Soccer Poet

Urban Legend and a Good Resume

Urban Legend and a Good Resume
It was a U-12 game. A striker had checked back from an offside position to receive the ball at her feet. The assistant referee (a.k.a linesman) raised his flag to signal the offside infraction and the play was whistled dead.  Immediately some parents who were sharing the AR’s sideline began protesting with an array of snide and patronizing remarks.  One of them figured he was obligated to point out that the offside call is contingent upon when the ball is played. Because they don’t teach that at referee school. The AR, frustrated with this particular peanut gallery and all the peanut galleries that had gone before, had finally had enough. So he reached into his back pocket and handed the man two sheets of paper that had been tri-folded.

The expert unfolded the papers to find he’d been handed the AR’s resume.  In addition to a distinguished soccer playing career and years of experience as an official, the AR was currently employed as an assistant coach at the Division I level and had been for nine years. Running the sidelines with a flag was just a way to supplement his income. Then the AR looked the man in the eye and said, “Now let’s see yours.”

Okay, that story is utter BS.  I made the whole thing up. Actually, that’s a lie, too. The story was Henry’s idea and I just sorta ran with it. But I imagine that years from now it will be an urban legend that referees will be telling as fact. So will coaches, who also have to deal with parents who have evolved as outspoken experts despite never having kicked a ball. And others will bear witness that they were there when the whole thing went down in Seattle… no, Chicago… no, Dallas...no…

It never happened, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if it had? The man (or woman) who finally had the nerve to give the expert parent a dose of humility would become a folk hero of sorts… like Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who finally got so fed up with rude passengers that he invoked the infamous beer slide. Peers would rally around him to celebrate a symbolic victory of behalf of man-coach-ref-kind.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Most parents are awesome and I’ll be the first to say it. But one bad apple spoils the whole day. So in short, if you think you may be one of those parents and your soccer playing/coaching/refereeing experience is pretty limited, maybe notsomuch with the expert critiques, yes? At the very least, polish up your CV.

To be fair, it might actually be me handing a resume to an AR the next time one of them tells me, “The whole ball has to be over the line.”

Yeah thanks. This is my first day. No one told me. Grrrrr.

In other news… The Georgia Bulldogs had our first spring game, a 2-0 win over Clemson in Athens. It wasn’t much to look at but with the way our fall went, we were all pretty stoked about getting a result.  We were pretty shaky in defense, regardless of the score-line. We were just very disorganized and that made for some rollicking adventures. Half of our back four has graduated and that’s going to give any team some issues. So we’re going to watch a lot of video from that match and start making adjustments and hopefully we’ll be better the next time out.

The highlight of the game had to be Coco’s penalty kick save in the game’s final ten minutes (If you’re into things like the WWE, your highlight may have been Coco’s flying cross-body block that caused the PK in the first place). Regardless, Coco guessed correctly and got down to make a great save and then pounced on the rebound to preserve the shutout. She was so happy about it that after the game she was literally in tears. It was a pretty fantastic moment.

Eddy and Lex, who missed the fall season due to injuries, have started working their way back into practice and that’s been a tremendous boost to everyone’s spirits. They are both special players and if they can stay healthy, they’ll be a big help in the fall.

We have a match against Auburn this Thursday night at the Greater Atlanta Christian School.  Hope you can make it out there!

And finally… I took Izzy fishing last week. It took about ten minutes for her to catch her fish and she did it all by herself.  I didn’t even touch the rod. Scout’s honor. Now Izzy is hooked, and I’ve got myself a fishin’ buddy. I couldn’t possibly be happier about that.

soccerpoet 644

updated: 4 years ago

Chapter 51

Chapter 51
So not much happening on the soccer front, unless of course you count a 9 year-old hitting a ridiculous BICYCLE KICK. Here’s the thing… most fans are just going to go Wow! Look at that bicycle kick! But soccer people, particularly coaches, are going to appreciate the entire maneuver because this little prodigy actually does three very advanced things here.
  1. He wedges himself between the ball and the opponent to protect the ball. Trust me, that’s not just by accident.  That’s advanced.
  2. Under pressure, he juggles the ball up perfectly.  In addition to the technical proficiency it takes to do this with a defender draped upon your back, it shows that before he even touched the ball, he decided he was going to hit the bike. Again, very advanced.
  3. He nails the kick itself. And what’s really cool is that if you watch his non-kicking foot, it’s the one that goes up first, because that sets up the scissors motion that generates power. I’ve seen a lot of bicycle kicks, but very few players have figured out how to get the non-kicking leg up first, the way Pele explained it to us decades ago.

In summary, Barcelona’s status of being an exceptional soccer team doesn’t appear to be in any immediate jeopardy.

The Monkey of the Day is enjoying a banner year thus far in 2013.  It has been particularly prevalent in movies I’ve watched. Since the new year began, I’ve watched all or parts of 10 movies. Would you believe that there’s been a Monkey of the Day in every single one of them???  Sincerely.  And since this list is so eclectic, I’ll just share it with you:

Rounders
Wall Street 2
Frankenweenie
Home Alone
Beach Blanket Bingo
Bikini Beach (yeah there was a Frankie Avalon double feature.  So sue me.)
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
There’s Something About Mary
Romancing The Stone (even before Kathleen Turner goes to South America)
All-In (a poker documentary)

How strange is that? It makes me wonder how many movies I watched before I learned of the MOD that also contained MODs.  And what’s truly funny is that there is no earthly reason for a monkey reference in 8 of them.  I’ll concede Bikini Beach because the monkey is a major part of the eht-hem… ‘plot’ line, and Romancing The Stone, because when a movie is set in a South American jungle, you’re pretty well guaranteed a monkey. But c’mon… All-In? Wall Street 2?  Rounders???  Tell me there isn’t a running joke between screenwriters to work a monkey into their scripts.  There’s gotta be, right?  Am I alone on this?

Oh!  Here’s some cool news… next weekend I’m going to be inducting Katrina Morgan into the athletic Hall of Fame at Embry-Riddle University.  Katmo played for me from 2003-2006 and excelled in pretty much everything on and off the soccer field.  I’ll tell you more about her after the ceremony.

I’m going to close up shop with a story that came my way via Mike Melton, an assistant coach at Ole Miss and also the head coach of a boys high school team in Oxford, MS.  It’s the only story I’ll ever need to feel good about the time I spent to write that book and I want to share it for no other reason than it makes me feel good.

I hired Mike as a student-assistant in the spring of 2009. The staff that replaced us kept him on, elevated his responsibilities and now Mike is building up one heckuva coaching resume.  Anyway, Mike ordered copies of Soccer iQ for all the guys on his high school varsity team.  Here’s the story as Mike tells it:

I am an assistant coach for an NCAA Division I women’s program and also coach a boys’ high school team during the winter. I bought and read Soccer iQ toward the end of the college season and decided it would be a good idea to get our high school booster club to buy copies for the varsity team. I gave them copies just before the Christmas break, assigned them to read the entire book, and told them there would be a quiz when we reconvened.  Based on the quizzes I know that almost all of my players did their homework, and based on what they’ve said, they enjoyed the reading and got a lot out of it.
As our season winds down, here are my thoughts on this book and how it has affected our team.
For starters, at some point during the season, we’ve dealt with every one of the chapters. Whether it was the impossible pass or throw-ins or the toe poke, at some point or another each chapter was applicable to my team. The material in this book is very relevant and it’s presented in a simple and direct way that makes it easy to remember.
My core group of players really gained a lot out of it. I can see how the things they picked up from reading are being applied during our practices and games, which is really cool to see. But my favorite story is this one:
A few days ago we were heavy underdogs in our district final game.  We were playing a much more talented team from a much bigger school, but we went up 2-0 on them by the middle of the first half. Shortly after our second goal, a player of mine was sent off, so we would have to play the rest of the game 10 v 11.  At half-time we still led, but the score was now 2-1.
As I was trailing the players over to the spot on the field where we were going to have our halftime talk, I was trying to sort out the thoughts in my head as to what I would say to them.  But then a bunch of them started saying, “Chapter 51, right, Coach? Chapter 51!”  At first I had no idea what they were talking about and then one of them said, “The chapter about clock management.” Then I realized they were talking about Soccer iQ.
My boys are not savvy soccer players.  We don’t live in a soccer area and I doubt this town has produced a single college soccer player.  Most of the guys on my team only play 3 months a year and I doubt any of them have ever watched a game of soccer on TV. But they had done their homework and they had remembered what they read and they went out and killed off the second half better than any high school or college team I’ve ever seen.  It was almost surreal to watch how they milked seconds off of every single restart like they had been doing it their whole lives. They applied all of the strategies in that chapter and held on for a 2-1 win and a district championship. It’s really crazy to think that one chapter (three pages) of a book had such a dramatic effect on the outcome of a playoff game.

So there you go.  I’ve done some good in this world. Pretty cool.

Have a great day!




updated: 4 years ago

Dogs and Cats

Dogs and Cats
Well look who’s been slacking again. Same ol’ story. Yeah, yeah, YAWN. You know, I’m not even sure if I should say this out loud, but the blog has been MIA for so long I doubt anyone checks in these days, so I’m gonna take my chances and confess: The worst thing that happened to me as a writer was publishing that book.

I once heard a story about dog racing that stuck with me; if any of those greyhounds ever catch the electronic rabbit (let’s say the rabbit malfunctions), those dogs can never race again. Achieving their ultimate goal ruins them for racing. It saps their spirit for the chase. I think that same logic can be applied to simple human nature. And it can sure as heck be applied to me.  Somewhere along the line I decided my life would be incomplete (and ultimately a failure) if I never actually saw my name on the cover of a book. So back in June I was sitting at my computer. Soccer iQ had been written and edited and re-edited and re-edited and re-edited; the cover had gone through change after change after change; all that was left was to click the Submit button on my computer and it was a done deal – my book would actually become... a book. I sat there staring at that button for ten, fifteen and twenty minutes, trying to remember any detail that may have slipped through the cracks. I had this overwhelming sense that clicking that button was going to change my life. Like a poker player who is all-in for his tournament life, I pushed back from the table and wandered the room, sweating out the unknown. Finally I made my way back to my desk, clicked ‘Submit,’ and PRESTO!, I was officially an author. I felt no sense of celebration, only relief.

The repercussion was immediate. I had scratched a real big one off the bucket list – the big one as a matter of fact. The weight of the world was off me. Not two minutes after I had made that click, I walked into the living room and told Beth that I didn’t feel like writing any more, like ever. It was the strangest thing and I couldn’t rightly explain it. It would be like a chain smoker waking up one morning and knowing that he’d never want another cigarette. It wasn’t that I wanted to be done, because to be honest, I genuinely enjoy writing; it was more like I had run out of words and it was time to move onto other things.

I forced out a few blog entries during the fall, but to be fair, my heart wasn’t really in it. I was writing because I felt a responsibility to keep the Poet active. Beyond that, it was nothing I enjoyed. But now that Soccer iQ is pretty well self-sustaining and there’s a lull in the soccer year, I figured I’d give it another go.  So… let’s do some catching up.

Ok.  From the category of things that caught my attention…

On the short list of people who should not be allowed near a microphone: X Factor co-host Khloe Kardashian.  There’s a lot in this world I don’t understand, but there is nothing I find more puzzling than this particular staffing decision. I mean the bottom line is that someone somewhere thought this was a good idea.  I don’t want to know who; I just want to know how. HOW???  If I can grow to understand this, I’m certain that String Theory won’t be lost on me.

Speaking of people on microphones… I hope you tuned in to hear Kevin Copp’s call of the SEC Tournament final between Florida and Auburn. It was the first time I listened to KC call a game between neutral parties and on my honor, it was the very best broadcast I’ve heard of any college soccer game EVER. I mean it’s not even close. There are two qualities a soccer broadcaster needs: a knowledge of the sport and a mastery of the English language.  Most of the current broadcasters lack at least one of them. If I was in charge of the legion of college soccer broadcasters, I’d make every one of them listen to Kevin’s call of that game. Flying completely solo, Kevin so outdistanced the competition in both style and substance that it’s either a miracle or a crime that ESPN hasn’t yet whisked him away. Yet. But trust me, it’s only a matter of time before we’re proudly saying, “I knew him when.”

