My son is, quite possibly, the best goalkeeper under the age of ten in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This is causing me all sorts of problems. But first, a story.
When I was a kid growing up in central Ohio, back in the early Eighties, we didn’t know much about soccer. However, an influx of Japanese nationals, thanks to the Honda plant in Marysville, as well as the lily white makeup of the remainder of my sleepy suburb meant that Dublin, Ohio was ideally constructed to be one of the first places in midwestern America to latch onto soccer as a serious youth sport. In fact, my friend’s big brother was the first American to be signed to a European club development team. Everybody in my school played in the local rec league, and we had a very serious traveling soccer team that competed at the national level.
Of course, the rec league teams had to be coached by the dads of the kids, who knew next to nothing about the sport. We treated kickoffs like football kickoffs—we booted the ball as far down the field as we could and chased after it. We played 11-on-11 with goalkeepers from the age of 6, on huge fields. I used to go entire halves of the game without touching the ball. If you know anything about how youth soccer is played and taught today, you know just how backwards that is.
Despite there being somewhat of a soccer gene in my family (one of my cousins is the all-time goal scoring leader at the University of Texas and a former USWNT member), I was never much better than average as a field player. I had virtually no ball skills—I only scored three goals in six years of soccer—and the only contribution I made (which was, admittedly, considerable) was as a sweeper with the fearless ability to slide tackle any opposing attacker onto a stretcher. I set league records for yellow and red cards, and was often called a “thug” by parents of the injured. My team was ridiculously good, too—we won every championship and tournament we entered, both indoor and outdoor, for four years. In fact, I don’t remember losing a game from the time I was eight until I stopped playing at the age of twelve.
One day, when I was nine, it was my turn to play goalkeeper—every kid, at some point during the season, got a turn to see if they were any good at hurling themselves in front of the ball. Nobody else ever got a turn after that. It turned out to be my calling. From that moment forward, over the next three years, I never left the goal. But when it came time to pick between soccer and football—between Friday night lights, cheerleaders, and glory and, well, soccer—I picked football and never looked back.
But I never had any illusion that my son would play football. He’s never exceeded the tenth percentile in height or weight on any growth chart, and even if he had, I’m not convinced that football is a healthy or safe game for children to play. I definitely wouldn’t recommend that any child under the age of twelve play football—they’re not learning anything about the game at that age, and they’re only increasing the risk for knee injuries and concussions.
I do, however, want him to be physically active, so I signed him up for soccer just short of his fourth birthday. This means, for those doing the math at home, that he’s eight years old, and he’s now been playing soccer for five years. It sounds crazy to say it, but any kid who hasn’t been playing for several years already at this age is woefully behind. Not only that, but any opportunity to play even more soccer has to be taken, lest you fall behind (and again, I know how crazy this sounds).
Therefore, when Kevin’s club team opted not to field an indoor team this year, it fell upon me to find a league that took individual entries (most leagues only accept full teams), and I found one approximately 45 minutes away. Of course, when I mentioned his name to the league director, he became very excited and asked if I would coach one of the teams (again, it’s ridiculous, but club soccer people in this area know the names of the top eight-year-olds). I’ve coached both of my kids at the U6 level, and I was an assistant on my son’s U10 rec league team this year (yes, he plays on more than one team), but I’ve been hesitant to be a head coach at this level because I travel for work and I can’t conduct semi-weekly practices as needed.
However, due to the lack of field availability, there are no practices for indoor soccer—just 15 minutes of warm-up before the game. Okay, yes, fine, I’ll coach.
Two Saturdays ago, we had our first game. All of the other teams in the league are club teams who signed as full teams with seven or eight kids on their rosters. As the only “pickup” team in the league, I have thirteen kids on my roster. In indoor, only five can play at one time—four field players and one goalkeeper. This is a problem for a few reasons:
- This is a “competitive” league, not a “recreational” league. Like I said, the other teams are traveling club teams like the one my son plays on in the Fall and Spring. Therefore, kids aren’t guaranteed any playing time at all, much less the half of the game that they’d be guaranteed to play in rec league. But even so, mathematically, if I give all kids equal time, they only get 1/3 of a game.
