Soccer Poet

980 Minutes

980 Minutes
On Saturday morning we took our three points and skedaddled out of Columbia on a charter flight to Lexington for a Sunday match against the Kentucky Wildcats. There’s a lot I love about charter flights, but the way that the plane parks about 30 feet from the bus we have to board is near the top of the list.

Jill Maloney is one of our goalkeepers and she certainly leads a life less ordinary. In addition to traipsing across the Atlantic Ocean every few weeks to represent Ireland at the U-20 level, Jill has also written a book, been an NFL Pass, Punt and Kick finalist, and was a nationally ranked Monopoly player (who knew, right?). She also has an IQ that dwarfs 99% of Americans, so her sense of humor is on a slightly different plane than most people.

Anyway, so our bus is rolling through Kentucky when Jill and Kevin Copp delight us with this exchange:

Jill: We’re in Kentucky! We have to eat at a KFC! It’s a bucket list thing… And it literally comes in a bucket!
Kevin: Yeah, except here it’s just called FC.

Ah yes. It’s the little things really. Speaking of food…

I had survived two gluten free travel days, but our lunch stop at a little sub shop was a bit more challenging. Sub shops aren’t big on gluten free options. Something about the bread, I reckon. It was not my favorite meal of the trip as I was relegated to scraping the meat and cheese off my roll. Wasn’t a whole lot of meat to work with. As it turns out, when it comes to subs, the bread is a pretty important part of actually filling you up. By the time dinner came around that night I was ready to eat my arm.

And oh yeah… From the files of what-a-small-world… we ran into the UAB women’s soccer team in that very restaurant, as they had stopped off on their way to play the Thundering Herd of Marshall University. We both have a lot of Atlanta-based players on our rosters, so it was a reunion of sorts.

A few weeks ago I wrote an entry called Hero Hawk about an experience we had down in Texas where our trainer, Hawk, had to administer care to a diabetic woman who had passed out in front of a shopping center store. What I didn’t tell you was that when we were exiting the airport at the end of that trip, we encountered a woman bleeding profusely at the bottom of the escalator. It seemed like Hawk was a medical emergency magnet. The good news for everyone else was who crossed our path was that Emily was coming off maternity leave two days later to resume her role as our trainer.

Then, a week later, Wayne went down before our match with Furman and we were already thinking what a strange year we’re having. I hadn’t encountered three non-soccer medical emergencies in my entire career, and suddenly we had three in a week.

Well wouldn’t you know… On Saturday night, we’re eating at a Texas Roadhouse when a woman passes out right in the doorway to the private room where our team had been seated. This time it was Emily’s turn to serve as the heroic first responder and she handled the situation like a true pro, keeping everyone calm and administering care and getting the woman back to consciousness.

Four of these things in a month? Like I said, strange year.

As for the Kentucky Wildcats…

This was a tough weekend to prepare for because we were facing two opponents with very different styles, and both of them are very good at what they do. On the bright side, UK plays very much like we do. They’re patient. They like to get the ball on the ground and string some passes together. They are the closest thing we have to a twin in the SEC, so we felt a little more comfortable seeing as how we train against ourselves four days a week. (Wow. I really hope that last sentence made sense to you.)

To accommodate the television coverage, the start time was pushed back to 6:30 P.M., and the weather was cool and overcast, so it wouldn’t be a ‘typical’ Sunday game in the SEC. Still, it was in fact a Sunday game and if there is one thing this league has taught me, it’s that it’s really difficult to win on the road on Sundays. Especially against a very good team.

As for the game… we expected it to be very even, and it was pretty much a dead heat. Both sides had some runs of momentum, but legitimate scoring chances were few and… well, they were just few.

Our best attacking stretch came early in the second half, but the only real chance we had was Gabby Seiler’s shot from the top of the 18 that hit the crossbar.

Okay… I started writing this entry like five days ago so the statute of limitations has well since expired. During the fall, because the schedule is so full-speed ahead, if a project falls behind schedule, that’s usually the end of it. It’s sorta like dropping your keys over the side of the boat. Those suckers ain’t gonna resurface.

But this one is a little different because I actually feel obliged to write about the UK match if for no other reason than we lost. I don’t want to be the guy who only has something to say when things turn out well. So I plan on giving Kentucky equal time. Sort of.

Here’s the thing… we had some technical difficulties producing a DVD of the match so I never reviewed it on video (another project that has slipped to the ocean floor), and my memory of a match pretty well resets itself as soon as we play the next one, which we have. My point is this, I really don’t remember much about the Kentucky game other than what I saw on the highlight package, so I’m relegated to providing the seriously abbreviated version.

I remember it was a heckuva game against a heckuva team. Both teams had about an equal share of the ball and neither team produced an abundance of scoring opportunities. It was more or less a midfield slugfest. Our best run of play was the first fifteen minutes after halftime as we managed some sustained pressure. The best of our chances came from the foot of Gabby Seiler from 18 yards that the UK ‘keeper managed to momentarily pin against the underside of the crossbar before pouncing on the rebound.

There was very little separating the two teams… save for one moment. One of UK’s attackers gobbled up a failed clearance, carved herself a window to shoot, and slotted a shot just inside the post to Woody’s left. It was the game’s only goal, but it was enough to end our 9-game win streak as well as one other streak that I had been reluctant to mention. It was the first goal we had given up during the run of play all season. Texas scored on a free kick and a corner kick. Charleston netted a penalty. No one else had scored until that goal in the 71st minute. We had opened the season with 980 scoreless minutes in the run of play. It might not be a record for some teams, but it is surely a record as far as my career is concerned.
And since I’ve got to scoot out of town to recruit on Monday, let me save myself the stress of another uncompleted project by adding that we also lost to Alabama, 3-2, on Friday night.

Congrats to the UGA football team and coach Mark Richt on another amazing victory in Knoxville! Go Dawgs!

I apologize for the haphazard nature of this entry. I’ll try to do better next time.

updated: 2 years ago

The Courage of Jill Costello

The Courage of Jill Costello

Sorry for the delay since the last post. You may think that the recent dearth is indicative of the site losing steam, but I can assure you that is hardly the case. On the outside the Poet may seem serene, but under the hood a lot has been happening as we move forward to a newer, better Poet.

For starters I wrote a book. Yep. Took me three days. Okay, it’s no Moby Dick, but I can assure you that many a soccer coach (and hopefully some players) will be thankful. I think it is the skinniest yet most useful soccer book ever penned. A bold statement, yes; but I assure you that it is a fluff-free, pure nuts and bolts handbook for real soccer solutions. But let’s come back to the writing of books thing later.

In addition, I’ve been planning a major overhaul to that will bring new life to the site. Now all I need is a second mortgage to afford it. I am hopeful that in a month or two I’ll be able to offer a better product. Poetheads (be certain to include both ‘e’s if you ever use that term) can be divided into two groups. There’s the Xs and Os group that is soccer, soccer, all-the-time soccer. And there are the readers who just enjoy being along for the ride. The problem is that each group is left sifting through the other group’s stuff to find what they’re looking for. So I’m hoping to do more to accommodate both groups by dividing the site between the soccer addicts and the people who I’d like to hang out with. Anyway, with any luck, big changes are a-comin’.

As for the book… this latest creation leaves me with three books in the can with a litany of other unfinished projects and a growing sense of frustration about said place in that can. Writing a book isn’t enough. Anyone who puts in the time to author an entire text, especially the part where you have to re-read and re-write a dozen times, needs to see the finished product. And I have yet to do that.

I’ve come close and am now closer still, but once you finish writing and rewriting, there’s a whole ‘nother level of work still ahead that I have no interest in doing but am obliged to do for my own mental well-being. It’s like the more you have, the more you have to do. Buy a big house? Gotta clean it. Got a big, beautiful yard? Gotta mow it. Got a new digital camera? Gotta download the software and then utilize its many features to maximize your purchase. And if you write a book, you gotta get it to market.