In other news, you may have heard that we re-elected our president. I used to be pretty into the political process, but social media (and pretty much every other media) has ruined it for me. The daily bile splattered all over Facebook by my more politically passionate friends from both sides of the aisle just sucked the fun out of it for me. Every day I’d hop on Facebook and it seemed that every second post was some zealot proclaiming why his guy was a savior and the other guy was an idiot and that anyone who thought of voting for the other guy was an idiot by association and how the world was going to hell in a hand-basket if the other guy won.  It just doesn’t make sense to me. Has anyone ever actually persuaded an opponent to switch sides by insulting the things he cares about?  The whole debacle reminded me of an argument from my childhood.

In third grade my best friend was my next door neighbor, Steven. Steven’s family was a cat family and there were always three or four of them roaming around their house.  But the Blanks, we were a proud dog family. I didn’t hate cats; I just didn’t really see the point of them.  They seemed kind of boring. I’d never enjoy cats nearly as much as I enjoyed dogs.  And I LOVED my dogs. Well one day when we’re at his house, Steven’s older brother Anthony, who rarely socialized with us, started berating me about why cats were so much better than dogs. He said that cats were more intelligent with better hygiene (they still eat rats, right?) and on and on and on. Basically he was telling me why dogs were a stupid pet. It was strange because I remember thinking that Anthony was actually prepared for that argument, like he had actually done research somewhere along the line.  At the end of that debate, it was clear that Anthony had kicked my tail. His argument was perfectly rational and based on analytical facts. Mine was based purely on emotion: I loved my dogs more than I could ever love a cat.  And you know what, when I left their house, I still liked dogs better than I liked cats. As a matter of fact, I liked dogs even more than before that argument began. And that has never changed. But from that day forward I can assure you of one thing… I liked cats a heckuva lot more than I liked Anthony.

As I mentioned in the last entry, we bought a new house in August, on the first day of preseason no less, so a lot of projects had to wait until the end of the soccer season.  Now that soccer is finished, I’ve thrown myself into the rise of Casa Blank II. There are a lot of benefits to home ownership, but if you’re a guy, the only part that really matters is the chance to put holes in the walls, just because they’re yours, and just because you can. So I’ve  been making holes in walls like a team of Navy SEALS. I’ve been a hole-drillin’ machine and I’m only a few minor projects and some Christmas lights away from feeling any sense of home improvement urgency. Then it’s feet up time.

When Beth and Izzy first moved to Athens, we were living in a rental house, which really limits a kid’s chance to be a kid. Izzy showed remarkable restraint when it came to preserving the rental’s walls, but I hated that she had to stuff her closet full of things that were meant to be hung. Plus, in as much as it was a house, it would never be our home. So I set a goal of buying a house before this calendar year was out.  

There was one other major restriction of renting – no pets.  And Izzy shares her dad’s affinity for dogs. The kid is flat-out dog crazy!  She wanted puppies a heckuva lot more than she wanted to hang that Justin Beiber poster, so that had me even more motivated to become a homeowner. As soon as Izzy knew we were buying a house, the first question she asked was, “When can we get a dog?” It was a question I heard every day.  And every day I promised her at the end of the soccer season we would get a dog. Turns out I lied a little bit. Somehow we got two of them – puppies actually – Rio (a name Izzy thought up) and Utley (my selection, in homage to the Phillies’ second baseman). The pups are awesome and super sweet and Izzy is one very happy little girl and as far as I’m concerned, that’s how every story should end.

The Monkey of the Day continues to amaze me, particularly with regards to its prevalence in pretty much every movie I watch. Have you seen the movie Hunger, about Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in a Belfast prison for the IRA in 1981? Well I watched it last night and let me tell you, it’s no Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It’s a pretty dark movie about some pretty dark times. The movie’s signature scene is a lengthy conversation between Bobby Sands and the prison priest. It’s a tense and moving scene, and it would be the last place you’d ever suspect to find a monkey reference, but sure enough, there it was. I consider it a victory for monkeys everywhere.

Sports Illustrated’s most recent Tweet of the Week: “So Notre Dame (football) and Indiana (basketball) are both No. 1. What time does the Cosby show come on?” Well, further evidence that we’re revisiting the 1980s could be found in college soccer where Indiana (men) and UNC (women) both added another national title to their trophy cases. I watched the UNC victory and couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like to be up by three stinkin’ goals in a national final with 20 minutes left to play!  On a soccer coach’s stress meter, that’s the equivalent of lying on a beach in Fiji with an umbrella drink in your hand.  But to be fair to the Heels, the sunshine score-line didn’t come gift-wrapped for them.  They went out and earned every bit of it through talent, speed and a disproportionately heavy dose of good old-fashioned hard work.  UNC can still grind away at you like nobody else. ‘Relentless’ is a word that commonly collides in the same sentences as ‘UNC soccer,’ and the title game made it easy to see why. The Heels came at Penn State in one merciless wave after another, summarily drowning their opponent and then refusing to let the corpse surface. Anson couldn’t have dreamt it any better.

My favorite moment, the moment that is a microcosm of that relentless mentality, came with just over 8 minutes left and the Heels enjoying an insurmountable three-goal cushion.  Kealia Ohai, one of UNC’s all-world talents, sprinted to chase down a Penn State player who then quickly pushed a fifteen yard pass up the sideline to a teammate.  Without breaking stride, Ohai at full gallop chased down that player too, resulting in the Tar Heel trademark: the forced turnover. I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate what a remarkable departure Ohai’s effort is from the comfort zone of human nature. This kid, fresh off a U20 World Cup championship (where incidentally, she scored the tournament-winning goal) and 8 minutes away from a national one, wasn’t willing to let the scoreboard dictate her effort. No one would have blamed Ohai for checking out right then.  Her work was done and her legacy cemented. Her ring was ready for sizing.  But instead of making plans about the post-game celebration and mailing in the effort, Ohai chased back another fifteen yards at a full sprint to pressure an opponent at midfield for no other reason than it was the way things are done. Getting some players just to chase is challenging enough. But getting players to commit to that relentless mentality of never taking their foot off the gas is one of the toughest obstacles in coaching because you are running headlong into a battle of wills against human nature, and no coach has won that battle with more consistency than Anson Dorrance. It’s no wonder the man has more rings than digits, and more rings than ACC losses. In both of those events the score is 21-20.

Congratulations to #9, Katrina Morgan, on her selection into the Embry-Riddle Athletic Hall of Fame! Speaking of people who don’t know how to give anything less than their very best, Katmo is at the front of that line.

I may post another entry before Christmas, but I may not. I’m unpredictable like that. If not, Merry Christmas everyone!
soccerpoet 616

updated: 4 years ago

One Point and Nine and a Half Months

One Point and Nine and a Half Months
"I promise you one thing. A lot of good will come out of this. You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season. You will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season. You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season."
  • Tim Tebow

Let me begin by correcting any misguided assumptions about the hiatus of this blog. You’ve probably noticed that its absence coincided with a particularly dreadful season of college soccer for the Georgia Bulldogs. Let me state most emphatically that our woes as a soccer program had nothing to do with this blog’s sudden disappearance. The fact of the matter is that on August 2nd, Beth, Izzy and I bought and moved into our new house. And to make a long story short, we apparently moved into the only house in the United States that couldn’t get internet. Knowing that we would eventually catch up with the rest of the free world, I did in fact write some blog entries during the early part of our season, but eventually I gave up hope that our internet provider would arrive sooner rather than later and didn’t see the point of spending a few hours each week to write blogs that would be painfully outdated before seeing the light of day. So I stopped. Because I had no internet. That’s why. No other reason.

The move to an internet-less household also coincided nicely with the launch of Soccer iQ and I think it’s safe to say that I am the proud owner of the world’s worst marketing program ever. Here’s an idea... let’s spend two years writing a book, then publish it, and then have no access to the internet. Freaking genius! Well, despite my best efforts to keep the book from selling, Soccer iQ has managed to slowly and steadily sell, and more importantly, satisfy those who buy it. So I got that goin’ for me.

Anyway, back to the autumn of my discontent...

On the morning of Saturday, October 27th, I went into the office for no truly justifiable reason. Our season ended two nights earlier so there was no soccer to occupy my time. There were no emails to write or calls to make. There was nothing the least bit urgent there.  All I really could do was straighten up the papers on my desk and throw away some old scouting reports and hang up some shirts in our coaches’ dressing room. Just housekeeping really. It could’ve waited until Monday or Tuesday or December. I don’t really know why I went there or why I stayed there for nearly three hours other than that office is where I was supposed to be. I kept asking myself, “Why are you here.”

This is where you’re supposed to be.

A friend of mine had a father who passed away. For weeks after, every day at 5 o’clock, the family dog would sit by the door, wagging his tail, waiting for my friend’s dad to come home from work. I think I kinda felt like that dog.

I don’t know why, but out of nowhere, Tim Tebow popped into my head. So I got on Youtube and watched the speech he gave after Florida had fallen to Ole Miss in 2008.  Then I watched it again.  And again.

Look, I know I’m a Georgia Bulldog and that I’m supposed to hate all things UF, but there’s just something so genuine and so compelling in Tebow’s speech, and not just in what he says, but also in what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t offer excuses. He doesn’t blame his teammates. He just digs in and says count on me; I’m going to fix this. And I love that he says ‘I’ instead of ‘we.’

  • ...as hard as I will play
  • ... as hard as I will push

He doesn’t get to ‘we’ until the last sentence. Why? Because he’s the leader and he knows that no one is going to jump off that cliff unless he does it first. He is saying that what has happened here is unacceptable and that he’s going to fix it or die trying. Which is exactly what he did. And that my friends, is a dude standing up.

Izzy loves to draw and she’s pretty good at it and sometimes if she messes up her drawing she’ll get really upset and frustrated because she has to start all over again. And I get that and I love that tinge of perfectionism inside of her. But the thing is, all she has to do is crumble up one piece of paper and start again, right then and there.  We don’t have that luxury.

The Georgia Bulldogs failed to qualify for Orange Beach. I must’ve said that to myself a few thousand times in the past five days. It’s hard to imagine that’s even possible. But sure enough, here we are in Athens, GA while the SEC Tournament has kicked off. We are the Georgia Bulldogs who didn’t make the postseason. We’re that team. And what makes this crappy feeling ever crappier is that unlike Izzy who can just start drawing on a new piece of paper, we have to wait nine and a half months before we get a chance to fix it. And yes, that’s two weeks longer than a full-term pregnancy.

It’s not even Halloween and our season is over. In 27 years of college soccer, I’ve never said that.

We were one point away from making Orange Beach. One bloody point. And the cost of that one point is a nine and a half month wait. Nine and half months to think about the grandness of our failure. Nine and a half months before we can even begin the process of proving that this season was some type of anomaly.  We have nine and half months to sit here wearing the label of being THAT team.

For years and years I’ve said that the game is just and that it rewards those who deserve it, and even in this most trying season, I still believe that. Yes we had some problems with injuries and there were some calls that could’ve gone our way, but in the end, we just didn’t do our jobs. We didn’t find a way to put the ball in their net and keep it out of ours. Even when we dominated territorially, we couldn’t produce the results (I said the game is just; not charitable.) We had enough chances to win, more than enough chances to find that one point, and until we stand up and own this colossal failure and unless each member of this program genuinely accepts his/her responsibility in contributing to it, we are going nowhere.

So I am starting with me. On Saturday night I told my wife that she’s going to see even less of me. I’m going to do whatever I can do, whatever I have to do, whenever I can do it to make sure this does not happen again. I am going to work as hard as I can work for as long as I can work because the current situation is unacceptable and I believe that I can do something about it.

I'm sorry to everyone who expected more from us. Best of luck to those SEC teams still playing soccer in 2012.


updated: 5 years ago

The Hummingbird

The Hummingbird

Today’s been kind of exciting. To summarize, Izzy scored a goal this morning and then sucked down a dozen steamed clams at dinner. So she’s just like me. Except for the part about scoring a goal.

Okay, it wasn’t Izzy’s first goal – she scored one while I was driving to Daytona a couple weeks back, but this is the first time that I got to see her score so that’s milestone territory as far as I’m concerned. And to be fair, she needed to score that fourth-quarter goal because my head was about to pop off from the first three quarters of what can only be described as a soccer tragedy.

