and sit in my room for the rest of the season. But that doesn’t help the team. I’m still the captain of the team and my job is to help them in any shape or form I can. If they need me on the sidelines, cheering them on, if they need me to wake them up if it’s not going well, then I’ll do it. I want what’s best for the team and it’s not just about me.”
Inverso said the program almost missed out on Flath. In fact, it wasn’t until late in the summer of 2013 that the Broncs got Flath to the United States. At that point, the preseason had already started for the Broncs, who were coming off a 3-13-1 season.
“We had a scholarship to give and we caught wind of who Christian was and so we scrambled to try and get him here,” Inverso said.
Flath had intentions of spending his collegiate years in the United States, but had some issues in trying to find schools that were willing to bring him on board.
“At some point, I realized I wanted to go and play soccer in the United States,” Flath said. “I was talking to some schools, but it was tough because my SAT scores weren’t that high. That was the first big challenge. I started contacting Rider and we went back and forth and it worked out.”
As Flath traveled to Rider and became a part of the Broncs’ family, he soon realized that it wasn’t just a change of scenery and language that he needed to adjust to.
Playing in a fundamental-heavy German style, Flath had been coached by the father of current Real Madrid midfielder and Germany national team member Toni Kroos. The U.S. style of play, according to Flath, was more of a “kick-and-run” type of mentality.
“After my first practice — and I wasn’t good in my first practice — it was different for me and a different style of soccer and I thought, ‘I don’t know if that’s the right thing for me,’” Flath said.
But Flath soon meshed with the team and his impact on the program was immediate. Flath scored six goals and had eight assists in 18 games played, as Rider finished with an 8-9-1 record, the best season Inverso had as a head coach at the time and the most wins since 2000.
Inverso said Flath’s offensive skill was one of the main reasons the Broncs had such a big jump in wins. It wasn’t just the on-the-field presence that helped the team progress. Inverso said Flath’s quiet demeanor brought about a calming feeling among the players.
“It almost seemed like every time we needed a score, Christian was always there to make a play for us,” Inverso said. “Flath is also a very mature person and it’s good having a player and a person like him on the team.”
Flath and the team’s improvement culminated in a MAAC-conference title in 2015. Flath called that moment the highlight of his time at Rider.
His contributions have been recognized throughout his whole career. He was awarded All-MAAC First Team honors in his first three years. However, because of the injury, it is likely Flath will not get the same recognition this season. If he did get awarded All-MAAC First Team this year, he would have become the first Rider men’s soccer player to win that honor in all four years played at the University.
Whether or not Rider has seen the last of Flath in cranberry and white, Flath still wants to keep playing soccer. He has said he wishes to try and play professionally, either in the United States, Germany or elsewhere.
“My initial plan is to play professional soccer here in the United States and that is my No. 1 goal,” Flath said. “I don’t know how much my injury affects my plans. If it doesn’t work out here, I’ll go back and try out with different teams in Germany and over in Europe. I’m open for anything.”
The team has gone undefeated in the time the dynamite forward has missed, and Inverso said the team has adjusted well.
“I can’t give enough credit to the players,” Inverso said. “There wasn’t anything we, as coaches, did differently from a tactical standpoint. Guys, like Fernando Pina, really stepped up and I’m really proud of our guys.”
Flath still has hope to finish the season, and his college career, on the pitch. Inverso said that he is aiming for a Nov. 11 return, which would be in time for the MAAC semifinals.
The time and place, however, has yet to be determined. Rider still has an opportunity to win the regular season title, which would make them hosts of the tournament’s semifinal and final.
For Flath, it could represent a true finale at Ben Cohen Field for someone whose Senior Night was spent cheering his teammates from the bench.
“I’m happy with the fact that we won our last few games,” he said. “Hopefully, I get a chance to play again, maybe even here at Rider, and that would great,” Flath said.