I am promising myself that I will not begin any new projects until at least one of these things is actually a book in book form with a price tag and a picture of me in the back jacket. If nothing else it will save me the frustration of going from three unpublished books to four, and that’s good for everyone.

So Athens got hit with 8 inches of snow on Sunday and the schools have been closed all week – as if I needed one more reason to love the south. I was surprised that the schools were closed yesterday; amazed they were closed today; and utterly mystified that they are shut down again tomorrow. I’m not sure why southerners are allergic to snow, but they treat it like napalm down here. I mean snow is only a hazard when the roads remain icy. When you can see nothing but pavement, which has pretty much been the case since Wednesday, it’s okay to drive. And it’s okay to drive without tapping your brakes every ten feet. Just sayin’.

We were supposed to begin training on Tuesday but if you check out the new pics, you’ll understand why we’ve had to postpone. Sunday night’s snow was followed by freezing rain on Monday, giving our fields the glassy look of first period ice at the Wachovia Center. (Okay, a quick note to southerners… first period ice is a hockey reference. Same goes for Wachovia Center.)

Upon realizing that this entry was utterly boring and pointless, I was one click away from dropping it into the recycle bin. That was moments before I picked up one of the many Sports Illustrateds littering my floor that I haven’t yet found the time to read. And that’s when I came across the story of a Cal coxswain named Jill Costello. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, not even a little bit, so I’ll refrain from offering any details. That said, I urge you to pick up the November 29, 2010 issue, the one with Michael Vick on the cover. The story, The Courage of Jill Costello, begins on page 65. I highly suggest that you get your hands on the magazine version if at all possible. In your hands, without the clutter of a commercial website, it will make for a more intimate reading experience and you’ll be thankful. (If you insist on clinging to the computer age at all costs, you can read the story here.)

Get that magazine. Go to a place where you can remain undisturbed for twenty minutes. And bring a box of tissues.

Jill’s story evoked such a cluster of thoughts and emotions that I still can’t decide where to begin. So I’ll just begin here.

Sometimes when I feel jaded I’ll begin to doubt the value of sports. Even after 20 years of paying my bills, sport still leaves me wondering if we don’t pay too much attention to a group of people chasing down a ball or a puck. Sometimes I get worn out by all the attention paid to absurd salaries and professional athletes who get to live above the law and I ask myself how important can it really be. And I think about all those people, those non-athletes, who are convinced that sport is a childish triviality that we’ve chosen to magnify beyond any reasonable degree of practicality. And I’ll wonder if maybe they’re more right than wrong.

And then I’ll read a story like the one about Jill Costello.

And then I feel sorry for them.

I feel sorry for them because they’ll never truly know the power of team. They’ve never experienced the struggle, the gestures both real and symbolic, the ultimate satisfaction of giving one’s total self to something much bigger than the individual, the moments of agonizing surrender that can be erased by a moment of magnificent inspiration that will make excruciating pain instantaneously bearable and make the impossible materialize right in front of our eyes. Because those are the moments that give monumental value to sport.

Too often those stories never see the light of day. They aren’t shuffled to the bottom of the pile – They never even reach the pile. Instead we are inundated with stories of millionaire criminals and egomaniacs who chase the spotlight for doing nothing more than the job that is expected of them. And most of the time there just aren’t enough column inches left over for a story like Jill’s. Then again, once in a while, as readers, we just get lucky.

I am worn out with Tiger and Brett and Michael and LeBron. I really don’t care if Kobe wins another ring. Those stories will never inspire me. But the story of a 110 pound girl sitting at the front of a boat, in a sport that I haven’t the slightest interest in, reminds me what is truly great about sport.

Each year I debate renewing my subscription to SI. I’m always four or five issues behind and nagged by a sense of obligation to make up ground. Sometimes it seems like a minor aggravation that I can easily do without. Then I read a story like the one about Jill Costello and her teammates and I realize that the magazine has just paid for itself.

Do yourself a favor. Read that story. And when you’re done, you’ll probably feel an overwhelming need to start googling to learn more about this amazing, heroic person. I suggest you just start here.

updated: 6 years ago

Part II - 20th High School Reunion

“...that MIG really messed him up.”
- Top Gun

That quote from Top Gun was the only thing I could think of when I said my last goodbye, to Scott (Scott has always been my last goodbye), and headed off campus and back for the Newark Airport. That MIG was my homecoming weekend, and I had one drive and two flights to sort out all that was going through my head... and through my heart.

On the flight from Newark to Atlanta my pen took over.

One photo. That’s all I wanted. I hadn’t been back in twenty years. Not for any good reason mind you. There was nothing traumatic keeping me away. I just never went back, that’s all. I would have gone back even without the photo, but since the opportunity was going to present itself, and it might never again, I wasn’t going to let it slip by.

On page 72 of the 1986 edition of the Hun School of Princeton Yearbook is a photo of three boys. The rest of the senior class had their photos taken individually. But on page 72 from left to right you will see Tad, Scott, and Dan. There is an old stone banister with old stone spindles (our school had a very Ivy League feel). Tad is sitting on it facing the camera, a white hat in his hand. Scott is standing slightly in front of the banister, hands in pockets. And I am seated on it, arms resting on knees pulled up to my chest, a semi-profile posture. It is a picture of three boys in October of their senior year; three boys very content with the way life is; three boys happy to never hurry change. And at least one who wished change would never come.

We were kings. We would set the new social world order. The class of ’85 had vacated their thrones. This was our nine-month term in office, arrived at the same way it would eventually be absconded, via default. Like all the kings that had gone before us, we had literally waited a lifetime for our one year of celebrity inside this magnificent bubble. Yes, for the time being, we really were kings.

The funny thing about it, for all the things I got wrong in high school, there was one nail I hit right on the head. In the fall of 1985 I loved where we were. I loved everything about it. We were a group of friends, impermeable. School was the excuse that brought us together each day. It was more of a meeting place. But life, the important part, was being steered by the sense of community.

Many had promised that this was going to be the best year of our lives. I just happened to know they were right. And as the best year of our lives unfurled before us, almost from the very second we finished eleventh grade, I was already desperately fearing its end.

If it were up to me we would go nowhere. Time would stand still. We would spin our wheels on the cosmic treadmill of time, taking step after step, but going nowhere in particular. We had a lot of classmates determined to forge ahead to become doctors and lawyers and investment bankers. As far as I was concerned, the future was my enemy. This was as good as it was going to get. I realized then that Scott and Tad and Dave were not only my best friends, they were the best friends I was ever going to have. I didn’t need anything more. I was loving the journey and terrified of the destination.  I wanted everything to stay exactly as it was. Forever.

And you know what... I was so right. Graduation... What a scam! That’s why they make such a big deal about it – putting everyone in fancy robes and marching in a distinguished procession, bagpipers and all that, disguising it as some major accomplishment everyone should strive to reach. They have to sell it. If they didn’t, no one would ever leave. Okay, the smart ones with the 1600 SAT scores would leave to become doctors and such. But the even smarter ones would stick around.

It was crazy being back. Have you ever tried to negotiate a conversation that starts with, ‘So, what have you been doing for the past twenty years?’

‘Well, the day after graduation I slept in ‘til about ten... Didn’t really get much done that day, but the next day was really great because we loaded up the Monte Carlo and headed down the shore...’

Looking back, I can only smile at our naivety. We thought we were the cat’s meow. We thought we knew better. We thought we were ageless and bulletproof. We were wrong.

Time takes it’s toll. On Friday night I was out with ten or so friends and I thought, ‘Class of ’86? We look like the class that ate the Class of ’86.’ At least we’ve been well fed. It’s true. Time waits on no one.

