If you had told the young me that I’d be a huge soccer fan at this point in my life, I would have looked at you a bit dumbfounded. Unlike today, when millions of kids around the country at least try soccer, when I was growing up, in my part of the New York suburbs, soccer was a game mostly played by the children of German and Italian immigrants. In junior high school, I had played fall tennis, but when I moved to high school, there was no fall team. A friend suggested that I try out for the soccer team, because they needed big guys to play defense. So, I did.
It must not have been hard to make the team, because I was inexplicably not cut, and spent the next two fall seasons practicing and mostly watching my teammates play from the bench. Occasionally, usually when my father showed up at the games, the coach gave me a sympathy run out on the field, including one memorable stint at forward, where I had a pretty epic collision with the opposing keeper. It was fun, but when I injured my leg before my junior season, and with no real prospects to ever play for the varsity team, I hung up my cleats for what I believed was the last time. Remarkably, at my 35th high school reunion last year, I spent a surprising amount of time with my former soccer teammates.
When I went off to college, I found out that Princeton has a fun event, Cane Spree, deriving from a quaint 19th century tradition where freshman and sophomores would brawl over the use of walking sticks (really). By the time I was there, it had morphed into a day-long intramural competition between the two classes, but if I recall, varsity athletes were barred from playing their sports. Somehow, I found myself playing Cane Spree soccer, out of shape, unpracticed and frankly pathetically. And after the game, I figuratively hung up my cleats for what I believed was the last time (since I didn’t actually have cleats).
Following the flameout of the NY Cosmos and the collapse of the North American Soccer League, the soccer landscape was pretty bleak in this country through the 1980s. Then, the US was awarded the 1994 World Cup, which led to an actual uptick in interest. It also roughly coincided with my son getting to the age where he could join AYSO. Soccer is, in many ways, the best game for little kids to play, since they can run around and kick a ball much easier than they can hit a baseball, even off a tee, or shoot a ball into a hoop. We signed him up, and I agreed to be an assistant coach, because that’s what dads do.
I fell in love with the game.
First, I fell in love with coaching the kids and the socializing with their parents on the sidelines. I started to take coaching classes and read books and websites about coaching kids. We started attending local minor league games, and went to see the MetroStars (who became the Red Bulls). Within a short time, I found myself as the assistant commissioner of our local region, then commissioner and then area director for essentially the county. My family started going to AYSO meetings and conventions around the country, and both of my kids were enthusiastic players. My wife organized our local soccer camp, and it felt like soccer was sort of our family business. It was a great way for us to do something that we all enjoyed as a family. I even started to play in the occasional pickup game. I was still terrible, but it was fun.
But even into the early 2000s, soccer was still hard to find on television. Even with the great Women’s World Cup victory of 1999 (my family was at the opening matches at Giants Stadium), and the men’s surprisingly fine showing at the 2002 World Cup, MLS games were not easy to find, European and South American games were rarely available (at least in English), and there was no streaming available on the slow Internet of the day. Due to our soccer camp work, we hosted young, mostly English, coaches, some of whom played at the lower levels of the English system, and we were able to follow a few of their careers on the web (and still do).
In 2001, my soccer loving son decided to do an independent study project for his enrichment class on English football, and using my abilities to wrangle the myriad filesharing sources of dubious legality then available, I found enough football songs to create a CD to use as background music for his presentation. Without a doubt, the worst of these songs is the one in the video above, which commemorates the Arsenal F.A. Cup winners of 1993 (but the video features a very different group of Gunners). Really—listen to it and revel in its awfulness.
A couple of years later, our cable system started carrying what was then the Fox Soccer Channel, featuring regular English Premier League games. My son and I decided that we needed to pick a team to support. Considering that most of the US teams that we root for are generally disappointing, we felt like this gave us a clean slate to pick a good team to support. We considered Manchester United, but they were at the time in a marketing arrangement with the hated Yankees, so they were out. Chelsea was in the process of buying themselves to prominence, which we didn’t approve of. Arsenal, though—they played attractive soccer, weren’t crazy spenders, and had some wonderful players, including Thierry Henry (now the Red Bulls captain). We picked them, and that season they were The Invincibles. Of course, since then, it has been a somewhat more painful experience.
And speaking of painful experiences, a year or so ago, as part of an attempt to improve my health and fitness, I started playing soccer again. I’m still bad, but improving, and I’m lucky to play with a group of very supportive guys who don’t bust my chops about my lack of skill and fitness. My cleats are in a bag, now, by the front door, and I don’t expect to hang them up for a while.
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