I won’t coach youth soccer, mainly because I’m on the road too much. But even if schedule conflicts weren’t an issue, I still wouldn’t. Like a long list of other college coaches, I won’t coach youth soccer because of an acute aversion to parents who think that they were genetically blessed with more soccer knowledge than it took me 36 years to accumulate from playing, coaching and watching the game. Yeah, yeah – I know that most parents are great/wonderful/fantastic and they make the soccer world spin round. I completely agree. Thank God for them! But it only takes one whacko to ruin your week and I’ve been doing this for way too long to have someone who has never kicked a ball to tell me that our 8-year olds need to spend more time working on goal kicks/throw-ins/penalties. Oh don’t act like that doesn’t happen. So when it comes to Saturdays at the rec fields, I cast my lot as a soccer parent and not a soccer coach.

When it became clear that Izzy was going to join a soccer team, I thought about the type of soccer parent I would be. I figured I would just be the laid back guy, sippin’ coffee in my collapsible chair and not caring a thing about the result. I really don’t care how many games we win, I told myself. As long as Izzy has enough fun to want to come back the next time. That’s the parent I wanted to be. And to be fair, I still don’t care about the number of games we win – which is remarkably convenient since that number might not breach two. So it’s not so much that we’re losing; but it’s the COLOSSAL fashion by which we’re losing that has me slightly bent.

So today I sat in my collapsible chair, sippin’ my coffee, biting a hole in my lip and stewing in a pot of spring discontent as I watched the opponent run over us like a John Deere through a field of dandelions. The kid who missed practice was absolutely killin’ us, which was driving me mental on principle. Maybe if you came to practice you would know not to throw the ball across the face of our own goal. We have another kid who, every single time the ball rolls within leg’s reach of her, she reflexively toes it whichever way she’s facing. She never attempts to take a touch to control it. NEVER. It’s like watching whack-a-mole. She treats the ball like it’s a mouse attacking her feet and she simply repels it as quickly as possible. If the ball gets near her, it’s a one-touch toe banger. She has no concept of direction. Her navigational instincts are nonexistent. If she’s facing the sideline and the ball rolls between her and the sideline, she’s gonna toe it over the sideline. If she’s facing the endline, she’s toeing over the endline. If she’s facing our own goal, she’s toeing the ball at our own goal. For the life of me I can’t see how this kid gets any enjoyment out of the game whatsoever. She could have the same experience stepping on bugs.

But I could have tolerated all that if not for my own daughter whose enigmatic performance might best be entitled The Flight of the Hummingbird. Izzy was constantly near the ball. Near it. The problem was her lack of effort to actually engage it, as if the ball was surrounded by an invisible force field. A kid on the other team would get the ball and start to dribble and Izzy would run beside her, just hovering like a hummingbird at its feeder, never actually making any effort to you know, take the ball. She was basically a shadow. Or a really oversized Tinkerbell. And that’s the problem with having a genuinely sweet kid. She’ll fight like mad when she’s wrestling me on the living room floor, but when she’s on the soccer field against other girls? Yeah. Notsomuch. She just wanted to float around the field in her shiny uniform and do her best not to bother anyone. Meanwhile I’m sitting there asking myself why we’re even out here. Little did I know…

I didn’t think it was possible, but Beth managed to exacerbate my migraine when, as our team was setting up to take a goal kick, she aimed her camera at the field and then shouted to get Izzy’s attention. Here’s the thing about Izzy - she LOVES being in front of a camera like no three other people I’ve ever met. So of course she turned around, saw the camera, then smiled big and bright in the middle of the field so Mommy could take her picture. Just freaking fabulous.

Izzy is just like Beth and Beth is one of those truly sweet people who aren’t from New Jersey. When it comes to competition, she can take it or leave it. Maybe that makes her more evolved than me and if that’s the case, then great; I can live with being the knuckle-walker. But for Pete’s sake, you don’t ask your kid to pose during the middle of a game so you can take her picture! I mean even at the U-8 level there are still some modicums of competitive etiquette that absolutely must be observed. This whole thing had become one giant fiasco. I couldn’t sit idly by any more. I had to act.

So after the third quarter I pulled Izzy aside and told her that she needed to start actually trying to take the ball away from the players on the other team instead of chaperoning them to our goal. I didn’t yell. Didn’t raise my voice. Just explained my point as calmly as could be.

When you give an eight-year old advice, it’s pretty much a coin flip whether or not the point will hit its mark. But to my delighted surprise, Izzy played the fourth quarter with a degree of determination that could actually be termed as aggression. In the first 30 seconds she knocked a kid off the ball at midfield and dribbled in all by herself to score on an empty net (In 4v4 there are no goalkeepers). That goal sparked a huge fourth quarter rally where I think we scored six to their two, but I really have no idea. I couldn’t tell you the final score but I’m guessing we probably lost something like 9-8. But like I said, I really don’t care about the result. I was ambivalent to the score but I was ecstatic about Izzy’s fourth quarter revelation, so as soon as the game ended and she went through the handshake line, I called her back over to the sideline. I needed to give her some positive reinforcement. I wanted the revelation to stick.

“Izzy, that was awesome,” I said. “You did so much better!”

This was a HUGE moment! My kid was discovering the miracle of physical aggression! She was on the fast track to being an impact player on this team. She was actually becoming a competitor!

You know what she said?

soccerpoet 591

“Can I go get my snack now?”

Hmmpf.

Women.

updated: 5 years ago

Funny Game

Funny Game

Funny game, soccer.

That’s a pretty common expression in coaching circles and in short it means that things are not always as they appear, particularly if you’re only looking at the scoreboard. Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Barcelona might lead one to believe that Chelsea was the better team on Wednesday. But a video of that match would be all the evidence a jury would ever need to convict our sport of deceptive practices. Despite overwhelming the hosts in every conceivable aspect of performance (except one), Barca left London as the runner-up. The Catalans were once again clinical in their ability to keep the ball in the opponent’s half of the field. Barcelona spent so much of the game camped in Chelsea’s defensive third you would think they had pair rent to be there. At times there were so many players stuffed into the Chelsea 18 it looked like a clown car. Statistically, the numbers are staggering. Barca had 72% of the possession. The Spaniards completed 782 passes compared to 194 for Chelsea. The shot total was 24-5 in Barcelona’s favor and realistically, Chelsea only had one serious chance to score. And sometimes, like Wednesday, once is enough.

Let’s goof around a bit and apply those statistics to some other sports. Can you imagine an NFL team having 72% in time of possession (43 minutes – almost 3 full quarters) – and losing? Or a baseball team outhitting its opponent 24-5 – and losing? Yes, funny game, soccer.

Some people would say that Chelsea didn’t deserve the result. And they would be wrong. Because the thing about soccer more than any other sport is that on any given day, the better team loses. But I will go to my grave saying that the team that deserves to win almost always does (I say “almost” to allow for the odd piece of reckless officiating that occasionally tips a result.). It doesn’t matter how well you possess the ball, and let’s face it, no one has ever done that as well as Barcelona; soccer games are decided inside the penalty-areas. Finishing matters. Goalkeeping matters. And on the day, Chelsea got the better of both.

Speaking of Barcelona, today Izzy had a soccer game. Okay, maybe that’s not the best segue. Anyway, it was actually more of a mauling than a game. It sorta looked like Snow White versus a velociraptor. Izzy’s team is a group of girls just learning the game. The opponent’s been together for three years. They were far superior in technical ability and athleticism and they came to that field with a job to do. I mean they were just focused and intense and without mercy or remorse. When Izzy’s team tapped off the ball from center (something we did quite a bit of), those girls were literally in three-point stances ready to charge the ball. Their jerseys were maroon so they called themselves “the brick wall.” Once, when one of Izzy’s teammates got control of the ball, I heard one of them scream, “GET HER!” like she was making off with the crown jewels. I was genuinely scared for the kid. I was like Oh God here they come!!!

You know what it looked like? Seriously? Do you remember the very first game in The Bad News Bears where the bears go up against the Yankees? The Yankees score 26 first-inning runs and the Bears coach forfeits without his team ever recording an out. That’s exactly what it looked like. It was 4-0 in the first two-minutes. I lost count but by the end of the first quarter it was 8 or 9. It was an annihilation.

But you gotta love kids. Two minutes after it was over Izzy and her teammates had moved onto other things, namely the post-game snack. She hasn’t mentioned a word about it since.

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Funny kid, Izzy.

updated: 5 years ago

To Play or Not to Play

To Play or Not to Play

A few months back an old high school friend emailed me with a dilemma. US Soccer announced that its Development Academy was moving to a ten-month schedule and that players on these teams wouldn’t be allowed to participate on their high school teams. I am told that my friend’s son is a very good (but not great) player. He might earn a college soccer scholarship, but he’ll never play for the national team. He’s not sure if playing academy soccer is worth missing out on the high school experience. My friend asked for my opinion, and here’s my response.

Ahhhhh yes... to play or not play high school soccer? The million dollar question with no right answer. I've had a couple dozen parents ask me this one over the years and my simple answer was always, if she wants to play, then let her play.

I've never bought into the idea that high school soccer stymies development for the simple reason that it is one more soccer environment. People used to say (and I'm sure some still do) that indoor soccer was bad for development and as far as I'm concerned, that was a load of crap. Indoor soccer is phenomenal for technical development because it limits the impact of physical tools such as speed and size and slide tackling. It constantly makes players solve problems on the ball in tight spaces, and the only way to do that is with technique.

Here's my view of high school soccer as it applies to advanced players: yes, the level of play is going to be lower, but I think there is a value to that if you approach it properly. The best way I can translate it is to explain my approach to training the college kids in the spring. Keep in mind that I am speaking only for myself and not every college coach will agree with me. In the fall, we focus on building the team. It's as much about tactics as it is about technical development. We can't afford mistakes in the fall so we're always searching for perfection and that limits the opportunities for players to experiment and develop technically.

But in the spring, it's all about technical development. In the spring we want our players to experiment; we want them to make mistakes - thousands of them - because that's the only way a player expands her technical skill set. It's trial and error for a long, long time until eventually the player develops a mastery of a new technique to the point where she is willing to use it in a match. In the spring we want our players putting more tools in their toolbox. That won't happen if they don't feel the freedom to make mistakes. And that's a freedom they don't enjoy during the fall when results actually matter. I hope this is making sense.

So for an advanced player, I see high school soccer as a great chance to experiment and gain confidence with new techniques. The stuff a player may be afraid to attempt against high level players... against players who aren't so developed, he will have a great lab for experimentation. (Think of a Yankees pitcher going down to 'A' ball to work on his slider).

This belief that immersing players in the highest possible level at all times is not exactly bulletproof. Just look at Freddie Adu who was thrown into the MLS at age 14. Ask US Soccer how that one worked out. I think dialing down the competitive arena every now and then is actually better in the long run.

Anyway, that is my philosophical soccer argument. Here is my personal one:

I loved playing high school soccer and it was a big part of my life and it helped me make a lot of great friends like yourself and Nello and Weasel and Murph and on and on. I really can't imagine what would fill that hole if I went back in time and lived life without soccer at Hun. You know, I barely remember the games, but I remember how great it felt going out to the field with you guys and how much I loved getting ready for preseason and how much I loved the stupid stuff we did on van rides. It was also pretty cool because it provided a small degree of celebrity and gave me an identity in an environment where I really didn't otherwise belong. Plus, I was proud to represent my school and I had an amazing time doing it.

The problem with US Soccer (the federation) is that everything they put in place is designed to win World Cups. Your boy's social development is not a consideration. It's all about identifying the 30 or so players (out of a few million) who have a chance of comprising the best national team a few years down the road. Honestly, I think it's way out of line for clubs to keep kids from playing for their schools and I'd love to see someone get a lawyer and take the issue to court. But that's just me.

The problem is, if your kid has to make a choice, I really can't tell him what choice to make.

I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this. Could make a good article for publication. Plus, I'd just be interested at learning the sides of it I'm not even considering.

Cheers pal.

Dan

Now… this is the part that I left out.

Do you know why our country of 311 million hasn’t put together a legitimate contender to win a World Cup? Because soccer’s not our thing. I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, but soccer is just not our culture. Sure, it’s a hobby to many and a passion to some, but it’s not the measuring stick of our national worth. It’s not the genesis of celebrity. Soccer players aren’t stars in this country. They might be stars to soccer people, but unless you follow MLS, those guys are pretty unrecognizable. They are the athletes that can actually fly coach because it won’t cause a disruption. In the rest of the world, soccer is not just the passion of soccer people; it’s the passion of the nation. And it consumes them!