One of the things that really fascinated me was how, even after all this time, everyone slid right back into their old roles. These roles are not officially defined. They are just a bi-product of who we are. When we come together, the roles find us. I think that’s what makes for a successful group dynamic. A group is like a puzzle. If the pieces fit well together, the group dynamic will be good. Jingo is still the connector, the social leader. Kearns is still his advisor. Dave is still the protector. Tad is still the voice of reason. Scott is still the comic relief. And I am still Scott’s set-up man. We all have value. We are all cogs in the machine. Without any one of us, the machine doesn’t operate at maximum capacity.

The celestial sledgehammer of the weekend, the one thing that genuinely knocked the wind out of me, came when I didn’t recognize my good friend Susan. That’s not the weird part. This is. Susan had a daughter right out of college and the daughter is now in eleventh grade. I swear to you that if I had stumbled across this girl in a briar patch in Hoonah, Alaska, I would have known who she was. She is the spittin’ image of her mother in 1985. It was a turbulent trip in the wayback machine. For a second I was in another decade looking straight at my good friend on the same ground I had seen her many times before. If you’ve ever bumped into a sitcom actor, you know what I mean. You’re so familiar with that person’s character, he’s been in your living room so many times, that your reflex is to treat him like someone you know, so you say hi. That’s what it was like. For that instant I felt like I was supposed to be talking to the daughter and not her mom.

I spent most of my time with my two very best friends, Scott and Dave. The three of us had gone to school together from sixth grade through twelfth. We could have filled up the next seven years with stories from those first seven years.

It’s sad not having any physical daily interaction with Scott and Dave. I miss their physical company, their physical influence. Just being bored together used to be a great time. We could be bored together all day and we were still going to talk on the phone that night. Phone calls now are all catch-up. There’s no shared activity for us to recap each night. There’s no making plans for tomorrow. There's no hijinx.  There are only descriptions of what our lives look like.

Saturday night was the main event – a dinner and dance attended by probably 200 people (about 30 of us were 86ers). We had an absolute ball. One of the night’s events was a class photo for each class that ended in a 1 or a 6. Let me tell you, anyone who watched the photographer struggle to get thirty goofballs organized for one photo would wonder how we ever did manage to graduate. That photographer would have had an easier time talking a grizzly off a carcass. We were not cooperating at all, but only because we made no effort to actually listen to her. She was obviously stressing out. I pitied her, but only because I imagined she had to go through these antics with every group, each group thinking that it was the funny one. Other than that I didn’t care. This was our night. She was just going to have to deal with it.

We said a lot of goodbyes late into the night. I set my alarm for 7 A.M. For me there was another matter that needed tending to and I wasn’t going to sleep through it. I needed to harass some friends with wake-up calls. On Sunday morning at 10:30 A.M., Scott, Tad, and I converged once more on campus. As fate would have it, Scott’s fiance Laura happens to be quite the photographer.

It took us a few minutes to find the exact spot. Funny, because all three of us were convinced we knew where it was. All three of us had different spots in mind. And all three of us were wrong. But after some surveying of the landscape and comparing it to our yearbook, Tad solved the mystery. We gathered at that old stone banister, from left to right, Tad, Scott and Dan, and Laura snapped away. No longer kings. No longer boys. Just three really great friends with a photo for the ages.

Part II - 20th High School Reunion

updated: 9 years ago

Part I - 20th High School Reunion

This entry originally appeared in my previous blog. It was one of the most popular entries so I've reposted it here.

Steele popped by the office today to kill some time. She asked, “Coach, what were you like in high school?” When you’re closing in on forty and someone serves that pitch over the plate, you’re going to swing for the fences.

I went to a prep school, which among its numerous distinctions, wins the award for most pretentious sounding: The Hun School of Princeton. Just saying that name makes you feel entitled to a fiefdom. If you’ve ever seen Dead Poet’s Society, well that’s what my high school looked like, except we were (thank heaven above) co-ed.

Demographically, Hun was more like a small college than a high school. We had day students and boarders. The student body was very spread out. Even the day students came from an area that extended out about forty-five minutes in every direction. The boarding students came from all over the U.S. and the world. I have friends who went to public school in Trenton and never moved away. They step out the door to get the morning paper and run into half of their graduating class. It’s not that way at all for Hun graduates.

Last January, Billy Kearns, one of my old high school buddies called. I hadn’t spoken to Kearns since oh I don’t know... 1988? Kearns asked if I would be our Class Ambassador as our 20th reunion was approaching. Let me be perfectly clear on this: In no way, shape or form did I agree to accept the position.

For starters I didn’t think I’d be able to put in the time that would be required to do the job properly. Plus I was never one of those ‘connector’ types in high school. I had my small inner circle of friends, and my slightly larger outer circle of friends, and a few on the periphery, but I was never one of those people that socialized with everybody. I was never one to go out of my way to meet someone. I was bad with guys and worse with girls. I’m still that way. I develop relationships one of two ways. Either you come and talk to me a few times or we’re put in a situation where we’re frequently around one another – like on a soccer team. It’s not that I didn’t care to meet new people. I’ve just always been socially awkward. Regardless, I wasn’t the best pick for the job.

I tried to decline outright, but my friend kept after me. So to get off the call I said I would consider it. But he would have to get back to me with a job description before I made any decision.

So a few months go by and I realize I never heard back. Maybe he forgot about it. Maybe he found someone else. It was a relaxing feeling. One less thing to do. Then, because I suddenly remembered what my friend was like in high school, I had a sudden and overpowering case of ‘AW CRUD.’ I scrambled to the phone thinking I might be able to pre-empt the inevitable but knowing deep down that reality held something far different. I called the alumni director of my high school (who I used to ride the bus with) and the first words out of her mouth were, “Thank you for being the Class Ambassador.”

I said, “Janine, I never said I would do it.”

She said, “Oh. Well the new issue of Hun Today (our alumni magazine) just went out and...”

I didn’t need to hear the rest. It was in print. That made it true. Kearns had stung me. I had officially become the Class Ambassador for the Class of ’86. Yay.

A committee was formed. MIAs were located. Invitations were sent. I’ve put out a couple of e-mails and made some calls, but I’d been avoiding actually thinking about the deeper ramifications. Now time is running out. I bought my plane ticket today. I can’t escape it any longer. Soon I’m going to have to face a few facts. One is that the best part of life is behind me. Another is that it ain’t coming back.

I spoke with one of my very good friends / classmates tonight. Her name is Terri. We’ve known each other since eighth grade. We also rode the bus together. Terri was the first girl I ever called, also in eighth grade, and talk about sweating bullets... I just stood there with that phone in my ear, wrapping myself in and out of the cord (phones used to have cords), saying hardly a peep, just stammering the occasional umm. I remember it like it was this morning. Her best friend from her old school, Traci, was there, and they were laughing because I couldn’t think of a darn thing to say. I was the really stupid boy on the other end of the phone who was so socially inept that it made for great amusement. They were just snickering away. All I could really think was, ‘For the love of all things holy, why in the world did you make this call?’

Terri and I started talking on the phone more regularly and I actually got good at it. Before long we were talking every night, usually for hours at a time. This went on for years to the point that I still remember her phone number, a number I haven’t dialed since circa 1987. We stayed friends throughout high school and for a few years into college. Traci and I eventually dated for a few weeks right around graduation. College came. College went. And twelve years had passed since Terri and I last spoke.

The last time I went back to my school was in January of 1998. It wasn’t for a reunion. I happened to be in the area recruiting and just popped onto campus for a few minutes. I also visited the homes of some of my friends’ parents and I was bombarded by sensory overload. I visited Jingo’s parents. Jing and I had been great friends and teammates since eighth grade and went on to be college roommates. His parents invited me inside and as I was sitting in their living room, I experienced this ‘thing’ that I could never accurately describe. It was almost dreamlike, except for the tightening in my chest. Sitting in that living room triggered all of these memories that, had I never returned to the scene, would have been forever lost to me. People, places, moments – all of them buzzing through me. It was like being in a Star Wars movie, with warships firing those lasers all around – but the lasers were memories. And none of them were missing me. Each one was a direct hit and they were coming so fast and so frequently that I couldn’t make room for all of them in my head or my heart. It physically hurt. I mean that. I thought I was having a heart attack. I was trying to hold it together, but I was going nuts. In this quiet living room in this beautiful neighborhood, I was having one of the most intense moments of my life. It was like the X Games brand of nostalgia. I’ve never experienced anything like it, before or since. But I know that’s what is awaiting me once again when I come face to face with my past.

