Monday, May 12, 2008

Breaking the Curse

I coached my last soccer game on Saturday.

Next season, I'm handing Lex off to the high school, and I'll go back to being just a spectator. For 9 years, I've had the same core group of lovable slackers forming the heart of my team, and they've grown from kindergarteners to young men on the verge of entering high school. I've been to my share of Bar Mitzvahs this year, and at all of them, everyone knew me as "the soccer coach" whether I had met them before or not. At one of them, a slightly-tipsy grandfather paid me a high compliment when he told me that our soccer team had been the core of this group of friends that had held them together over all these years.

We're at an age where most of the casual players have dropped out of the other teams, but we keep adding new players and introducing new kids to the game. This year, Lex brought two of his friends onto the team that had never played organized soccer before. We got back one of our players who hadn't played soccer since elementary school. I hope that even if this is the only season of soccer they ever play that they will take a little love for the game with them.

We've had successful years and less successful years. We went through periods where we so dominated the league that the park district gutted our team, sending players off to other teams to try to balance things out. We've had periods where we have struggled. Lately, we've been in a long slump. It has been several years since we last had a winning season. It has, in fact, been a couple of years since we've managed better than a tie.

We'd been showing signs of breaking the curse all season. We fought our way to a gritty, exciting 1-1 tie against a really good team that had blown us out early in the season. We managed several ties, but had yet to get a win in our last season together.

If this were a soccer movie, the scrappy underdogs would come together and win their last game and their coach would retire on a happy note.

True to Hollywood form, the team we were playing against in our last game were unlovable assholes. A couple of weeks ago when some of our players were late to the game, they started 10 players against our 8 instead of adding players as late-comers straggled in as tradition dictates. By half-time we had enough players to even things up, but the damage had been done. They had scored using their extra players, and we managed only a come-from-behind moral victory. Our 11th player showed up, but we finished the game tied at 1-1, playing ten-on-ten with our extra player on the sideline.

Saturday was a perfect day for soccer. The Shakespearean gales that have plagued this season were replaced with a halcyon breeze. There was an absence of rain and hail. The sun was out. It was warm, but not too hot.

We arrived on the field to find that we had the tough-but-fair ref that all of the kids respected instead of the incompetent college student with the chip on his shoulder. Things were looking up. I gave them the same advice I always gave them, gave them a few little things to work on in the game, reminded them that this was our last game together, and told them to have a good game. The whistle blew to start the game and the boys took their game to a whole new level.

They looked like stars. They moved the ball through Champaign's defense with ease. They strung passes together. They laid down mad jukes. They pinned the other team back on their half and piled on the pressure. They got players up in numbers on the attack and fell back to defend as a team. Their keeper was forced into save after save. A free kick just missed the upper corner. Another shot went just wide. And then it happened. One of our players sent in a picture-perfect cross and Lex put a wickedly dipping shot over their keeper and into the net. We were up 1-0.

With just seconds left in the half, one of their players (following the script, a talented but dirty player) swore at the ref. The ref showed him a yellow card and sent him to the sidelines to cool down. As he left the field and his sub came on, the player couldn't resist a parting comment. The ref showed him a second yellow, then the red and ejected him from the game. The sub was sent off the field. They would have to finish the game a man down.

In the second half, the other team tried to sneak an extra player onto the field, but the ref caught them and sent him back off.

Even playing eleven on eleven, the boys had controlled the game. In the second half, with the extra man advantage, the boys put on a clinic. We went up 2-nil when Lex put a cross through their defense and our forward at the back post casually took the ball on his chest and deflected it into the net. Up two goals and with our opponents a man down, the boys showed their maturity. Without needing any word from the coaches, they began spreading the opportunities around instead of running up the score. The two goalscorers worked hard to set up their teammates, unselfishly giving up their own scoring chances to give other players the chance to get a goal, passing instead of shooting. I gave one of our players who mainly plays defense the chance to play as a midfielder and he almost immediately forced their keeper into a diving save that sent the ball skipping off the far post.

The game tightened up when the other team scored on a counter attack after a rare missed call: one of their players took down our defender to let the attacker get a one on one against our keeper. After that, the traffic was all one-way. Our first half goalkeeper scored to put the game out of reach. At one point, Lex put a jaw dropping no-look back-heel pass through the legs of the guy guarding him right to the feet of a teammate. With time running out, we got one more goal.

With all of the Hollywood conventions met, the final whistle blew and we finished with a convincing 4-1 win. (If we'd been following Bollywood conventions, we'd have had to work in a show-stopping dance number.) The curse had been broken.

It was, as I said to my co-coach, the perfect season-ending trifecta. The boys won playing beautiful soccer: teamwork, individual flair, great chances made and missed, it was all there. The most obnoxious kid in the league finally got tossed out of a game. And finally, in a neat bit of poetic justice, one of the two teams that had played extra players against us had to finish the last game a man down.

Honestly, I'd been ready for it to be over. All of the irritations and inconveniences that coaching brings had been wearing on me. For the last few weeks, I'd been looking forward to being done with coaching, but now that it's all over but one last scrimmage and a pile of pizza boxes, I think that I'm going to miss this after all.


Splotchy said...

That's a lovely end to your soccer coaching career.

Johnny Yen said...

That was fucking marvelous. There are days that I wonder if there is indeed some force in the universe that enforces justice, including poetic justice.

deadspot said...

It was so cool.

Just yesterday, as we were driving back from Zoe's Regional game*, Lex mentioned out of the blue how cool it was that we won our last game ever.

It may be all over but two scrimmages and a pile of pizza boxes. The middle school girls' team likes to give our boys stick about their record. In the fall, they scrimmaged against each other while I was in New York. The boys dropped a hammer on them in that game. The girls are asking for a rematch, so we'll see if we can set something up.

* We won 5-0 over Mt. Zion, so we play again on Friday. Zoe played about half the game, and she played without her knee brace, so that's good. She's still not her old self on the field, but she put a rocket of a shot off the crossbar just minutes into the game.

Writeprocrastinator said...

Give yourself a pat on the back, because you've made a huge difference in several children's lives and that alone is worth it. Few adults have the time and they in turn, will put forth the effort.

Johnny Yen said...

Did you ever imagine, when we were snotty young punks at Eastern, that we'd be a couple of middle-aged guys bragging about our kids?

My stepdaughter started lacrosse, recently, BTW. Braggery to follow.