The typical US soccer experience is to train twice a week with your club and then play a game or two on the weekends. In between those events you have Facebook and Twitter and American Idol and PlayStation and baseball and basketball and wiffle ball and more internet and on and on and on. And to be fair, I don’t think that sampling from a larger menu is such a horrible existence. Variety is good. But it’s not how you win World Cups.

We dabble in soccer. The rest of the world specializes in it. Where we dip our toes, they are submerged. They play it. They watch it. And they emulate those who play it when they are done watching it. Even the people who aren’t any good at it still follow it. And not just every four years.

We drag our kids to club practice. In other countries the soccer club is the social center. The kids ride their bikes there and they train four times a week (notice a problem already?) and play games on the weekend. On the nights they don’t train, they may pedal to the club just to hang out, maybe even watch the senior team train. They all aspire to one day play for their club’s flagship team – the one where the players get paid. And many dream of playing on the much bigger stages of the EPL or Serie A or LaLiga. Soccer is legitimately a passion. You think your kid has a true passion for soccer? Here’s a great way to find out. Next week, aside from the time he spends with his team, clock how many hours he spends with the soccer ball. Yes, your son may LOVE playing soccer. But does he love it enough to train on his own? Because let me tell you, if he does, he’s in the vast minority. And I guarantee you that his clone in England, Italy, Denmark, Japan, Argentina and Uzbekistan certainly will be training outside of training. Why? Because it is more fun than anything else he can imagine. It’s actually more fun than Facebook! The culture of his country has taught him that.

Have you ever driven through England – outside of the big city centers? Everywhere there is a patch of grass you’ll see kids playing pick-up soccer. They’ll throw down some shirts to make goals and then they’ll play. I can’t even tell you the last time I saw American kids playing soccer without a coach there to set out cones. It’s as if without coaches there is no soccer.

Americans are great at playing pick-up basketball! Anywhere there’s a court you’ll see at least a few guys out there. But basketball courts lend themselves to pick-up games. For starters, if you shoot and miss, you don’t have to chase the ball sixty yards. If you’re playing soccer by yourself, even if you shoot and score, you still have to chase the ball and dig it out of the net. Do you know fast that gets old? And really, isn’t shooting so much more fun if you have a goalkeeper with you? But they’re just not that easy to come by. Basketball is so much easier. You shoot… and as if by magic… the ball comes back to you. One person with one ball is enough to play and enjoy yourself for long periods of time.

A few years ago Steve showed me an article from some soccer publication (can’t remember which) where a coach was pondering the nagging question of why America trails the world in soccer. He said something to the affect that all three-year olds looks the same the first time they kick a soccer ball, whether the kid is American, Brazilian, German or Chinese. And that’s probably true. A short time later I took an international trip and observed a soccer club that was training a bunch of different age groups in its indoor facility, including its U-6 team. Now I don’t know what it looks like for three-year olds, but I can tell you that it looks a helluva lot different by the time they turn five. These toddlers were light-years ahead of any five-year old I’ve seen in our country.

In the U.S., we have to entertain our players or they quickly lose interest and their effort declines proportionally. But these kids… their approach to the monotony of technical repetitions was dwarfed by a passion for achieving perfection. I watched this team go through a “follow your pass” exercise around the outside of a 20x20 yard grid for 20 minutes (I timed it). The exercise never varied except to occasionally change the direction of the passing from clockwise to counter-clockwise. This is the definition of soccer monotony and these kids absolutely attacked it! Their passes were technically pure. They could all receive a ball and actually prep it. And most shocking of all… after each pass, without encouragement or commands, without pleading from the coach, the player who passed the ball burst into an all-out sprint. Every. Single. Time. For 20 minutes! Izzy’s on a soccer team now and she gets bored after five minutes of “Protect Your Pet.” And let me tell you something, Protect Your Pet is a whole lot more entertaining than Follow Your Pass. It’s a little bit of a nonstarter though because no one on Izzy’s team can actually pass a ball anyway. I don’t think any one of them could move a ball twenty yards without kicking it at least four times.

Later that night I watched this team break into an intra-squad scrimmage of 5v5 + Ks and I saw the most incredible thing… they PASSED THE BALL! On purpose! To their teammates! Sometimes they even passed backwards! I saw one player DUMMY the ball into the path of his teammate and it was absolutely the right choice. The kid was FIVE!!!

If this doesn’t sound extraordinary to you on almost an interplanetary level, then you’ve obviously never had the pleasure of working with five, six, seven and eight-year old American players who follow the ball around the field in one amorphous blob, who don’t even realize when the ball has gone out of bounds, who only pass if… NO, who NEVER pass, and who would never even consider the concept of dummying the ball.

But these kids... they played 5v5 and they had shape. Good shape. Good TEAM shape. It was youth soccer that actually looked like soccer. They could actually trap a ball – with their feet. Not once did I see the flying double shin trap – a fixture in American soccer even at the high school level. I watched the goalkeeper catch and then quickly bowl the ball to his teammate. And he did this without first backpedaling to the center of his goal-line, another signature move of the young American goalkeeper.

When the keeper got the ball, his teammates quickly spread out to stretch the field. This is an interesting contrast to the American style which dictates that when a six-year old goalkeeper picks up the ball, four of his teammates try prying the ball from his arms, tell him he stinks, and then ask if they can be the goalie.

This experience scared me. These kids were so far ahead of our kids that it’s actually impossible to convey. I was in total disbelief. It was like seeing a UFO. And this was not Brazil where an argument might be made that kids are actually born with a soccer-friendly gene. These were not Germans who I could imagine marching in columns into a facility of soccer excellence. This wasn’t England, Italy, Holland or Spain. This was… wait for it… Iceland! Yes! Iceland for Pete’s sake! And nothing against Iceland because it is a beautiful country full of wonderful people, but let’s face it, the population is 317,000 and half the year is spent in darkness. Atlanta has bigger suburbs! But if you took any American team of five, six, seven or eight-year olds and put them against these Vikings, the score would be laughable. Everything would be laughable. At that age the two nations are playing a different sport. So you see, the fork in the road of our soccer cultures begins before high school… before middle school… and quite possibly before the first grade.

If the U.S. is to catch the rest of the world, it will surely be from a combination of our sheer numbers and some sheer good fortune. Every time I travel internationally I am reminded that our hobby is their heartbeat. Will locking kids out of high school soccer change that?

Honestly, I just don’t know.

updated: 5 years ago

The Big Sigh

The Big Sigh

My best friend, Scott Arnold, recently told me that I was the second-most nostalgic person he knew, next to his brother. Okay, so I was obviously disturbed about the runner-up finish, but I decided that there was no shame in a silver medal for this particular event.

On Saturday morning I left Athens and headed 400 miles south to Daytona Beach to clear out the last few possessions collecting dust in the garage of a house I hadn’t slept in since 2007. I had to figure out what I wanted to keep, what I could fit into my car, and what I’d have to leave behind. By Sunday night I was all packed up and all that was left was to close my eyes and go to sleep in my old bedroom… One. Last. Time.

On Monday morning I was signing the papers that officially closed the sale of the first house I ever owned, and with it, a chapter of my life. The original Casa Blank was under new ownership.

Okay, the house was no palace. It was more or less a glorified surf shack, a block and a half from the sands of Daytona Beach. But it was sturdy and spacious and all mine. It had hardwood floors and a two-car garage which at various stages doubled as a weight room, darts room and yes, a driving range. Ahhhh, the things you can get away with when you’re single.

The back porch looked out into a tropical backyard with palm, orange, avocado, grapefruit and banana trees. In the six years I lived there, the orange trees never produced a single orange and I did everything but sing to them. On the day I left in 2007, the first orange finally appeared, and it was still way too small and green to even consider eating. Now those trees produce more oranges than an Indian River fruit stand. Naturally. So I helped myself to just one of them, trying to right a cosmic injustice. It was delicious. Of course it was.

Besides the palm trees, the banana trees were my favorites. Not because of the fruit; the squirrels always pilfered the bananas before they were edible. I loved the banana trees for purely aesthetic reasons. With those big long leafs drooping around, they just look so dang tropical. Stepping outside made me feel like a regular Jim Hawkins. So the banana trees and birds-of-paradise and aloe plants were scattered abundantly around the yard in my attempt to recreate Little Havana. Every time I stepped out of my house I wanted to be reminded that I was living at the beach. Of course a cool evening breeze and the sound of the ocean helped out with that.

One of my favorite hobbies was to wake up, make a cup of coffee, go out into the backyard and pick a grapefruit, then sit on the porch enjoying my breakfast with a little Jimmy Buffett playing softly in the background. I couldn’t control what the rest of the day had in store, but I could sure as heck guarantee that it would start in peace. So I spent most mornings on the back porch, most nights on the front, in a hideous wooden rocker known as the thinking chair.

The thinking chair’s frame is so thick and heavy, you would think it was carved for a Viking king. The original cushion had some atrocious orange, white and brown floral pattern that has since been recovered at least twice. But despite its appearance, the thinking chair is the most comfortable thing I’ve ever sat in. And legions of friends/neighbors/visitors would tell you the same. The cushions on that thing had to be nine-inches deep. It was like sitting in a cloud. This past weekend, at least seven different people asked if I was taking it with me. Regretfully, I was not.

That chair and that porch hold a lot of memories. My great friend and former roommate Scott Sappington (co-creator of the garage driving range) proposed to his girlfriend there. They are happily married with two kids and living in the Midwest. I sat in that chair through three hurricanes in 2004 – Charley, Frances and Jeanne – tucked against the wall and enjoying a stogie as the rains poured down and the world blew by. During the extended power outage from Charley, my house became a meeting point for the locals who had refused to evacuate. I met more of my neighbors in those few days than in all the other years combined.

It was so strange walking through that house, as empty and quiet as the day I moved in – just a big, hollow space waiting for someone to make something of it. It was sad to think about all the work that had been put into it, and all the people that had passed through. I took a lot of pride in making that place my own. I can tell you the story behind every screw, every fixture, every coat of paint. I can tell you about my first epic battle to change out a toilet; or when the garage fridge died with freezer full of (previously) frozen bait; or the time a legitimate world-class athlete helped to strip the wallpaper from the kitchen wall. That will always be my first house. It will forever be the place where I spent my thirties. But it’s someone else’s now, and despite my best efforts to prolong it, another chapter of my life has officially closed. Ya know... I really hope they keep that chair.

Second place?

soccerpoet 588

I don’t reckon.

updated: 5 years ago

Bubba

Bubba

First of all, congrats to Jamie Pollock who has been picked up by the Atlanta Beat of WPS!  Nobody has ever worked harder for it.  Anything Jamie gets, Jamie's earned, and we're all real proud of her.

Okay, if you’re a follower of Georgia Bulldog soccer, you may have already read the article about how we poached Chika Ibiam from the UGA women’s club team last spring and convinced her to walk on to the varsity team for the fall. By all means we knew Chika was a long-shot. She didn’t even play club soccer once she got to high school, so no one saw her. So no one recruited her. And sure, she has some fundamental weaknesses. But anyone in our team will tell you that Chika can do some crazy things with a soccer ball. She is definitely not your typical American soccer player. Well the other day during an intra-squad scrimmage Chika got onto the end of a cross, catapulted herself into midair and smacked a ridiculous bicycle kick just under the crossbar for the best goal I’ve ever seen in women’s soccer. The entire session screeched to a halt as players, coaches and trainers tried to digest what they had just seen. It was drastically more entertaining/dramatic/skillful than any goal I ever scored and had it occurred during an actual fall match, it would have been firmly planted as the Top Play on ESPN. It was LUH-jit!

Moving right along…

The latest edition of my high school’s alumni magazine, Hun Today, recently found its way into my mailbox. I spent sixth through twelfth grades at the Hun School of Princeton, a prep school that can at times be as pretentious as its name and I don’t know that anyone will ever be in a hurry to change it. Khakis, Polo shirts and a summer house in the Hamptons are just part of the Hun brand. Naturally I fit right in.

The school only had grades 7-12 until I arrived. I was part of the inaugural class of sixth-graders. There were 18 of us, six of whom stuck it out long enough to graduate Hun seven years later. I mention this only because our half-dozen was recognized at the 1986 graduation as being Hun’s first group of seven-year students, and I was as shocked as anyone to be recognized for anything whatsoever at an academic procession. And although we were merely beneficiaries of circumstance (birth year and a shift in school policy), I took a little bit of pride in being honored for endurance in a fish-out-of-water sort of way.