In high school I was convinced I would conquer the world. But I never did. I never will. That’s been the easiest part to handle.

As I looked at that yearbook, the first thing that struck me is that I am now older than most of my teachers were. That’s a strange frickin’ feeling let me tell you. How in the world did that happen? When did I become older than my English teacher? Try digesting that one from out of nowhere. That’ll throw some perspective into your life.

I looked at all the yearbook photos, but I couldn’t bring myself to read all of the notes from my classmates. I started reading some of them, but I couldn’t bear to finish. I couldn’t bear to get to the part that said let’s stay in touch, friends forever, call me this summer, I love you. Because I know that I never, not once, called some of those people. And for the life of me I have no idea why. These were amazing people. Maybe I just assumed they would always be there; that the bonds could remain without effort; that somehow, someway, circumstances would all collect us together again under the same roof and we would just pick up where we left off. Ummm... That’s not actually how it works.

Terri said that when we graduated, she would never have imagined our group of friends drifting apart. I guess every class feels that way. I imagine every class thinks they’re different; that their bond is stronger than those that went before them; that they would do what the others could not. I know we did. I mean we really were a very tight group. And I guess that’s why our parents tried politely not to laugh at us. They lived every day in a place where we had not yet been... the R word... the Real world. And as a sixteen year resident of the Real World, let me tell you, this neighborhood ain’t what the agent promised me.

I’m not too sad about not conquering the world. My dream was to play pro soccer. I didn’t get there, but I got my trial, and on that day I didn’t leave any bullets in the chamber. I left the field with my head held high. No regrets about that.

I’m just sad that I’m old. I’m not saying that I’m decrepit old. I’m just not young and involved anymore. When did that happen? When did people stop watching me hit a baseball? When did the cheering stop? When did cheeseburgers start making me fat? I was a rail back in high school. I couldn’t for the life of me break a buck seventy when I was seventeen. Now I’m over the 200 pound mark and if I so much as look at a cupcake Jenny Craig unleashes a squad of storm-troopers.

You’re bulletproof when you’re young. I miss that. I miss testing our boundaries. I miss failing without any real consequence. I miss sneaking onto the back bumpers of cars and letting them tow us down a snow covered street. I miss the bonfires down the shore and the parties in my basement and concerts at the Spectrum. I miss sneaking out of the house at 2 A.M. to ride around and do nothing in particular with friends. I miss pool-hopping and our three-man slingshot which was the equivalent of an RPG for water balloons. I miss sneaking the boarding students off campus, and then sneaking them back on. I miss trying to borrow a 600 pound pig (ask me some time). And I miss the comfort of going to bed at night knowing that when I wake up, I’m going to see my very best friends, and thinking that that is how it is always going to be.

I also miss not having the answers. I miss the error of trial and error. There are very few awe-inspiring adventures left in my life. I mean back then, just navigating our way from Trenton to Long Island for a graduation party was an epic adventure. There’s no mystery in getting lost any more. There’s no romance to it. These days it’s too easy to find my way back. Let me tell you, getting lost with a group of friends is one of the most satisfying adventures life offers. (If you are in high school, I recommend that you refuse to use Mapquest or a GPS.  Someday you'll thank me.)

I miss being terrified of talking to a girl on the phone. I know that there will never be another girl in my life who will make my heart jump into my throat when she calls. I know that there will never be another girl who I’ll be afraid to talk to. There will never be another girl who I will ask a friend to do recon work on. Those mysteries have all been solved. Those things that used to be life’s daily Christmas presents are all unwrapped. Life is easier now, and I hate that.

I’ve been talking to a lot of my classmates lately and to a person we agree that if given the chance to do it all over again, we’d do it right now, we’d do it yesterday, no questions asked.

George Bernard Shaw once said that youth is wasted on the young. And it is. I mean, if I could do it all over again knowing now what I didn’t know then... I mean, Holy Cow! But I watch our student-athletes, not just my players, but all of them, and they all carry themselves with an air of invincibility. Part of me is jealous because I once had that. But a bigger part of me just roots for them. This is their time and you just want them to squeeze every drop of juice from that orange. It’s got to be so great to be them. And you just have to hope that they know it, and that they don’t waste it.

I think about Terri and the others and all of the great moments in their lives that I never got to be a part of, and how many important moments in my life I wish I could have shared with them.

What’s really funny is that when we met, Terri’s best friend was Traci, and mine was Scott. Each one of us has literally traveled thousands of miles and met thousands of people since eighth grade. Funny thing. Terri and Traci are still best friends, as are me and Scott. And pretty much everyone else has drifted away. And as much as I’d like to make it otherwise, that toothpaste ain’t going back in the tube.

Okay. I’m going to hang myself now. Enjoy your day.

Got a comment about this blog? Contact me.

updated: 9 years ago

Our Bumper Sticker

Our Bumper Sticker

After about 30 minutes in development, here is the official Soccer Poet bumper sticker! I only had enough money to make like a hundred of them, so we may as well call them limited edition collector’s items. They look great on your car, your friend’s car, your skateboard or that fridge in your dorm room.

UPDATE! Want one?  Just email me your address and either a review of Soccer iQ or a pic of Soccer iQ in some interesting setting, like on your team bus... or on top of Space Mountain... or next to the big fish you just caught... or in front of a gorilla. Just make sure the cover is clearly visible. Even if you didn't like the book, you'll still get a sticker. If you promise to put at least one in public, I may even send you two.

soccerpoet 9

updated: 6 years ago

Soccer iQ - An NSCAA Soccer Journal Top 5 Book of the Year!

Soccer iQ  An NSCAA Soccer Journal Top 5 Book of the Year

Soccer iQ - The first great book for soccer PLAYERS

soccerpoet 598
Do you want to be a smarter soccer player? Then read on.

I’ve written a book for you. It’s easy to read. The chapters are short. And best of all, it will immediately make you a better, smarter soccer player.

I’ve spent the past 22 years cataloging the most common tactical mistakes in youth, high school and college soccer. Soccer iQ addresses these mistakes. Each chapter presents a situation, tells you the mistake most players make in that situation, and then gives you a better solution. If you think that this book won’t help you, let me tell you why it will…

Soccer iQ is filled with the same things we teach at the University of Georgia where our roster includes a lot of players with the words “national team” on their resumes. If they can make these mistakes, there’s a pretty good chance that you can, too. Right?

Look, this book isn’t for everyone. If you’re not genuinely interested in becoming a better player, then save your money. But if you are serious about improving, this is going to be the best ten bucks you’ll ever spend on soccer.

Read Soccer iQ and learn about:

soccerpoet 598

  • The 3-Step Rule
  • The Impossible Pass
  • Judging Headers
  • The World’s Dumbest Foul
  • The value of the toe ball
  • Playing from a spot
  • And many, many more

There is also a bonus chapter on recruiting! Learn how to get and keep yourself on the radars of your top universities while avoiding the mistakes that will make a coach cross you off his list.

Do you want to improve? Do you want to be a smarter player? Do you want to win more games?

Then click the picture above to order today!

Soccer iQ - Don't just play the game. THINK IT!

updated: 6 years ago

Monkey of the Day

Monkey of the Day

I think we'll all remember where we were when we got the news...

Seen a monkey today? Snap a shot & send our way:

Click Here to Learn About the History of Monkey of the Day

updated: 6 years ago

Subscribe to Soccer Poet!

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updated: 9 years ago

Make It a Holiday

Make It a Holiday

I typically avoid using this blog as a sales pitch for my books. Or at the very least, I think it’s fair to say I take a soft-sell approach. But today I’m going rogue. Today I’m going to tell you about a book and why you should buy it.

