It’s November 2018. Wake Forest is the top-seeded team in the nation, and they have no intentions of losing a third-round tournament game. Not after three straight playoff losses to Stanford. Not after another ACC regular season title. Not against Akron.
But nonetheless, there is just over one minute to play, and Wake Forest is down 1-0. The Akron Zips are getting ready to celebrate, but Wake Forest is the best attacking team in the country.
They are not done yet.
Omir Fernandez, one of the offense’s leaders, dribbles aggressively into Akron’s box and drops a perfect pass to Machop Chol, who is all alone by the right post.
Freshman midfielder Aristotle Zarris knows what to do. He’s been here before. The entire defense is scrambling toward Chol, and Zarris sneaks behind them to the far post.
Chol collects himself and delivers a perfect pass across the goal to the foot of Zarris, who easily sends the ball into the net.
It’s 1-1. Zarris is the hero.
Except . . . he’s not. The linesman’s flag is up. He was called offside. The goal is disallowed.
Zarris sprints towards the linesman in disbelief, wagging his finger back and forth, but it doesn’t matter. The game ends 1-0. Wake Forest sees its season cut short, again.
“Usually, I don’t let my emotions get the best of me,” Zarris said. “But in that time, in that place, I saw our whole season go away. . . just like that.”
Soccer did not always dominate Zarris’ life in the way it does now. Neither of his parents played soccer, and neither of his parents played sports beyond high school.
Growing up in Indiana, he played baseball, flag football, basketball and soccer.
“My parents wanted to expose me to every sport,” Zarris said. “I remember I played soccer during the fall, but during the summer, it was all baseball. Around age 12, I realized I needed to pick one.”
Once Zarris picked soccer, he quickly saw that he had made the right choice.
By his freshman year of high school, Zarris was a member of an Major League Soccer (MLS) academy with Real Salt Lake. To accommodate the schedule that his new club demanded, his whole family moved to the west coast with him.
Shortly after that, he got some of the best news of his life.
“During my freshman year of high school, I was playing with RSL, and after a tournament my coach got a call from the United States U-16 team,” Zarris said. “They wanted me to come to Holland to play in a tournament.”
After he joined the national team’s ranks, college scouts took notice. Zarris was contacted by numerous schools, including top programs like UCLA, Stanford and Wake Forest. At the same time, the constant travel and never-ending season began to take a toll on him.
“It has been different for him,” said Zarris’ father, Olympus. “He grew up quickly being on planes and going to different countries. He’s been on his own more or less since his junior year.”
But Zarris kept pushing, and he kept getting more recognition. Halfway through high school, Zarris joined the academy of the MLS club LA Galaxy, and during his time there he trained with first team players like soccer legend Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Everything was falling into place for Zarris to cruise to a college scholarship with a top program.
In January of 2017, Zarris traveled to Florida with the US U-18 team to scrimmage against the U-17 squad. For the first time, his father would have the opportunity to watch him play with the national team.
During the last five minutes of the match, Zarris tracked back to defend a break, and a teammate pushed an opposing player off the ball, causing him to fall onto Zarris’ leg.
“It was brutal,” Olympus Zarris said. “When he went down, he took his hand and was pounding the ground, and he was a kid who would ride any tackle and just pop back up.”
The team’s trainer examined Zarris and did not have the heart to break the news to him, telling him that it could have just been a hyperextension. When Zarris went to the doctor, he heard the truth.
Torn ACL. Torn MCL. One year of recovery ahead.
“I started to panic, and I completely broke down,” Zarris said. “I was like, why is this happening?”
For the first time, Zarris slowed down. For years, everything moved forward. For years, soccer was more than a game. It was everything.
“It helped him put some perspective on everything,” Olympus Zarris said. “You’re young, you’re invincible, and then something like that happens, and it threatens everything you have been working for.”
The potential ephemerality of his career began to sink in. Throughout all the hours on the field, the hours in the gym, the hours watching film, Zarris never imagined everything coming to an end.
During his rehab, Zarris got to spend a full year with his family for the first time in a long, long time and recognized that he had been taking soccer for granted.
“I almost don’t want to say this, but it was a good thing,” Zarris said. “I think I was a little burned out, since out of 12 months every year I had a one-month break. There was not time for anything else in my life.”
Academics, family and normal high school experiences fell by the wayside for a long time, and during his time off the field, Zarris reevaluated. He would choose soccer again, but with a drastically evolved outlook.
“It’s still the number one thing in my life, but I definitely look at it differently,” he said. “I look at it like something that can be taken away from me. . . just like that.”
Zarris thought he would stay on the west coast for college soccer, but Wake Forest Head Coach Bobby Muuss called one day and asked him to visit before his final decision.
When Zarris walked around campus and saw the fans at Spry Stadium during an ACC match, he reconsidered and eventually committed to Wake Forest.
Just a few months after he finished recovering from his knee injury, Zarris started training with the Wake Forest team, and over the course of his 2018 season, he had no problem adjusting to college soccer.
Zarris fit like a glove in the Wake Forest system, collecting five goals, five assists and more than 1,200 minutes in his freshman season.
“He’s a really funny kid, and he loves to joke around,” said Sam Raben, a four-year starter at Wake Forest. “He wants to help the team no matter what the cost, which is great to see from a freshman.”
While he’s kept soccer at the top of his personal hierarchy, Zarris feels the demands put on student-athletes. He tries to get eight hours of sleep every night, but between class and practice, it can be hard to find time for himself.
“There are things that I miss out on in college, since soccer plays this huge role in my life,” Zarris said. “Being an athlete is not for everyone, but it’s crazy, stressful and fun.”
After the team’s loss to Akron, Zarris found himself in a familiar place. During his first season, he grew accustomed to the cycle of practice, class and games, but with the playoff loss came the sluggish liminal space between seasons.
“For some of us, the main reason we came here is athletics,” Zarris said. “If that gets taken away from us, we think, what are we doing here?”
But Zarris knows how to stop and reflect, and he knows that this game he plays will not last forever. At the drop of hat, it could all slip away.
Just like that.