If you’ve ever seen Dead Poets Society, well then you have a decent idea of what Hun looked like, particularly with the oh-so ironic inclusion of Ethan Hawke (class of ’88), but thankfully we were co-ed and sans uniform. Still the guys wore coats and ties and the girls had a dress code with more pages than my mortgage agreement. The girls’ dress code was an ever-evolving document thanks in large part to my friend Shari Gallin whose keen eye for both loopholes and fashion regularly set off alarm bells with the old school’s old schoolers. It seemed every week Shari would wear some head-turning ensemble and by the following Monday a new paragraph would be added to the dress code. It was a game Shari played against the administration for four years and for four years she managed to stay one step ahead of the law.

I guess all you really need to know about Hun is that one of the sports offered there is crew. When a school has a crew team, you get a pretty good feel for its target demographic – and it’s one that screams, “Quick! Pass the Izod!” But that’s all part of the branding for a school boasting the best and the brightest. And, well… me.

Hun hangs its hat on a superior academic reputation and an impeccable record of placing its alums in top colleges. It is a landing point for the children of serious people: doctors, scientists, engineers, politicians, attorneys and investment bankers who want their offspring to have the best possible everything including a future in the Ivy League. The international student population boasted a contingent of heirs to this throne and that throne in nations scattered throughout the Arabian peninsula. There’s a lot of wealth at Hun, a fact that becomes unmistakably evident if you happen by the student parking lot. But most of all, Hun has a lot of academic pride and that is what draws the brilliant minds that comprise its student-body. Of course Hun also admitted a few kids like me so the athletic teams could be half decent. Or maybe it was some type of state-mandated charity. I really don’t know, but sure enough, there I was.

One of the guys in that inaugural sixth grade class was a testosterone volcano we called Bubba. Bubba and I were friends and I liked him a lot, but we weren’t what you’d call tight. We didn’t socialize outside of school. I never went to Bubba’s house and never met Bubba’s parents, but I always imagined his dad as being that guy constantly driving his son to be the world’s preeminent alpha male. Now I don’t know if it came from his dad or didn’t come from his dad; all I know is that by the time Bubba and I first met, he was about as close as a sixth grader could get to being a Navy SEAL. Bubba wasn’t like any kid I had ever met. For starters, he already had muscles – big ones! And he had that masochistic edge you find in uber-achievers, so he was always testing himself physically and mentally just to see how much pain he could endure. At that age I’d be lucky to do three push-ups and I would dread the entirety of each one of them. Bubba would do push-ups in the hallway for fun. He’d do them one-handed if you’d ask. Then he’d back up against a wall and do them out of a hand-stand position. One night he saw a news segment on how Herschel Walker trained. The next day Bubba was running across the field dragging a tire that was tied to a rope that was tied around his waist. While me and the other yahoos were consumed by how we could sneak a frog into Linda Steiner’s purse, Bubba wanted to be the biggest, baddest and toughest man in the world. He was a real nice guy and got along with everyone, but he wasn’t a part of the cool crowd… or any other crowd for that matter. Bubba just did his own thing, chasing his own standard of physical and mental excellence and knocking heads each day on the football field.

The last time I had any contact with Bubba was the day we graduated high school. I knew he went to college not too far from me and I had heard he joined the marines. That wouldn’t really surprise anyone who knew him. Bubba going to the marines is the definition of type-casting. But over the past couple of decades, every once in a while I’d wonder what ever happened to that guy. A few months ago I googled him and only found one brief mention. It listed him as a marine corps colonel. That was it. No picture. No resume. Just his name and rank. I don’t think colonels are all that anonymous. I don’t think you rise to that rank without getting a few newspaper mentions here and there. The fact that there was just a single forgettable listing made me wonder if someone somewhere forgot to shred a document. I figured Bubba had become a ghost – one of those truly elite soldiers doing missions so secret and so important that he couldn’t really exist, if you know what I mean. And again, there wasn’t anything surprising about that.

So anyway, whenever the alumni magazine comes out I immediately flip through the Class Notes to see what everyone is up to. And I really don’t know why because after a few minutes I’m always left feeling like an abject failure by comparison. In my eyes Hun Today may as well be called Inferiority Complex for Dummies. Been that way for 20 years. I read it, have a succession of moments of awe and envy, and then wonder what the heck happened to me. As I did to our class grade-point average in the eighties, I spent the next two and a half decades killing our median income (wish they had a curve for that one).

I often wanted to submit a class note, just to let people know how to reach me should the mood strike. But when my classmates were founding investment firms and sailing for the America’s Cup, I wasn’t too enthused to announce, “I am living in squalor in Wheeling, WV, enjoying a plate of fish sticks.”

As you might expect, apples don’t fall far from their trees. Overachievers are prone to beget overachievers and Hun was, is and will forever be rampant with them. The Class Notes section is rife with terms like CEO, CFO, Founding Partner and intergalactic overlord. While I’m coaching soccer, my former classmates are curing diseases, producing Broadway plays, touring with Def Leppard, discovering new species of monkeys and inventing technologies that will forever change humankind. And it’s not just the braniacs who excel. Even the athletes are dwarfing me. Take for example, Stevenson Garrison, who last summer made his Major League debut with the New York Yankees. Not to be outdone by a major-leaguer, Jason Read carried the U.S. flag at the opening ceremony of the Pan Am games. It was Jason’s 13thconsecutive year competing for Team USA in… you guessed it… crew. It seems like everyone who went to Hun has conquered some corner of the universe or been anointed a founding father of some amazing new technology. The master plan of their parents and their Alma Mater has been realized. Everyone can breathe a little easier.

When you achieve a certain degree of success, it’s natural to want to share it, and Hun Today provides the perfect platform for successful people to trumpet their stranglehold on the American dream. It can make you feel very ordinary by comparison. It can make you lose sight of how good you really do have it. And then you read a note from a guy named Bubba who hasn’t said “boo” in 25 years. It was just this morning when I read my alumni magazine, but Bubba’s class note is the only one I can remember:

“Gone to fight the Taliban. I’ll be back when the war is over.”

Stay low my friend. God speed.

updated: 5 years ago

No Bananas On The Boat!

No Bananas On The Boat

I met my new accountant today. He stopped by the office this afternoon and on my honor I’m almost positive he was looking for a hidden camera. After ten minutes with me he had to be wondering how he managed to find yet another yahoo who never took an accounting class (and barely passed math). I think he’s categorizing me as his good deed for the holiday season. God speed, my friend.

So in other news, I’m pretty sure I’ve discovered the origins of the Monkey of Day. How very Darwin of me, yes?

You want the short answer?

It’s an inside joke.

No, no. I don’t mean it like that. I mean it’s literally an inside joke. It’s someone else’s inside joke and I happened to stumble into the loop by the grace of heightened monkey senses and the pure happenstance of a career spent rolling down highways on charter busses. Shall I go on?

It was probably four months ago when I noticed a monkey reference in each of the three movies I had rented that week. I found the coincidence staggering. This monkey thing was even bigger than I had imagined. I mean what are the odds that I rent three movies and every one of them contains a monkey? All I could do was shake my head in amazement and then say, “See! I told you I was right.”

A short time later our soccer season begins and I’m spending a lot of time on busses with DVD players, watching movies with the team. And sure enough, one after another, monkey, monkey, monkey. Every trip a monkey. Every movie a monkey. And despite it staring me right in the face, I still looked straight past the answer and chose to focus on this monkey-rich, monkey-wonderful world. As we all should.

But eventually as the season wore on and the monkey movies came and went, I could no longer ignore the coincidences. To be honest, I really can’t remember the last movie I watched that was monkey vacant. It was on our way back from Durham when that exact thought crossed my mind. I really can’t remember…

And that’s when I had my A-Ha! moment. And like a movie detective I began flashing back through the assembly line of movie moments and the pieces started coming together. Then I thought, how in the world is it possible to watch three movies on the same bus ride and catch a thoroughly superfluous monkey in each one? Well unless you’re watching a Planet of the Apes trilogy, it’s not. The coincidences had become far too coincidental, you see? And thus, like those movie detectives pacing the floor in an anxious room of potential suspects, I will now reveal the origin of the Monkey of the Day.

I submit to you that the MOD is an inside joke, or perhaps a prop bet, amongst a circle of Hollywood directors and/or screenwriters. Their objective: to insert a monkey reference into each of their projects. It’s not as absurd as you might think. It wouldn’t be the first or only time a director has played a game with his audience, although it may be the first time a group of them did it as one concerted effort.

Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in 39 of his films? These weren’t speaking parts, just quick in-and-out moments. It was a little game of hide and seek that the director played with his audience. The maneuver became Hitchcock’s signature.

There is a Superman reference in every episode of Seinfeld… frequently a refrigerator magnet in Jerry’s apartment. And animators have long been known for blending jokes or messages into their cinematic creations. It’s how they test their boundaries.

There’s also a storied little game played by broadcasters and other types of public speakers: the colleague of the speaker puts together a list of random words or phrases or otherwise extraneous ideas and then challenges the speaker to work those items into his speech or broadcast. It is a game I used to play with an old friend when we spoke at our end-of-year soccer banquets. And it just may explain why Kevin Copp, during a gymnastics broadcast from Denver, would allude to New Jersey being the only state where you don’t pump your own gas. (Ahhhh. So that one hit a little closer to home, did it? See? See???)

My point is, when addressing large audiences, people delivering the message are prone to playing some cat and mouse games, so if it seems that something just doesn’t belong, you may have uncovered the gag.

Okay, so I haven’t worked the whole thing out just yet. We still have a bit of a chicken or egg conundrum… did this group of Hollywood insiders hatch the MOD, or have they just chosen to perpetuate it? This we don’t yet know and if they have their way, we may never know. Yes, there is still a missing link. (Ironic, right?) But to be clear, these Hollywood hotshots are involved in some type of far-reaching monkey conspiracy. Of that I am certain… right down to my opposable thumbs. I don’t know how wide their web extends and who all is involved, but for now I am charging the following directors as co-conspirators:

Quentin Tarantino

Paul Feig

David O. Russell

Kevin Smith

Nicholas Stoller

Ben Affleck

Joel and Ethan Cohen

I also submit that entangled in this web are writers/directors of the following sitcoms: Everybody Loves Raymond; Friends; It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; and Family Guy.

To be clear, I have never googled “Monkey of the Day.” Just in case there was an explanation of its inception (which I doubted there was), I didn’t want the internet spoiling my monkey magic. If an explanation existed, I wanted to discover it… even if someone else had already, you know, discovered it first. So whether I am first to the finish line or not, I am confident that I have unearthed a critical part of this mystery and now feel that my work here is done.

And this is me patting myself on the back.

And since we’re onto completely irreverent (or irrelevant) topics, I may as well tell you about a fishing trip I took last May.

Let me begin by saying that I LOVE going back to New Jersey. I don’t ever want to live there again, but I love, love, LOVE to visit. I have roots there and friends there and all of that is fantastic. But to me a visit to New Jersey is a type of social safari that you just can’t get in the south. How can I explain this???

Okay… let’s try it this way: People in New Jersey have an edge. They don’t know you and don’t want to know you. They sure as heck don’t trust you and they don’t feel any responsibility to pretend like they do. They drive with one hand on the horn just in case you think about braking when the light turns yellow. Up there you meet people when a common friend introduces the two of you. I am thankful that it’s not like that in the south. The south is a kinder, gentler, much more neighborly existence. People are warm and open and hospitable. They’re a lot less likely to tilt their heads and say, “Whatareyoulookinat?” It’s a lot less stressful in the south… a lot less combative. I guess that being in the south is like being a coach. It’s a great gig and you don’t spend your nights wrapped in ice packs and you don’t wake up with sore legs. But every once in a while you just want to get back in the game as a player. You want the physical risks. You want to run and sweat and bleed and crash into people and challenge your levels of courage and pain tolerance. So you visit New Jersey.

Last May I went up to New Jersey and did a little fishing with one of my best friends, Dave Henn. How can I explain Dave? Well, are you familiar with The Sopranos? I’m pretty certain that the character of Tony Soprano is based on Dave – as a high schooler. Okay, the mafia thing doesn’t apply, but that bullish, run-you-over personality is 100% Dave. Been that way his whole life and it makes being around him both fun and adventurous.