Wednesday, Feb. 7th is National Signing Day. And the fact of the matter is, we don’t do enough to celebrate it.

Signing Day is that most wonderful of days when rising college freshman officially commit to the college or university of their choice. The deal is done in writing, and the dynamic between prospect and university transitions from dating to marriage. The union is solidified under the holy bonds of athletic and academic matrimony, and extraction from said union comes with entanglements that did not exist one day prior. The long and short of it: It’s officially official.

So here’s my thing… We don’t give nearly enough attention to Signing Day. We fall woefully short of paying it sufficient homage. We don’t do enough to celebrate the athletes who, when they were no taller than a fire hydrant, kicked a ball for the first time, and kept kicking and kicking and kicking until the highly-populated plane they once occupied had become significantly less crowded as players with less drive, less ambition and less talent abandoned the race. And now that the dust has settled, there stands only this select collection of individuals who have scaled the athletic pyramid and risen to the position of college athlete. Now that’s an achievement worth celebrating!

Okay, maybe it falls a smidge short of warranting a federal holiday, but Signing Day should at least be a national day of recognition, if for no other reason than the people it recognizes freaking earned it. It’s a sort of lifetime achievement award for student-athletes.

How many holidays have you actively earned through time, effort, pain, sacrifice, physical risk, bodily harm and relentless commitment to the cause? How many holidays reflect the hours you spent running yourself into the ground in scorching heat, torrential rain or a blanket of snow? How many holidays reflect those moments when you had to throw yourself into harm’s way and choose courage because your friends were counting on you to do exactly that? How many holidays have you bled for?

Veterans (and their families) have earned Veteran’s Day and Independence Day and the Fourth of July. And rightly so. But beyond that, what holiday is a reflection of an individual’s steadfast commitment to climbing to the top level of a stringent meritocracy?

Christmas and Easter are religious observances. George Washington, Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther King Jr. each gifted us a day. And I’ve never been totally sure what Thanksgiving is entirely about other than commemorating a really cool picnic (That’s not to say I don’t thoroughly enjoy it, and I do say thanks.).

Sure, moms and dads each get their special day, but they aren’t required to earn them. It’s great when they do and that’s what we’d all like to hope for, but let’s face it, a rotten father gets the same day as the Father of the Year. It’s just a matter of shifting into a different demographic subset, sort of the way that buying a kayak reclassifies you as a kayaker, not necessarily an involved one. All I’m saying is that there’s nothing merit-based about those days. But Signing Day… Well, Signing Day is nothing but merit-based, right? And still we make a bigger deal about prom and high school graduation, which, although nice and all, don’t exactly winnow the talent pool. Loosely speaking, high school graduation is the participation trophy to Signing Day’s MVP award.

This year, I beg of you, make Signing Day a BIG DEAL. Because that’s exactly what it is. All those other holidays reappear annually (and there’s a reasonable chance your child will walk through two or more graduations), but Signing Day is quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime event! We don’t get a second crack at this one! There’s a level of achievement here that cries out for celebration and we shouldn’t let it pass quietly! It’s the microcosm of the American Dream: You were given nothing more than an opportunity and you turned it into something remarkable. We need to exalt that achievement! We should be shouting it from the rooftops! We need to rise up and shake the walls in recognition of a job very well done! We need to throw parties for these kids – big ones! There should be cake and ice cream and a preposterously loud band and that big Gumby-lookin’, blow-up thing that dances around when the wind blows.

And there should be gifts – lots of gifts. Which reminds me why I began this entry.

Singing Day is the top of one ladder, but it’s also the bottom of another. It’s time to start the climb all over again. You see, the winnowing process doesn’t end on the first Wednesday of February. Signing Day is like leveling up in Call of Duty. You’ve conquered Phase One. Now you’re faced with a whole new set of challenges. You must conquer new opponents who are bigger, faster and more experienced than you. It can be an overwhelming experience for an eighteen-year-old, especially if that child is moving far from home. Wouldn’t it be terrific if someone put together a survival guide for these rising college freshmen – something that told them how to prepare for preseason, and how to develop relationships with teammates and coaches, and how to give themselves the very best chance to earn playing time? Wouldn’t that be delightful?

And wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing if you could give that survival guide to the soccer player in your life to help him or her navigate the landmines of college athletics? And wouldn’t it be spectacular if you could do all this for under ten bucks?

Well my friend, you’re in luck. Because you can get all that information and much, much more in my book, ROOKIE – Surviving Your Freshman Year of College Soccer.

All infomercial aside… ROOKIE really is a darn good book. It’s packed with solid advice. There’s no fluff. It’s just straight-to-the-point information that will help your kid.

Here’s what national champion coach Ronnie Woodard told Soccer America about ROOKIE: “It’s really insightful and every young woman that is about to start her freshman year of college should get a copy. I actually give that book to all of my graduating seniors.”

That’s exactly why a bunch of club coaches buy it each year for their own graduating players. That’s why, about this time each year, I get invited to talk about it on Sirius XM’s The Coaching Academy with Glenn Crooks. Why? Because it’s a darn good book, and it’s one that any college coach would be tickled to learn that his players read. It’s going to solve problems that players never even knew they’d face.

I wrote ROOKIE because I was tired of watching perfectly good freshmen make the same self-destructive mistakes year after year after year. I wanted the players I would someday coach to have a head start. So I wrote this book to help them avoid the pitfalls that have flummoxed so very many of their predecessors. College soccer is a journey, and ROOKIE is a wonderful GPS.

Let me put it another way: If my daughter was about to start her freshman year of college soccer, I would beg her to read this book.

I hope you’ll buy the book, and I sincerely think you’ll be doing your soccer player a wonderful service if you do. But even if you don’t… even if you think the book won’t help… have the party anyway. Like I said earlier, the kid freaking earned it.

Happy Signing Day! Let's make it a bigger deal!

Just click here to visit ROOKIE’s Amazon page.

updated: 2 years ago

Preseason for Parents

Preseason for Parents

I’m a big fan of July. It owns Independence Day, Shark Week and, depending on the year, some iteration of quality international soccer. It also happens to be one of the three months when sales for the book ROOKIE – Surviving Your Freshman Year of College Soccer spike. In case you were wondering, the other months are December, in preparation for Christmas, and January, in anticipation of National Signing Day. But back to July…

July is the month when things start getting very real for college-bound student athletes, especially those about to experience their inaugural preseasons. Preseason can be a daunting thing, which is one of the reasons I wrote ROOKIE in the first place – to help players better navigate their way through college soccer’s version of boot camp. I wanted to arm them with every piece of good advice I’d accumulated over a couple decades of running preseasons. In many ways, a player’s first preseason is the most important week of her entire career, and too many players don’t realize that going in. So I thought I’d spread some knowledge and give rookies a little extra ammo as they begin their fight for playing time and a worthwhile college soccer career.

Glenn Crooks, host of Sirius XM’s The Coaching Academy, likes to spotlight ROOKIE on his annual Signing Day episode, but this year, ROOKIE got another nice little boost from Ronnie Woodard, the former head coach at Vanderbilt and a national champion coach for Tennessee SC. In an interview with Soccer America, Ronnie, the 2016 National Coach of the Year and all-around good egg, told readers that every year she buys all of her graduating seniors a copy of ROOKIE. In addition to coaching at Vandy, Ronnie attended Duke, so she’s real smart and stuff, so maybe it might be worth following her example (I’m looking at you, club coaches).

Anyhoo… as preseason is just around the bend, I thought it might be a good idea to tackle this topic from the other side. Since separation anxiety runs both ways, instead of giving advice to players heading off for preseason, I’m gonna offer some pearls of wisdom for parents who are watching their little athletes leave the nest. So rookie parents, here is a survival primer for your first preseason.