- The whole reason that I signed my son up was to get more playing time—I’m somewhat annoyed by the fact that I paid for a season of indoor soccer and my kid’s only getting 1/3 of the time he should be.
- For a few of the kids, this is their first time ever playing soccer. Why they signed up for the competitive league and not the recreational league, I’m not entirely sure. But they don’t really know what they’re doing out there—they clump together like four-year-olds do when they play.
- Finally, the whole concept of a “competitive” league for eight-year-olds should, again, be ridiculous—but it’s not. The kids really genuinely want to win—we came back from a 3-1 deficit to win 6-4 last Saturday, and you would have thought that we’d won the World Series based on how they reacted.
So, the net result of all of this is that I ended up playing my son in the goal for half of the first game—despite the fact that he had a nasty stomach virus, and only removing him once we had a 3-0 lead—and about seventy percent of the second game this past Saturday. In the second game, I pulled him after the first half with a 1-1 tie score (the other team had about fifteen shots on goal to our two), but when I put another kid in, he immediately let three goals in. So I put my son back in the goal for the remainder of the game, and he shut the other team out and allowed us to come back and win.
Because we won, everybody seemed okay with this. Everybody except my son’s best friend’s father.
Kevin’s best friend from school had never played soccer before, either, but he’s heard Kevin talk about how much he loves it, so he decided to give it a try and sign up for indoor.Of course he’s not skilled with the ball yet, but he’s a good athlete—he’s played baseball and basketball for the last few years. So I thought I’d try him in goal the first game after I pulled Kevin, since his athletic ability might help him there. He did very well, too—he stopped several shots and shut the opposing team out for the second half. He was out of position most of the time, but the opposing team wasn’t that strong so it was fine.
But in the second game, I didn’t want to risk getting any further behind, so instead of putting this kid in, I put Kevin back in the goal. This caused his father to cancel the kids’ lunch date after the game and leave without saying a word to me. My son was heartbroken the rest of the day, and winning all of a sudden seemed a lot less important than having his friend be happy.
If you’ve made it this far through this post, you’re probably wondering, “Holy shit, why am I reading this much about kids’ soccer?” Well, I’m not sure why. But here are my questions for you:
- When did we get to the point where a grown man like me is genuinely concerned about the result of a children’s soccer game?
- How many times am I going to type I know this sounds ridiculous but… in this post before I realize that it actually is ridiculous?
- When am I going to admit that my son is not going to be a USMNT goalkeeper and just let him have fun with this?
The last one is the one that I struggle with the most. You see, he really doesn’t have fun unless he’s winning. And I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. I look around at the world today and see what I think is the result of a “participation trophy” society, where people are rioting in the streets over the results over a (mostly) fairly conducted election, where young people think that how they feel matters more than reality. I watched as his rec league team lost in the tournament this year and noticed how mad my son was that his teammates still wanted to go out for pizza and ice cream after the game—he cared that they lost, and the other kids didn’t. He had a competitive mindset, and was furious that the other kids lacked it. I was proud of him at that moment, but I’m not sure if I should have been.
Like most of us, I played on any number of teams growing up, and some were good and some weren’t. I played on a football team with seven future D-I players that somehow managed to go 3-7—and then won a state title two years later. I’m trying to remember if I had any more fun when we won than I did when we lost. I’m sure that I did…but did I really? I don’t know.
I don’t want to live vicariously through my son. I don’t want to see him win at the expense of his friend’s feelings. After all, he’s only eight years old. Does it really matter that he’s the best goalkeeper his age in the state? Or does it just matter that he’s the happiest kid his age in the state?
Because right now, the two are linked, and maybe they shouldn’t be. Or maybe they should be. I don’t know.