At 4 A.M. – yes, that’s really a thing – we left Dave’s house and began the rounds of picking up our three fellow fisherman, stuffing them into the back of Dave’s Nissan Titan and making the hour-plus drive down to Pt. Pleasant on the jersey shore. Dave is a contractor and all of his buddies were sub-contractors (In other words, the rest of the Sopranos). In the south that might not mean a whole lot. Up north being a contractor means a chain-smoking habit, a heavy Jersey accent and a sailor’s vernacular. And naturally it comes with greasy confidence and a steadfast belief that everyone else is an idiot. This was a salty, salty crew.

So there we were, the five of us crammed in this truck, smoke billowing out the windows like we were burning leaves in the cab, and these guys start reminiscing with funny stories about old friends from the neighborhood. And it was like every story had the same beginning and the same ending and more or less the same middle. Each story started with, “Hey remember the time Joey (or Vinnie or Mikey or Paulie)…” In the middle there were belly laughs that quickly succumbed to a violent smoker’s cough. The storyteller would always add, “Can you believe that! Oh that guy was somethin’ else.”

And each story ended like this:

“Whatever happened to him?”

“He died. Like three years ago. Cancer. Whataya gonna do?”

Then someone would light another Marlboro and the next story began.

Story after story ended with someone dead from cancer and I was wondering if anyone in New Jersey was still alive.

Between the smoke and the cancer stories I was half seasick before I got out of the truck. Part of me wanted to fish. Another part was thinking we might be better off popping into an Urgent Care clinic for a quick once-over.

We stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts down the shore for some coffee and breakfast sandwiches. Let me say that I am a huge fan of DD. I am crazy about their coffee and unlike Starbucks, you don’t have to dabble in Italian to order a large and you don’t have to stand in a line that rivals the DMV. Usually they turn you around pretty quickly. So after a chance meeting with the cast of Jerseylicious, I walked out with a coffee, a bacon and egg croissant, and of all things, a banana. I had no idea how this one little banana would affect the rest of my day.

Dave and one of the other guys were already back in the truck and as I climbed inside, and outta nowhere they start berating me about the banana. I mean they just jumped all over me…

“What are you nuts! You better not bring that banana on the boat! What are you an idiot! Dave, who is this guy?”

You’d a thought I was smuggling elephant tusks! It was completely crazy! It wasn't like I was taking this excursion with the Vienna Boys Choir. This was coming from a couple of guys who are unconvinced that assault and battery is actually illegal, but suddenly my banana was a moral certainty.

I was stunned by the ambush. I couldn’t even collect a thought. I just sat there, mouth agape, listening to these guys tear into me.

Then, when the two other guys got back to the truck, it started all over again.

“You better eat that banana before you get on the boat! What are you, stupid?!”

This was a fisherman’s superstition I had never heard of. But these guys had conviction and they were adamant that my banana would not get anywhere near that boat. So when we pulled up to the dock, I stayed at the truck to finish my banana, chucked the peel in a trash can and made my way aboard the boat.

I had never gone striper fishing before. I had caught a couple small ones in a past life, but I had never specifically gone out for stripers. Stripers are big and aggressive and notoriously strong fighters. Our captain had a great rep for finding fish, so this had the potential to be a glorious day.

Once we cast off into the bay, the uneasiness in my stomach soon faded away and I was at peace. The sun was coming up on the horizon and the seas were flat and my chain-smoking friends could choke me no more. I could kick back, enjoy the view, and best of all, breathe. Life was good.

The first order of business was to snag some bunker for bait. We quickly found a massive school of them which set us up for the day. All that was left was to find our fish. Soon, we did that, too.

So I’m the new guy and I’m Dave’s friend and I’ve never been striper fishin’, so everyone wants to help me out. Plus, these guys are from New Jersey so they can’t help themselves. They gotta tell me how to do it the right way. I don’t hook the first fish, but moments later I hook the second on the opposite side of the boat. Now everybody not hooked up to a fish wants to tell me what to do and why I’m doing it wrong. But as far as I can tell I got a darn big fish on my line and he keeps getting closer to the boat, so I gotta be doing something right. Fifteen minutes after he hit my bait, that fish is in the well.

And that’s how it went for the rest of the day. Everyone who can’t manage to catch a fish telling me what I’m doing wrong as I boat one after another after another. I thought that landing that first fish would buy me some slack, but notsomuch. At one point I figured that maybe they’d heard the story wrong: I’ve never gone striper fishing before. But yes fellas, I have gone fishing!

To be fair, the other guys caught fish, too. Just not as many as me (tee-hee). Yes, like the first-timer who hits the lottery, I went back to port as high hook. Which only goes to show you…

Never bring bananas on the boat!

So anyway, when we get back to Dave’s neighborhood we stop off at a little pizza joint. One of Dave’s friends who’s sitting a few seats away comes over and we start chatting. He’s a good guy and works for the A/V department at Princeton University. I have no idea how we got onto the topic, but I start telling him about the Monkey of the Day theory and he’s looking at me like I got a carrot growing outta my head. As he returns to his table, he’s made it clear that’s he’s a skeptic. He simply ain’t buyin’ this monkey stuff.

soccerpoet 560

On my honor all of this is true.

It wasn’t three minutes later that Daydream Believer comes on the radio. So, as if I can’t quite remember, I call down to him, “Hey Boss, who the heck sings this song?”

He looks at me like I’m an idiot and he’s the smartest guy in the room and I just asked him a question so easy that it was a waste of his brainpower.

“This song? It’s the monk…

No freaking way.”

updated: 5 years ago

Tiny Little Soccer Men (who sometimes lie)

Tiny Little Soccer Men who sometimes lie

As our bus rolled back into Athens on a cold, gray and otherwise unremarkable afternoon, I took a deep breath and accepted the annual reality that another season had officially come and gone. Our three and a half month frenzy has, with neither notice nor fanfare, dissolved like a solitary snowflake, leaving behind nothing but the hollowness of a day without purpose.  Inspiring, right?

It’s my least favorite day of the year.  Well, it’s one of two, but both for the same reason.  The other will be Tuesday, typically a training day while we’re in season.  And when 3:30 P.M. rolls around this Tuesday and the soccer complex isn’t bustling with players scrambling to get on the field, it’ll be the nail in this season’s coffin.  When it’s time to do, do, do – I’ll be sitting behind a desk doing nothing at all.  Blah.

I’m guessing that most people measure a year from January 1 to December 31.  Some may measure a year from one birthday to the next.  I measure my years by the passing of a soccer season.  The year starts on the day we open preseason and ends on this day.  At the end of each season is the only time I really stop to consider that I’m another year older.

Steve Nugent has been kind enough to remind me that the Poet has been skinny on entries this fall.  Yep.  Sure has.  But I promise I can do a better job if someone can just figure out a way to add six hours to each day.  Time is a fleeting and precious commodity during the season.  And many a Poet entry was started then scrapped and red-stamped as forever incomplete.  (Case in point: this entry was started on Nov. 11.  It’s now Thanksgiving night and I’m in a hotel room in San Diego trying to polish it up.)

You know what eats up a huge chunk of my time?  You really won’t believe this.  I certainly never imagined it, but I spend a solid 20 hours each week just on video projects.  Isn’t that just a little bit absurd?  Each week I try to watch at least seven games: the two we played, three of our upcoming Friday opponent and two of our upcoming Sunday opponent.  I also try to create 3 DVDs each week: a DVD that reviews the weekend performance of our defenders, and a scouting DVD of each of our upcoming opponents. And then of course there is the time it takes to actually meet with the defenders (at least twice each week) to show the DVDs.  The only reason I tell you this is that the other day I was thinking about it and I wondered what in the world I did to fill up my days before I had such unabated  access to video technology.  Honestly, it’s a little unnerving.  I mean, what was that 20-hour block previously dedicated to?  I clearly remember working a lot of long hours, but I really can’t remember why.  What the heck was I doing?  Or more precisely, what the heck am I forgetting to do now and how important is it?  I can’t account for everything that video has nudged out of my weekly allotment of hours, but writing for the Poet is certainly high amongst the list of casualties.

But back to our story…

The final two weeks of the regular season saw us pass on one opportunity after another to cement a spot in the NCAA Tournament and actually win the SEC regular season title.  Our fellow SEC schools did what they could to leave the door open for us, but we repeatedly refused to cross the threshold.  Going in to the final three matches we figured that if we beat Alabama and either Tennessee or Auburn, we would be an NCAA lock.  Then in succession we drew Auburn 0-0, drew Alabama 2-2, and didn’t really bother showing up for a 2-0 loss to Tennessee.  After an SEC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Florida, we found ourselves at the mercy of the math and the NCAA selection committee that would decide our postseason fate.  It was looking an awful lot like November 2010.

Thankfully, this time around, things went our way on Selection Monday and we drew a date in Lawrence with the Kansas Jayhwaks.  A computer model crunched the numbers and determined that we were the two most evenly matched opponents of all the first round match-ups.  Me?  By this time I was just worried about beating anybody because we hadn’t scored a goal in the run of play since we left Lexington.  The two goals against Alabama were the fortunate byproduct of hitting the same Crimson Tide defender in the arm twice with the ball.  Two penalty kicks was all the offense we had managed in four games and that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

In the first half of the Kansas match, neither team really got much going.  It was more or less a stalemate mired in the middle third.  But thankfully, like a long, lost friend, our attack resurfaced early in the second half and the game turned our way.  In the aftermath of a free kick that was lobbed into the Kansa eighteen and subsequently cleared, Jenna Buckley dropped a perfectly weighted diagonal ball behind the Jayhawk defense and into the stride of Ashley Miller who was flying in at the back post. Miller volleyed us to a 1-0 lead with a clinical finish.  A few minutes later Lex doubled the margin with one of her signature solo forays up the middle and a left-footed strike from twenty yards.  Baker made a tremendous diving save in the final minute to preserve the shutout and we had advanced to the second round and a date with Duke in Durham.  We left Lawrence in good spirits.  Our offense had reemerged and our defense had turned in an outstanding lockdown performance.  It was only the third time Kansas had been shut out in 2011.  Alas, there wasn’t much time to bask in our tournament victory as three days later we were on a bus to North Carolina to face the nation’s #1 team.

I was happy to be playing Duke.  It’s rare that we get to play the role of underdog and that takes a lot of emotional pressure off the team.  Okay, it didn’t change the fact that we were playing the ACC champions and facing a formidable climb, but at least we weren’t weighed down by a lot of outside expectations.  So that’s something.

When you’re playing a team like Duke, Plan A is to win 1-0.  Duke had only conceded three goals in ACC play, so scoring one was going to be enough of a chore.  We didn’t want to need a second.  I was hoping that we got to halftime up 1-0 or level at 0-0.

After watching a few Duke games on video, we decided to tinker with our system to neutralize their wing play which was a substantial facet of their attack.  So we did what coaches do, fooling around with miniature soccer figurines like a general would with toy soldiers, running down a series of if-then situations, trying to formulate a system that would give us the best chance of winning until we came up with something we liked.

When we were initially designing our system, we had an idea of how it was supposed to look and how it was supposed to affect the Blue Devils.  Allegedly.  We would do this, then they would do that.  Then we would do this.  And then they would do that.  It was our “perfect world” scenario.  It always is (our tiny little soccer men have never lost a game).  As a coach you always have this idea of how it should work and why it should work and then the game actually starts and you hope like mad that life bends to meet your expectations.  And of course, from time to time it blows up in your face and you wonder how in the heck it all went so horribly wrong and you go home and swat your little soccer men across the room.  Regardless, I thought we put together a solid plan but we were still playing the #1 team in the country.  As the saying goes, it looked good on paper.

Then the game began and on my honor I couldn’t believe how perfectly our perfect-world plan was mirroring what was actually transpiring on the field.  Fifteen minutes into the match Robin and I were saying, “Holy smokes, it’s exactly like we drew it up.”  Our players were doing what we asked them to do and the Duke players were doing exactly what we hoped they would do in response.  For forty-five minutes our little scheme worked beautifully.  However…

There was still one caveat.  Regardless of how well our toy soldiers gained and gave ground, we knew full well we were going to need a little bit of luck.  Baker was going to have to make one or two big saves.  Duke would have to muff a chance to finish.  We’d have to pounce on a mis-clearance or a deflection or a rebound.  Something.  We didn’t know what luck we would need, but we knew we’d need something.  And of course we knew full well that we absolutely couldn’t afford for our opponent to settle under a horseshoe.  Duke getting lucky was the doomsday scenario.  And wouldn’t ya know…

With nine minutes left in the opening half, a Duke cross took a decidedly evil deflection off one of our defenders and careened past Baker to give the home side a 1-0 lead.  This was bad.  The one thing we absolutely didn’t want to have to do was play from behind.  And that’s exactly what we had to do from that point forward.