My first thought was to tell parents to stay on top of their kids when it comes to summer conditioning, but it took me about four seconds to change my mind. First of all, we’re a little late in the summer for that advice to matter. But more importantly, I don’t think it’s a parent’s job to make sure a player is doing her summer work. If a kid is heading off to play a college sport and hasn’t figured out how to handle the fitness element on her own, well, she’s going to struggle. Keep in mind, I’m not saying that parents can’t or shouldn’t help with the conditioning. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging the kid who is attacking summer fitness, or even partnering with her to a certain extent. I’m all in favor of the dad who goes out there with a bag of balls, some cones and a stop watch. I just don’t think that parents should be the driving force. In other words, it has to be important to the player, not just the parent. There are a few things that Mommy and Daddy can’t do for their kid, and the physical labor is one of them. Eventually each player has to decide for herself whether or not she is willing to make the physical investment.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about some things that parents can do to help their players have the best possible preseason. I’m going to operate under the assumption that your kid is serious about her college soccer career.

  1. Eliminate distractions. The closer preseason gets, the more tunnel-vision should take over. You want your little athlete to be peaking physically and mentally when she arrives on campus, and the fact of the matter is that there’s an excellent chance that your kid is going to start stressing out as zero hour approaches. Anything you can do to eliminate unnecessary distractions is a plus. Start by prioritizing. Chances are that your kid wants to focus on two things: Getting ready for college and spending time with the friends she is leaving behind. Let her do that. The week before preseason might not be best the time to take the family out of town. And it’s not the time to burden your daughter with a long to-do list of superfluous chores. It is however an excellent time to encourage her to quit that summer job. Anything you can do to free her up and allow her to focus on the things that matter is going to help to alleviate her stress.

  1. Enjoy the mother of all shopping trips. Yeah, you’re going to do this anyway. However, you’re probably looking at it through a ‘life in college’ lens. Remember to also see it through the ‘surviving preseason’ lens. During preseason, the one thing your kid will not have is an abundance of free time. She’s going to be spending a lot of time on the field, in meetings, at meals, at more meetings, and on the trainer’s table. Believe me when I tell you that the one thing she’ll crave more than anything else is sleep. Naps are a gold-ticket item during preseason, and you don’t want your kid missing out on naptime or going to bed late because she has to run to the store because of something you didn’t think of buying. You want her room to basically be a self-contained, self-sustaining mothership. It should be a Mecca of comfort and convenience. In theory, if the world ended, your daughter should still be able to survive for a week or more without leaving her room. ROOKIE provides a pretty comprehensive shopping list, but here are a few items I would highly recommend buying before preseason officially begins.

A Dorm Fridge or a Cooler – Your kid is going to need water and ice at all hours and you need somewhere to keep these things cold.

Bottled Water – Lots of it.

Gallon-Size Ziploc Bags – For making ice packs.

Ace Bandages – Use these to tie the ice packs to your body.

Pre-Wrap – Because of its many uses, pre-wrap is the athlete’s version of duct tape.

Snacks/MREs – Any type of food that you can eat without leaving your dorm will serve its purpose. If you can swing it, a microwave oven can also come in pretty handy.

Shoelaces – Shoelaces never break at a good time. Keep a spare pair in your soccer bag so a broken shoelace at training doesn’t keep you out of the evening scrimmage.

Febreeze – Your daughter is going to accumulate some dirty clothes. Febreeze will keep her from choking on the stench of her own laundry.

Dr. Scholl’s Odor X Spray – It’s like Febreeze for your shoes.

A&D Ointment – Ever had swamp butt? Your kid will during preseason. This will help.

Toilet paper – Swamp butt is not when you want to discover the dormitory toilet paper bears a striking resemblance to 60-grit sandpaper. Bring a few rolls of the super soft, top-shelf stuff.

Bug spray – When the trainer runs out of bug spray because twenty people are being attacked by gnats and mosquitoes, your kid will have some in reserve.

Sun-block – Preseason is hard enough without sunburn, and once again, there’s an excellent chance that the trainer’s supply will run out.

Aloe – To soothe that sunburn. Keep it in the fridge.

Newspaper – Stuff boots with newspaper to dry them out. Seriously, don’t forget this one. Pick up a stack of newspapers.

  1. Take care of the details. There is some grown-up work that needs to be seen to before your kid starts college. Make sure it’s been seen to. Every preseason there is one kid who has to run a gauntlet of red tape because some piece of paperwork was overlooked. Make sure the college has all the money it feels you owe it. Make sure all the medical and academic records have been properly submitted. If you didn’t handle it before you got to campus, and you don’t handle it before you leave campus, your kid will have to handle it once you do. There’s only so much that can be done over the phone. Handling these issues after the fact usually takes some face-to-face. Don’t put your kid in a spot where she has to run from the bursar to the registrar to the financial aid office between lunch and the afternoon field session for three straight days. Dig in and get your ducks in a row.

  1. Set up the finances. Some problems can only be solved by money. Make sure your kid has access to it.

  1. Park your helicopter. Are you one of those parents who attended every event your kid has ever been a part of? Were you the scorekeeper for Wiffle ball games? Were you passing out orange slices during kick-the-can? Were you the banker for Monopoly games during summer recesses? Did you manage substitutions during prom? If that was you, your transition may be harder than your child’s. Here’s the thing… Over-involved parenting will likely do your child more harm than good during preseason, and not just on a developmental level. I sought input from other college coaches for this post, and when asked to give advice to parents, to a person they all said the same thing: Cut the cord. And I mean they actually said that. Like literally. Word for word. This is an umbrella topic, so let me give you a few pointers that fall into this column.

Retire as your kid’s coach. It won’t do your child any good to have one coach at college and another at home, particularly if those two coaches have conflicting viewpoints. The only coach your kid needs to please now is the one that isn’t you. Any other way is going to lead to confusion and will stunt your child’s development as a college player. Make a clean break, bite your tongue when you have to, and be your child’s support system, but not her coach.

Encourage your kid to communicate with her new coach. The flight of helicopter parenting has given rise to a generation of kids who use parents as their default method of problem-solving. In the setting of college athletics, this is a horribly inefficient and oftentimes detrimental path to follow. If your kid has questions about her role on the team, those questions need to be directed to the coaching staff. The problem is that it’s just easier to go to you and have a phone call that ends with her feeling better but having gotten no closer to the solution. Your child is now a college student, which means she’s no longer your child – she’s your adult. Again you need to play a little bit of the martyr and remove yourself from the role of rescuer. Encourage your adult to stand up and have an adult conversation with the adult who is running the program. He’s the one who has the answers she’s looking for anyway.

Let your kid call you. In other words, not the other way around. This is your kid’s time. Let it be her time. Your daughter is going to be excessively busy – busy playing soccer, treating wounds, sitting through meetings, building relationships and sleeping. She’s going to be exhausted – a lot. She’s going to be dealing with all types of new pressures and she’ll be figuring out how to deal with them. You won’t help the situation by asking for status updates every three hours. Give your kid a chance to devote her focus to the really big task at hand. Your kid is probably going to call you at least once a day as it is. Let that be enough. And if she misses a day here and there, it doesn’t mean she stopped loving you. It just means that she’s making new friends, fighting new battles and figuring stuff out and oftentimes, just sleeping. My advice is to tell your kid something like, “I know you’ll be really busy during preseason, so just call us when you can.” Incidentally, if you need another incentive to throttle back on the phone calls/texts, just imagine your kid sitting in a team meeting, the coach is at the front of the room saying something he feels is deathly serious, when your daughter’s Moana ringtone blows up because she forgot to turn off her phone and you couldn’t wait for your third update of the day. No bueno. No, no bueno.

Have two good pep talks ready. There comes a time when your daughter will need a shoulder to cry on. Don’t confuse that for the time when she needs a kick in the ass. Preseason is hard. College soccer is hard. But they’re supposed to be hard. Every player is told that before she goes in, but few of them have any idea how to cope when actual adversity sets in. Right now there is somebody reading this post who, on the first or second night of preseason, is going to receive a phone call from a crying child saying how hard things are and how miserable she is and please come and take her home. And it will be one of the most difficult phone calls you’ve ever received, and for some parents, the urge to rush in and play the rescuer will overpower the more rational response of making your kid stick it out.

