The first year I coached my son’s recreational soccer team we lost almost every game.
Undoubtedly due to the shitty coach who had never played soccer.
The second year I coached AYSO, I had all the boys from Dalton’s elementary school. They were smart, Dalton was fast, and there was no offsides rule. The boys quickly learned to send it out to Dalton on the run—he would get to it first, they would sprint for the goal, and he’d pass it back to them for a score. They won most games. We were only crushed by two teams, both stacked with good players—players with dads who had started them young and/ or also had them playing on “club teams.” Club teams are known as “travel ball” teams outside of California, where apparently you have to travel a long way to play other good teams. In a huge city like Los Angeles, with millions of Latino kids (who got soccer balls before they could walk) and Japanese American kids (who got soccer balls as soon as they could walk), no teams had to travel far for good competition.
Club teams played all year. They had licensed, professional coaches. They were also thousands of dollars annually. AYSO was $165.00.
Every summer break, winter break, and Spring Break, I put Dalton in whatever soccer camps were available: AYSO, British, or local club camps. He had a blast and I got a break. Even those camps were a fraction of the cost of club soccer. That was as close as Dalton got to a club team.
Until our worst AYSO season. Once the kids hit U8, AYSO coaches rank their players at the end of each season. The age group coordinators are supposed to use those rankings to make sure the teams are fair. In Dalton’s age group, the coordinator claimed the previous year’s rankings had “disappeared.” She stacked her son’s team with good players, including the great player with the dad who had played soccer in college and now coached. I had three players who had never played soccer before. All Dalton’s prior teammates wound up on other teams.
We were the Panthers, and we were pathetic. In our first game, we were slaughtered 9:0. In our second game, the Crushing Red Typhoon crushed us 11:2, with repeated goal-scoring breakaways from a club player named Jacob. Our one bright spot—aside from snacks bags with brownies—was Dalton chasing Jacob down. Face red and furious, Dalton came diagonally from one goal all the way to the other to deny Jacob a last point.
Then I had to bribe Dalton, who hated injustice even more than losing, with ice-cream to get him to go through the post-game handshake.
But with every practice, and with every game, the Panthers improved. (Probably because getting worse wasn’t possible.) I kept the practices as fun as I could, using games like “Target the Coach” to improve passing or “Simon Says” to work on ball handling. Every week I handed out a little black panther statuette to one player for doing something great…or just following directions. When we managed to tie the Agent Orange team, we celebrated like it was a win.
By the time we played the age group coordinator’s stacked team, we only lost 5:0. At that point, I was almost as angry as Dalton over the disparity in the skill levels among teams. After the handshake line, I told Andy, “Don’t let Edwin get two snacks and don’t let Dalton see the other team celebrating. I’m going to go give the coordinator a piece of my mind.”
“Do you think that will help?”
“Of course not. But it’s the only consequence I can give.”
“Okay. Same deal as Dalton. You get an ice-cream if you don’t hit.”
I did not hit her. I told her I’d watched her stack her son’s team for years, against the AYSO mandate for fair teams in order to build a love for the sport. I told her it discouraged players and that all the kids deserved better. I told her she sucked as a coordinator, a parent, and a human. I refused to accept a single weak excuse and then I left.
For the Panthers’ last game, we again faced the Crushing Red Typhoon. And do you know what?
WE WON. Despite the amazing Jacob (who eventually moved on to the LAFC Academy team). Despite our inexperience. And despite our Goal Keeper getting knocked over and falling into dog poop. When the last whistle blew, it was Panthers: 3, Crushing Red Typhoon: 2.
The jubilation of Panther parents, Panther players, and, yes, the Panther coach rivaled that of any World Cup Champions. (Nobody hoisted our keeper on their shoulders, though.)
During the next Christmas break soccer camp, a coach from a local club team asked Dalton to try out for his team.
Eyes shining, Dalton asked, “Can I do it, Mom? They play ALL YEAR. And it’s a REAL coach, not a parent.”
Andy said, “Ouch.”
I laughed and said, “Sure. You need an actual soccer coach. And I’m gonna retire while I’m still on top.”
“On top? We didn’t win AYSO,” Dalton scoffed.
“Oh, I think we did, buddy. I think we did.”
And I always will.