We went into half-time still optimistic.  We had created some chances of our own and even though we were down a goal, the nation’s #1 team still hadn’t scored on us.  If the margin stayed at one going into the final 20 minutes, I thought we’d have a great chance to equalize.

In hindsight, there was one major flaw in our plan: it required Chewy and Nikki to do a whole heckuva lot of running.  Now Chewy is fit, but Nikki is beyond fit.  She’s what we in the biz refer to as uber-fit. She is one of the fittest players I’ve ever even heard of, let alone coached.  And when we saw Nikki getting  tired, well… do you know why you first check the thickest piece of chicken on the grill?  Because if that one is done, the others are too.  Nikki was getting winded before halftime which I didn’t even think was possible for her.  Our thickest piece of chicken was close to done and that was going to be a problem.

A bigger problem was the aforementioned opponent that started the second half like they were shot out of a howitzer.  Duke was inspired and relentless and came at us in wave after blue and white wave and the wing play we hoped to neutralize appeared in full bloom.  Twenty-two minutes after the break the Blue Devils took their lead to two when a cross from the left wing was met by a convincing header at the back post.  Seven minutes hence, Duke showed they could also be dangerous down the right side with a quality piece of combination play that culminated with an unstoppable finish that kissed the bottom of the crossbar.  I’d say it was probably the best goal we conceded all year.

You know, there’s only so much you can ask of a game, particularly a meaningful one on a big stage, and the only thing you can genuinely hope to do is leave the field with a clear conscience.  Up to that point there was no doubt we could’ve done that.  If the final whistle blew right then, we’re leaving that field with our heads held high because we battled our tails off.  Problem was, there were still eighteen minutes left on the clock and Duke was surfing down a pretty big wave of momentum while our players were staring at the end of their season.  There was a standing invitation for the Dawgs to pack up camp and check out.  And as everything was suddenly coming up Blue Devils, this had the potential to get real ugly real fast.  As it turned out, this was going to be our biggest test of the night and there wasn’t a thing in the world our tiny soccer men could do to help.  We needed to dig in and dig in fast.  Thankfully, we did exactly that.

Instead of laying down, we fought back with desperation and urgency and bombed forward at all costs and began taking back some territory.  A laser of a free kick from Lex pinballed around the Duke eighteen before trickling to Owens who forced a fantastic save from the Duke netminder.  From the ensuing corner kick, Nicole Locandro scorched a half-volley knuckler from 20 yards to bring us to 3-1 and I couldn’t have been the only person flashing back to our match against Mississippi State and the three goals we scored in the final 18 minutes.

Thing is, Duke is a darn good team and darn good teams don’t cave.  As much as we worked for it, we couldn’t manage to close the gap further.  But our kids battled.  Man, they battled.  They fought with all they had for the rest of that match, right up to the point where the final whistle blew and ended our season.

If there’s one thing that every one of my college soccer seasons as both a player and a coach have in common, it’s that moment and how much it sucks.  Because in that moment that lasts no longer than the shrill tweet of a referee’s whistle, everything changes.  Permanently.  Forever.

Our team will never be exactly the same.  There will never be Bailey Powell barking from center back; or Ashley Miller screwing opponents into ground on the dribble; or Jamie Pollock tirelessly chasing the ball from side to side, end to end.  Will Jenna Buckley return?  I don’t know and I’m a little bit afraid to even ask her.

Those are just the seniors.  Other players will also move on without Georgia Soccer.  It happens to every team.  You just don’t know specifically which players.  It happens to every team.  It doesn’t matter.  Like I said, everything changes.  The team will never be exactly the same.

It’s been a strange year.  If you’re looking for landmarks, you’d have to start with Eddy’s injury.  It damaged her knee and threatened to take a lot of spirits along with it.  Two days later we looked lost without her in a preseason scrimmage against Florida State and we were right back to Square One.  Two weeks after that our morale was on life support as we were swept at home by Texas and Villanova, conceding six goals in the process.  We hadn’t quite hit rock bottom, but we were close enough to drag our toes on it as we headed west to Minnesota.  It was there that everything changed.  When we desperately needed a win against a very good team, the gods smiled down upon us and we found a way to grind one out.  In her collegiate debut, Owens crossed to Lex in overtime and we collected the first of five miraculous finishes.  When Lex’s header crossed the line, we’d reached our second landmark.

Four times this year we won in sudden death overtime.  Let me rephrase that: Four times we ended the game with a bench-clearing celebration.  Do you know how patently absurd that is?  Let me tell you, for a lot of college players, that’s a career’s worth.  We did it in five-weeks.  And Lex’s goal with two minutes left at Kentucky can be counted among our cardiac finishes.

I think this season will be remembered as one of resilience, and no single match better exemplified that quality than our ridiculous comeback against Mississippi State.  Trailing 3-0 with nineteen minutes to play and a seemingly impossible climb, this team never folded.  The spirit never bent.  Those players dug in like nothing I’ve ever seen and chased that game like their lives depended on it.  And when Mills slotted home the overtime winner, well, it was just a little bit spectacular and, of course, very, very memorable.

We left some results on the table.  Yes we did.  That’s the most frustrating part of almost every season –ceding control of your destiny. And there aren’t many coaches/players/teams that finish a season not wishing they couldn’t get at least one game back.  But that’s the beauty and the beast of college soccer: you don’t get do-overs.  You can only hope that the returning players learn from those missed opportunities and internalize the value of urgency every time they take the field for the remainder of their careers, and that they pass that urgency on to the younger players through some sort of fanatical osmosis.  When a team genuinely internalizes life-or-death urgency as a standard part of its culture, that’s when it contends for championships.  I’ll go to my grave believing that.  Coincidentally, trying to convince our players to believe us is what makes that grave come speeding in from the other direction.

I’ll miss this season.  I’ll miss those highlight reel finishes, especially when Kevin Copp’s voice is attached to them.  And I’ll miss the seniors for sure…  just real good kids who I looked forward to seeing every day.  Playing for Georgia meant everything to them and you could really see that last Friday night.

So the earth has made one more loop around the sun and here I sit, trying hard to remember what purpose I’m supposed to be serving during this void between the end of the fall season and the start of the spring one.  There’s a hollowness that I can’t possibly quantify. It’s like there was this great, big, awesome party and all at once everyone else just vanished and the music stopped and I’m standing alone in that empty room looking at the decorations on the wall and the confetti on the floor wondering where the heck everyone went and if they’ll be coming back.

Wow.  This just sucks.

But to be fair, it really was one helluva party.

updated: 6 years ago

Hunting The Elusive Road Sweep

Hunting The Elusive Road Sweep

Tis the season… the Halloween season that is, a.k.a. my second favorite holiday.  A few weeks back Izzy decided she wanted to be a Georgia Bulldog soccer player for Halloween and quickly established a list of five candidates.  She considered Lex, Sooz, Torri and Eddy before finally deciding on Chewy.  So yesterday when Izzy got home from school, a few of Chewy’s old jerseys were laid out on Izzy’s bed as a surprise.  It’s a little recipe I like to call Instant Really Happy Child.  Wow was she excited!  I mean that little girl just completely lit up!  Izzy immediately threw a jersey on over her shirt and smiled from ear to ear.  Moments later she wanted to put on her own matching shorts.  That’s when I headed to the kitchen to start on dinner, but before I could even reach the linoleum (yes, I’m a renter), Izzy burst out of her room with her soccer shoes in hand saying she wanted to go play soccer in the yard… and she was saying it with urgency… the way you or I might say, “Get me to a doctor!”  You might not understand this, but this is a big deal.  It is perhaps a defining moment.  Because despite her dad’s occupation as a soccer coach and her infatuation with our Georgia players, Izzy has never once asked me to play soccer.  But when she put on that jersey, she didn’t just want to be a girl playing soccer with her dad; at that moment all she wanted to be was Chewy.  And while we were playing 1v1 in the front yard, Izzy, who has never shown the slightest desire to be good at anything sports-related, stopped the ball under her foot – momentarily putting our game on pause - and said, “I wish I was better at soccer.”  And she meant it.  It’s completely crazy the influence these girls have on my daughter.  I am so lucky to have so many amazing role models filling up my kid’s world.  So yes, it’s a very happy Halloween.

Welcome to the SEC’s annual “short week” where we move to a Thursday/Sunday home-away format for a very good reason that is just too tiring to lay out right now.  Instead, let’s just do a little recap of this past weekend where the Dawgs registered an impressive road sweep of Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

Since Steve put me in charge of the defenders in 2009, I’ve tried to make each defensive corps into a team within the team.  I want them to accept a joint responsibility to hold down the fort to give our attackers a chance to win the game.  Each Wednesday night we have a film session to review our performance from the previous weekend.  Then on Thursday we watch a little film of our upcoming Friday opponent.  On Saturday (or Sunday morning) we’ll watch film of our Sunday opponent.  And each weekend I try to come up with a specific assignment for our back four.

Our team has improved immensely since our preseason scrimmage against FSU.  We were only two days removed from losing Eddy went we went down to Tallahassee and quite frankly, it showed.  We were disorganized everywhere, including the back.  Two weeks later we got swept at home by Texas and Villanova and conceded six goals in the process and I was looking for a suitable ledge to jump off of.  We were at rock bottom and looking at the only available silver-lining: there was literally nowhere to go but up.

Each week we’ve ironed out another small wrinkle.  Each week we’ve gotten a little bit better and a little more organized to the point that lately our biggest problem hadn’t been our opponents but ourselves.  We had developed an irritating little habit of putting ourselves in precarious spots and we were getting punished for it.  It’s really not an uncommon problem when you’re a possession team because every day you train your players to pass themselves out of pressure.  Good players don’t want to devalue themselves by just hoofing the ball up the park.  But there is certainly a time and place to do exactly that, so risk-management became our theme for the weekend.  I spent a part of Friday morning trying to convince/remind the defenders that our primary goal was not to let the opponent score and that there is no shame in kicking the snot out of the ball when the situation calls for a good snot-kicking.  I figured that if we can go ninety minutes without shooting ourselves in the foot, we should do alright.

As for the game… well, the Dawgs played pretty darn well on both sides of the ball.  Right from the tap-off we strung seven or eight passes together and worked ourselves into Vandy’s eighteen.  It was a good omen.  We had a pretty solid run of the park, particularly in the opening half, but the goals were slow in coming.  In the 29thminute Lex was up to her old tricks as she picked up a pass at midfield, drove straight at the heart of the Vandy defense before cleverly chipping her 25-yard shot over the keeper and just under the bar to put us out front.  Meghan Gibbons doubled our lead in the 42ndminute when she one-timed a square pass from Goo that skittered just inside the post.  It was Goo’s first college point, and it would be remiss of me not to point out that Gibbo’s goal was scored from 16 yards, which is about 14 yards further out than almost every other goal she’s scored in college soccer.

Vandy came out with a bit more inspiration in the second half.  Their work rate went up and they picked up some of the possession and played with more physical commitment, but we stood our ground quite well and never looked too threatened.  Goo nearly added her first collegiate goal but her header from an Owens cross was smothered by a remarkable goal-line save from Vandy’s keeper.  In the end we were happy to leave town with a shutout and three big road points.  That win got us to 15 points which, although not mathematically confirmed, pretty much locked us into a spot at the SEC Tournament in Orange Beach, AL in November.

On Saturday we boarded our sleeper bus to Lexington, KY to prepare for Sunday’s tilt with Kentucky.  For our in-flight movie we chose Miracle (about the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team), and when it was over, I couldn’t help but think that we had been fortuitous in our selection.  It’s tough to win on the road in the SEC, especially on a Sunday.  There are plenty of stats to back me up on that.  So a little bit of Saturday inspiration to sleep on wasn’t such a bad thing.

One of the cool things about being on the inside of any team is access to the subplots.  Those are the stories behind the stories – the things you can’t get from a press release or a message board - and every team has plenty of them.  Right now there is no bigger subplot for our coaching staff than that of Jenna Buckley who is deciding whether to graduate this May or play out her final season of eligibility in 2012.

Jenna’s story is worth telling because it is one of quiet perseverance (and probably a hundred other very  worthwhile lessons).  It’s the story about never giving up, spending as long as it takes, doing all the right things, and being prepared for that time in your life when the moment finds you… and then rising to the occasion.