Yes preseason is hard, but let’s face it, your kid is a soccer player, not a P.O.W. It’s not that hard. She will survive – just as long as she doesn’t quit. I’ve coached plenty of kids who went through this, and thankfully, almost all of them stuck it out. And of the players who shared their experience with me, every single one of them was so very thankful that they chose to hang in there.

Here’s what you need to know: Your kid isn’t the only one going through this bout of homesickness. Some of her rookie teammates surely are as well. The kids who survive are the ones who learn to lean on their teammates and let their teammates lean on them. If your daughter can prioritize her teammates; if she can make it her mission to get the other rookies through preseason, that sense of purpose will get her through as well.

It’s your kid so it’s your call, but I highly encourage you to think big picture. Let your daughter face some adversity. She will never regret finishing preseason. But if you let her quit, that’s something she may very well regret forever. If she gets through that first preseason, then there’s an excellent likelihood she’ll play four seasons of college soccer and be forever thankful that she did.

Okay, let’s talk about the second difficult phone call you might get.

As preseason progresses, the starting line-up will begin to take shape. If your kid is used to being a star and playing every minute but now finds herself on the outside looking in, she might panic. That’s when your phone will ring again. And again, it’s up to you to impart the value of long-term vision.

The worst thing a player can do is to check out when the pieces don’t immediately fall into place for her. And it’s astonishing how quickly some players check out. Instead of digging in and fighting the good fight, they start mailing in their effort because they feel they are championing a lost cause. And at that point, they really are.

You know you’re kid better than I ever will, so you’ve got to figure out which talk to break out for any given moment. But if you think your kid is on the verge of checking out, it might be the ideal time for some tough love. Don’t let her wallow in self-pity. Don’t let her starting throwing her teammates and coaches under the bus. Love your kid, but remember why your family chose that college and that soccer program. It wasn’t because the coaches promised your kid that it would be easy and that the universe would cater to her every waking desire. If your daughter wants to improve her station in life, it won’t happen by engaging in self-destructive behaviors. Everybody wants what they want. Sometimes the only way to get there is through hard freakin’ work.

I guess what I’m really saying with this whole cut-the-cord section is that there is a fine line between being supportive and being a crutch. For your kid to be strong, you may have to be strong first. When your daughter reaches college soccer, it’s time for her to take ownership of her athletic career. I suggest that you don’t impede that process. Jumping in to play the rescuer might make you feel useful, but in the end you’ll do more harm than good. Your daughter is about to take on the greatest job she’ll ever have; she needs to own that; she needs to make that real. You can’t do it for her, no matter how badly you might want to. It’s time for your kid to stand on her own two feet and demonstrate why she deserves to be taken seriously as a college athlete. Make sure she knows that.

College soccer is just around the corner. Best of luck to all the players, coaches and officials and yes, even the parents. May you all go undefeated.

By the way, there’s still time to read ROOKIE. You can buy it on the Books Page of this site or at Amazon.

updated: 2 years ago

A Good Pencil

A Good Pencil

Before Facebook and YouTube, if something went viral, it went there via email – like the ten ways to amuse yourself in an elevator (passing out name-tags was my favorite); or the Darwin Awards, which recognized people who had removed themselves from the gene pool with acts of terminal stupidity; or this one:

When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they quickly discovered that ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity. To combat the problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12 billion to develop a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on almost any surface, and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to 300 degrees Celsius.

The Russians used a pencil.

A quick Google search tells me that story isn’t actually true. But for today, let’s pretend it is. We’ll come back to it later.

About a month ago, the website published an article called ‘The US Development Academy Player – The Fighter Who Has Never Been Hit.’ The post references a pair of games where the losing sides got manhandled by the opponents.

The theme of the article is largely that in our effort to produce better, cleaner, more technically gifted players, we have ignored the responsibility to create competitors. And when these squeaky-clean players we've engineered square off against players who aren't so... sanitized, they lose. Instead of accepting the reality that winning soccer embraces a variety of styles - and not all of them pretty - we decry the injustice of an attractive style losing out to a meat and potatoes one. Instead of creating players who can adapt to a physically combative environment, we blame the environment.

It was a fascinating piece – fascinating in a Well I’m glad somebody finally said it out loud sort of way. Due to pressure from the federation, the piece has since been pulled from the site, which, ironically, sort of mirrors the very problem the article sought to address.

The article begins with a story of a U12 State Cup match between a team relatively rich in resources visiting a team that was anything but. The author’s team, in spite of its superior training facilities, gear, talent and commitment to attractive, possession-based soccer, was put on the back foot by a group of no-nonsense grinders from Northeast Philly. The Philly boys won in PKs.

Following the match, the author heard what he refers to as “typical elite level responses” from players and parents “to losing to a team from a rougher section of town, who somehow managed the result without two uniform kits, backpacks and turf facilities. ‘That wasn’t soccer’ was the message.” The author notes a “Country club mindset that is beginning to plague soccer in the US at the elite youth levels,” and how this mindset is undermining the effort to produce players who can compete against players from around the world – players who don’t enjoy the embarrassment of riches bestowed upon the American club player.

The article spurred me to write about something that has been bugging me for years. I never mentioned it, mainly because I just wasn’t sure, and to be honest, I’m still not. I haven’t spent enough time with boy’s soccer to have absolute clarity, and certainly not enough to justify an indictment against the development system in the US. And as much as I agree with the sentiment of The Away End’s blog post, it isn’t exactly overwhelming, empirical evidence of a system gone wrong. So I’m going to say what I have to say, fully prepared to be proven wrong. And yelled at.

My main exposure to boys’ soccer over the past decade has been through camps, but this spring I got to watch a U-16 boys team play on several occasions. Maybe it was a case of confirmation bias, but the U-16 teams I saw did nothing to dissuade me from a suspicion I had developed during camps. I see two clear distinctions between the boys playing today and those of yesteryear. First, today’s players are way more technical than their predecessors. I mean it’s just crazy how much more skillful the American player has become. The things they can do with a ball, well, it’s just ridiculous. And secondly, if I had to choose, I’d take their predecessors in a heartbeat. From what I have witnessed, there is an astonishing shortage of competitive grit in the modern American player. Where the technical has flourished, the combativeness has gone virtually dormant. There's a surplus of sizzle but a dearth of steak.

This is my image of the modern-day, U-16 boy’s soccer player: He’s wearing Nike cleats and a jersey from Barcelona or Real Madrid that he’ll shed at the first opportunity to show off his six-pack abs. And he is crazy good with the ball at his feet – as long as no one is challenging him for it. He knows three dozen ball lifts. His love affair with the ball has arrested his ability to develop any tactical clue about the game’s bigger picture. And, most disturbing of all, he doesn’t compete. He doesn’t know how to put his shoulder into an opponent. He won’t go to ground. He won’t risk his legs to win a fifty-fifty. He has no interest in doing the dirty work. For all intents and purposes, he is a decoration – pretty to look at, but serving no practical purpose.

For years coached bemoaned that their players didn’t watch enough soccer on television. Now it seems they watch plenty of soccer – and a lot of it is on YouTube. Today’s players aren’t obsessed with winning; they’re obsessed with collecting tricks. They see a trick that looks cool and, because they want to look cool themselves, they devote their time and energy to mastering that trick because no one told them that, in a game, there would be no reasonable circumstance in which attempting a Homie Jay Around The World would do any practical good. These YouTube players don’t understand how to make a bending run to stay onside, but they can juggle the ball like circus performers. The digital age has replaced footballers with freestylers who seem more excited about the pregame group-juggle than the game itself.