Jenna was one of the top recruits coming out of Georgia in 2008, but blew out her knee in a high school game in April of that year… on Senior Night no less.  That’s when Jenna’s soccer world took a turn for the worse.  She was a medical redshirt for the 2008 season and then just got shuffled to the bottom of the deck in 2009.  It seemed that Jenna’s bright future as a college soccer player was slowly and steadily unraveling.  But Jenna is smart.  I mean she’s really smart.  In fact, it’s amazing how often the words ‘Jenna’ and ‘smart’ collide in the same sentences.  And Jenna was smart enough to realize that with a new coaching staff coming to town, she was going to get a new opportunity.  So she worked her tail off to show that she was a player who could play for Georgia.

Steve knew Jenna from his days recruiting from Ole Miss.  He knew that she was a star at the club level.  Me?  I had no idea who she was.  But on the third or fourth day of preseason after a session with the defenders I went into Steve’s office and was like, “Who’s this Buckley kid?  She’s freaking good.”  And pretty much every day that followed I left training raving about this girl’s soccer IQ.

In 2010 Jenna was in a battle with Torri Allen for the center back spot, a battle that I positioned as Jenna’s brain against Torri’s speed.  Torri’s speed won out, by just a little bit.  Meanwhile, Jenna spent the year paying attention, controlling the things she had the power to control, getting better and smarter and keeping herself on the brink of winning back that spot.  And if that sounds simple, well then you’d be amazed by the percentage of players who emotionally fold when they don’t start the first three games or don’t play at all in the first three games of their college careers.  A lot of them very quickly devolve into a pattern of giving up hope and then just going through the motions.  That’s what makes Jenna’s story so remarkable: in spite of the circumstances conspiring against her, she never lowered her standard.  She couldn’t control playing time – that’ a coach’s decision, not a player’s – so she didn’t focus on it.  She focused on what she could control.  She focused on giving her best effort every day and she paid attention in our defenders’ meetings to the point that even when she wasn’t playing, she could still dissect our video sessions better than the teammates playing in front of her which is pretty stinkin’ unbelievable.  Jenna was smart enough to realize that if she was going to get on the field, she had to know exactly what her coaches wanted, so she was always paying attention and quietly holding out hope that one day she’d get her chance.  If her chance ever materialized, she was determined to be prepared.  Amazing how something like that can work in a player’s favor.

It was frustrating to see such a good player – a player who almost never put a foot wrong and who would be starting at a zillion other colleges – sitting on our bench.  I dreaded our individual meetings because I was always afraid Jenna was going to ask what she was doing wrong and I really didn’t have an answer for that.  Sorry, you’re doing everything right, but you still don’t get to play.

But Jenna did get chances to play.  Not often, but still, she got chances.  And when she did, she delivered.  That actually made it even more frustrating for me.  And of course, for her.  By the time our spring season ended I couldn’t tell you who our two best center backs were.  I loved all of them and they were each so very different.  Honestly, we could’ve gone with the pick-two-names-out-of-a-hat approach and I would’ve been fine with that.  We were blessed with three great center backs.  Or cursed with them.  Whichever.

At the end of last spring I was afraid Jenna was going to quit, either literally or in spirit.  I didn’t know how much longer she could hold out hope for a coach who kept telling her how great she was but never rewarding her with significant playing time.  I told her she was “close.”  I told her she was “right there.”  But Jenna’s a smart kid… smart enough to know that neither of those euphemisms directly equaled playing time.  I was hoping Jenna would give it one last push so I gave her the only worthwhile advice I could think of.  I simply said, “Jenna, you’ll never regret giving your very best.”  And then she left and I had no idea who she’d be when she came back in August.

Jenna comes back fit – fitter than last year and fitter than we’d expected.  She’s a better player than she was a year ago but she’s still on the outside looking in and all I really want is for her to get to the end of her career and not think that I’m full of crap and that all of her work just wasn’t worth it.  Have you ever heard the expression that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity?  In my lifetime I’ve never seen a better case study to prove that maxim than that of Jenna Buckley.  She prepared and prepared and prepared… Just. In. Case.

In early September we take the team to a tournament in Minnesota.  Torri gets injured late in the Friday game and Jenna fills in for her on Sunday and has a lights-out performance as we shutout Iowa State.  It looked like she’d been playing there all along.  That’s a day she’ll remember for quite some time because that’s the day Jenna Buckley became a starting center back for the Georgia Bulldogs.

It was maybe ten days later, a day or two after we had beaten Georgia State, that I had a quiet word with Jenna at the start of training.  I told her not to take it for granted and that she had to earn that spot every day.  And she has done exactly that.

So now, the girl who cheered on her teammates through three years of agonizing personal frustration gets to enjoy her time in the spotlight.  She gets to contribute more than just her support and her training ethic and her leadership.  Now she gets to do physical battle for UGA under the lights in front of those huge Friday night crowds.  Now she gets to make a tangible impact.  Now she gets to hear her name called out for the starting line-ups.  Now she has her chance to shine…  And shine she has. Shined so bright in fact that her staff of coaches would like her to postpone her meteoric rise to CEO of whichever Fortune 500 company is smart enough to gobble her up so she can stick around for one more season of college soccer.  And that is the subplot that weighed on my mind as we cruised along some four lane highway into the Bluegrass State watching a movie that at its core defines what it means to make the most of your time.

Back in Nashville I let Jenna know that I hoped she would stick around, but as the wheels on the bus went round and round, I really had no idea where she would land on her decision.  And over and over three words kept looping in my brain: One. More. Year.

On Sunday we faced a Kentucky side that was coming off an impressive Friday night win over a very strong Tennessee team.  The Wildcats have some excellent attacking players so our defenders were going to be in for a very busy day.

Shortly after lunch, the winds in Lexington really picked up, and I mean in like a Wizard of Oz kind of way.  From my hotel room window I could look down and see the deck furniture being blown on its side and realized we might have a real mess on our hands.

If there’s one weather condition that can genuinely annoy a soccer coach its wind, because a strong north-south wind (blowing from one goal to the other) divides a 90-minute game into a pair of 45-minute games.  There’s the game when you know you’ll dominate territorially and have plenty of chances to score, and then there’s the game where scoring will be almost impossible.  And those were precisely the conditions we faced as we kicked off against UK.

I don’t think any coach is absolutely sure of what to do when you’re dealing with 25 m.p.h. winds because it completely changes the game and all of the sudden your list of job duties includes Riverboat Gambler.  You’ve got to make some type of gamble on everything from personnel to system to which side to choose if you win the toss.  You can choose to play into the headwind in the first half and bunker, hope to get to half-time 0-0 or down 0-1 and then hope to win the game in the second half… but if the wind does an about-face at half-time (I’ve seen it happen and let’s face it… there’s a reason for the expression “change like the wind”) or completely dies down, you look like an idiot and you’ve more or less killed your team.   Plus there’s always the possibility that the other team scores three times with the wind at its back and you look like a bigger idiot.

You can choose to play with the wind at your back in the first half but that’s no free ride either.  A strong tailwind won’t do you much good if your team doesn’t know how to make the right adjustments and you end up with a lot of thru-balls rolling off the park or into the opponent’s goalkeeper.  A wind at your back helps for sure, but it doesn’t automatically equate to goals.  And if you’re playing with the wind at your back in the first half, the one thing you absolutely want at half-time is a lead of at least two goals because you’ve got to figure you’re going to concede at least one.  These are the problems that basketball coaches don’t face.

With so much on the line for both teams in terms of SEC standings and NCAA bids and oh yeah, ESPNU broadcasting the match, Mother Nature’s timing was not well received.  It was going to be an ugly match and we knew that an hour before anyone even kicked a ball.

Thankfully the referees had the foresight to do the coin-toss about 30 minutes earlier than usual so the coaches would have time to make adjustments.  UK won the toss and elected to play into the wind.  It was a gamble and one I think I also would have taken had I been in their shoes: put the pressure on the visitors to score early.   UK’s plan was to defend like crazy and shorten the half as much as possible by milking the clock on restarts.  The hope is to get to the half 0-0 and then spend the second half pounding the goal of a road weary team.

Speaking of subplots… the television broadcast meant we had a late kick-off – 4 P.M. in the east – so we would know almost all of the other SEC results before our game began.  The most noteworthy of such was Mississippi State’s 1-0 upset of Florida.  We knew that State was up early, and like pretty much every other coach in the SEC we were hoping like mad that they would hang on until the end, but we didn’t actually get the official news until our players were on the field for the national anthem.  When they returned to the bench, Coach gathered them together to announce that we were now playing for first place.  It was a well-timed jolt for our collective spirit.

Anyway, I liked UK’s decision to go against the wind, but I was surprised that they chose to come out in a 4-3-3.  I figured they’d go 4-5-1, take a totally defensive posture and rest their star attackers until the second half.  But when your forwards can be so dangerous, it’s hard to talk yourself into leaving them off the field. Plus, I know UK doesn’t have a whole lot of numbers on their roster anyway.  They might not have really had a choice.

For us the plan was pretty clear: we needed goals.  Thankfully J.O. delivered one in the eighth minute as she curled a low liner inside the far post from 18 yards to get us the early lead.  Unfortunately we couldn’t add to that before the break so we went into half-time with an uncomfortable 1-0 lead and the knowledge that we would be territorially dominated in the second stanza.  I really didn’t think we would score again.  I was just hoping that we could find a way to evade their firepower for the next 45 minutes.

To be fair, we stood quite strong in the second half and despite the gale, we were only really threatened once in the first thirty minutes on a powerful header that sailed just wide of Baker’s goal.  UK faced the same attacking issues as we had… a big wind on an already fast field meant nothing was going to come easy.  Then, with under fifteen to play, UK’s star freshman got on the end of a cross and smashed home an impressive header to knot the score at 1-1.  UK was suddenly riding a swell of home-field momentum and we were about to face fourteen very long minutes of dodging blue and white bullets.

In the first half, figuring we needed to stockpile goals while the wind was at our backs, I asked Steve if he wanted to take out one of our defenders and go with a fourth attacker.  He declined.  Kentucky however, did take that gamble.  They moved an extra player into midfield and left themselves playing 3v3 at the back.  Both benches were thinking that if the game made it to overtime, it could be decided by coin-toss.  If you didn’t get the wind in the first overtime, you might not get it at all.  Kentucky knew they were only guaranteed another ten minutes with the wind on their side, so they rolled the dice.  I thought it was a good move.  A tie didn’t do them much more good than a loss.  They were playing at home.  They may as well roll the dice and play for the win.  The problem with gambling is… well… it’s a gamble.

Very late in the game, in one of our few second–half offensive forays, Lex and Torri caught the UK defense in a 2v2 situation.  Torri’s running in advance of Lex occupied her defender long enough for Lex to split the Wildcats on the dribble and then neatly slip her shot past the goalkeeper with 2:30 left on the clock.  It was a sensational individual effort which is sorta becoming Lex’s signature maneuver.  We hung on for dear life for the next 150 seconds, but we did enough to get out of there with a 2-1 win and another three points.  A road sweep in the SEC is a hard freaking thing to come by, but we had done just that.  Everyone on our team – players, coaches, trainers – was elated.  We had just fought our way back into a tie for first place in the SEC and cemented a spot in Orange Beach.  Coach was so happy he even promised us ice cream for the ride home.  WooHoo!!!

Bailey Powell doesn’t smile much when it comes to soccer.  She has a very high standard for joy.  So when I saw her light up about the performance she had just put in, I knew we had done something right.

After the match, as the girls were coming out of the locker room after their showers, I saw Jenna Buckley outside the bus.  She was all alone and she just couldn’t stop herself from smiling.  It was a great smile… one that doesn’t come from a joke you just heard, but from the inner-glow of deep personal satisfaction.  It’s a smile you just can’t fake.  So I said, “Jenna, do you think it’ll feel like this when you’re working for some company in the real world?  Do you think you’ll get this much joy from writing a really good email?  Do you think the rest of the office is going to stand up and cheer when you show up for work?  Think they’ll applaud when you write a great memo?”

Because it won’t.  This is the best time of your life.  This is that part of your life that you’ll tell your grandkids about.  This is that one time in your life that one day you’ll wish had never ended.  I don’t know a lot…  But I know that.

One more year, Jenna Buckley.

One more year.

updated: 6 years ago