Outside of the US, soccer is the working-class sport. Players like Neymar, Yaya Toure, and Luis Suarez all grew up poor – and I mean like dirt poor. Ironically, so did the poster boy for soccer flair – Cristiano Ronaldo. Zinedine Zidane grew up in the ghetto. Football was the way out of poverty for these world-class players. Their motivation wasn’t to be cool – it was to feed their freaking families. Football was their way to not be poor. When your options are to keep climbing or go hungry, you adapt and climb. You quickly learn the upside of desperation. You learn that there is a place for the player will do anything to win, even if that means chopping someone in half.

In America, soccer is an upper-middle class sport. Teenage players have spent their lives enduring the upper-middle class struggle, which, ya know, isn’t actually a struggle. Soccer might be their passion, but it’s not their lifeline – because they don’t need a lifeline. They aren’t desperate to escape anything. They come home each day to their cul-de-sac and their PlayStation 4s and they check their Instagram accounts. All in all, it’s a pretty good life.

If there’s an argument to be made against the US ever becoming a legitimate contender for a World Cup, this is it: We’re trying to groom players. Outside of the US, the best players cannibalize their way up the pyramid. Soccer may look like the beautiful game, but in the trenches, it’s a freaking bloodbath.

When I was getting one of my coaching licenses, a staff instructor told us a story about Jovan Kirovski – the American who signed with Manchester United in 1992.

As the story goes, in one of his first training sessions with Man U., Kirovski was matched up in a 1v1 tunnel with Ryan Giggs. Giggs passed the ball to Kirovski and moved out to defend. Kirovski received the ball, ran at Giggs, deftly nut-megged the Welshman and had a clear path out of the tunnel. Just before reaching the tunnel’s end, Kirovski began to coast. A step before the finish line, Giggs magically reappeared to swat the legs out from under Kirovski and send the American into orbit.

There are a number of valuable lessons we can take from that story. First of all, don’t meg Ryan Giggs. Seriously though, nobody likes being megged, least of all a pro. Secondly, if you want to make someone look like a fool, be prepared to pay the price. And most importantly, Ryan Giggs was playing for his paycheck. Soccer was his livelihood and he was fully aware of that fact long before he was nut-megged by an American. He wasn’t too cool to do the dirty work.

In the US, bite isn’t cool anymore. Tackling isn’t cool. Being an enforcer isn’t cool. Taking a hard foul, or God forbid, a yellow card, to send a message isn’t cool either. Being cool now requires a ball lift, a nutmeg and a side-volley all in rapid succession. Blue collar role models like Roy Keane have been supplanted by remarkably acrobatic avatars generated by some computer whiz in a graphics studio. Form is outdueling function. Soccer players are becoming less like competitors and more like performance artists.

Today I watched a soccer video that is making the rounds on Facebook. It’s a collection of 1v1 moves. It’s not a match video; it’s just a demonstration video – a video produced specifically with the aim of getting hits and likes and shares and whatever else that earns one the label of ‘viral.’

The video’s objective is ostensibly to demonstrate the most complex ways imaginable to get around an opponent. Apparently the lunge – the simplest, and still most effective way to dribble by an opponent, just isn’t fashionable anymore. Nor is the scissors. Those moves are dinosaurs in the age of the YouTube player. To be cool these days, merely beating an opponent on the dribble isn’t enough. Now you need a move that could get you into the cast of Cirque du Soleil.

In that video, one of the moves takes literally six touches, with four of those touches keeping the ball off the ground and – wait for it – two of those juggling touches done with a blind back heel. It’s not a move; it’s a freaking magic trick! It’s like Rodney Dangerfield’s Triple Lindy - except more difficult.

And you know what? I bet that today a few thousand American boys are trying to learn that move, not because it will make them more effective players, but because somewhere along the line they became convinced that they need a freaking pen that writes in space.

Look, I am all for producing more technically proficient players. We’re going to need that to compete on the world stage. But to be a world class team, we also need world class competitors. And that’s not something you learn on YouTube. To rise to the top, you can't be just an artist; you also have to be part soldier, and I'm wondering if we've lost sight of that. As the aforementioned article states, "We never expose our players to the mayhem and chaos that soccer can be... by coddling and protecting them in an academy structure that discourages physical play and competing. In comparison, we are training fighters who never get punched in the face."

Like I said earlier, I'm not even certain this problem actually exists. But if it does, I don’t know how to fix it. Our priorities in youth soccer seem creature-comfort driven. We want smoother pitches, shinier uniforms, more gear and a darn fine brochure. Function takes a backseat to form.

If this ship is going to right itself, it has to start with coaches and parents accepting the reality that soccer isn’t a country club sport. Soccer is not just about what your feet can do with a ball. It isn’t just about playing pretty. The result has to matter. Competitiveness has to matter. And there has to be an understanding that no matter how pretty you want to play, the opponent is under no obligation to accommodate your style – regardless of how much you pay in club dues.

There will be games when talent and style carry the day, but sometimes, in order to win, you just have to out-grind the opponent. And if a player doesn’t have that club in his bag, somewhere along the line he will become obsolete.

The next time that dribbling video crosses my Facebook feed, I’m going to respond by linking this video of the aforementioned Ryan Giggs.

Don’t underestimate a good pencil.

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you'll consider buying my books.

updated: 2 years ago

The Advantage Rule in Soccer

The Advantage Rule in Soccer

In my last post I happened to mention the Advantage rule as being one of soccer’s more mysterious concepts. Based on reader feedback, that little tidbit didn’t slide by unnoticed. Turns out, it’s a mystery that quite a few people wouldn't mind some help in solving. So, as I can shed some light on the topic while exerting minimum effort, I will again dip in to the Happy Feet well, where this topic isn’t only addressed, it’s brought to life by the magic of video – in color and everything!!! So for all of you struggling to make heads or tails of soccer’s Advantage rule (or clause or whatever it’s officially referred to), I give you this excerpt from Happy Feet:

Are you familiar with the NFL? If you are, you know that when one team is flagged for a penalty, the other team has the option of declining that penalty. The advantage rule is very similar, except it is the referee who decides, during the run of play, if a team that was fouled is better served by not having that foul called. For example…

A midfielder sends a beautiful pass in behind the opponent’s defense and her teammate who receives that pass is going to have an excellent chance to score. However, just as the midfielder released her pass, she was fouled by an opponent. The referee has a choice to make: either call the foul and award a free kick, or invoke the advantage rule and see how things play out. The referee may decide that calling the foul would actually do more harm to the attacking team (negating their ADVANTAGE) and apply the advantage rule.

The point of the advantage rule is to not reward a team for fouling an opponent and to avoid punishing a team that has been fouled. This is often an exceptionally difficult call, even for the very best referees, because they have to evaluate the circumstances very quickly and reach a decision.

Referees are granted a little leeway should they decide to invoke advantage. For starters, if it quickly becomes clear that no advantage would materialize, the referee may change his mind, whistle the foul and award the free kick.

If the referee deems that the foul was worthy of a yellow or red card (caution or ejection), he can still elect to apply the advantage and then at the next stoppage, caution or eject the player who committed the foul.

The advantage rule, although absolutely stellar in theory, is much more difficult when it comes to practical application. Referees must make a snap judgment while everything around them is moving at breakneck speed. But when you’re on the sideline and you’re certain that you just saw a foul that went unwhistled, see if the ref is waving play on and shouting, “Advantage!” If he is, you’ll know what he’s talking about.

To see some excellent examples of the advantage rule being applied, check out the SoccerPepperTM Lesson 5 video entitled Advantage.

If you enjoyed this entry, I invite you to buy my book Happy Feet – How to Be a Gold Star Soccer Parent – Everything the Coach, the Ref and Your Kid Want You to Know. The ebook version contains seven live video links to videos like (and including) the one mentioned above to help you sort out some of soccer’s more mysterious concepts like positions, offsides, and systems of play. The book was written to help parents better understand the game and the important role they play in their child’s enjoyment of the soccer experience.

updated: 2 years ago