More than 20,000 screaming zealots were shoehorned into Jeld-Wen Field Saturday night to watch the Portland Timbers play DC United to a 1-1 draw. Sadly, I wasn’t among them. Tickets were impossible to come by, and my place on the season ticket waiting list means that I’ll have my tickets in … oh, probably 2107. I could have spent the weekend bemoaning my fate and my inability to see more than a game or two this season. Instead, I decided to go to where it begins for most American professional soccer players: youth soccer.
Friday night found me at Rieke Elementary School in SW Portland. It was game night for the five- and six-year olds of the Foothills Soccer Club. There was no rabid supporters group, no singing and chanting, but there were lots of parents on hand to cheer on their progeny. By “cheer on,” I’m referring to the necessity to do everything within their powers to keep five-and six-year old soccer players focused on the task at hand.
I’m here to tell you that herding cats would be a whole lot easier.
The games are played on 40-yard-long fields with goals that look like miniature lacrosse nets. Teams are co-ed, with three to a side and no goalie. Substitutions are frequent, and strategy nonexistent. The primary job of the coaches is to try and keep their players’ heads in the game. Kick and run, run and kick; somehow the ball moves about the field and even occasionally finds the back of the net. No one keeps score, which given the chaotic nature of the game is probably just as well.
It’s difficult to accurately describe the ebb and flow of a soccer game involving five- and six-year-olds … because there is none. The referee (usually one of the coaches) has their hands full keeping the ball in play and the players focused. As the game wears on and the players tire, that task only becomes more challenging.
Not having children of my own, I wasn’t prepared for the barely restrained chaos that passes for competition. A friend, sensing my confusion, took pity on me and offered an explanation for what I was seeing:
You’ve got your athletes and your daisy-pickers. It’s not hard to tell the difference, but when the kids start wearing out after halftime, you’ll see the two groups really start to do their thing.
The athletes weren’t tough to pick out, though calling someone “athletic” at age six is problematical. There was one player who proved difficult to ignore. The shortest player on the team, Gabriel was by far the most talented. He had the ability to control the ball, he could shoot, and he was the fastest player on the field. One drawback with being so young is that concepts like teamwork haven’t yet taken hold. Gabriel spent most of the game playing one-on-three, dribbling and ball handling into a crowd, where he more often than not was dispossessed. He scored frequently, but he didn’t attempt a pass until late in the game … and then only when the coach told him he couldn’t score until he tried to pass the ball.
By the time he would attempt to pass, the attention span of his teammates had disappeared, and so before long he was back to playing one-on-three. Hey, you go with what you think will work, right?
The next morning, I was at Mt. Tabor Elementary School, where it was game day for a league of six- to eight-year-old boys. The players were a bit more focused and the skill level slightly higher, but the attention span was still short. At halftime, several of the boys decided to wander off and look for bugs. Strategy was going to have to wait, because there evidently were more interesting matters at hand.
All in all, it was quite entertaining, though not close to what you’d expect to see a few miles away at Jeld-Wen Field. The differences could be broken down into two distinct categories:
1. Things you’ll never see during a Timbers game:
- A defender dancing at midfield while play goes on around her.
- A midfielder discovering that her shoes are untied, whereupon she lays down on the field and tries to determine how best to tie them while play goes on around her.
- A midfielder leaving the field during play to sit down next to her father.
2. Things you’ll never hear Gavin Wilkinson say during a Timbers game:
- “Ellen, can you stop dancing? The ball’s at the other end of the field!”
- “I had them pretty well focused until one of the players found some Pokémon cards on the field….”
- NO!! The ball’s on the other side of the field!!
I think what I enjoyed most about both experiences is that it demonstrated what we tend to forget about sports. Games are something we play, and we too often forget that play is about fun. Of course, soccer is a different game at the professional level, and when you play for money, it changes the equation. Fun becomes secondary to performance and results. When those lag, fans and the media begin looking to hold someone responsible. Wilkinson took the bulk of the blame for firing John Spencer, and when the Timbers continued losing, fans took to Twitter demanding his scalp. #GWOUT became the Timber Twitterati’s demand for his ouster.
Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown, eh? Not that I saw kids worrying about that as they chased a soccer ball every which way. They were having fun … and when they stopped having fun they danced or looked for bugs or did whatever it is children do when their minds wander.
The journey to becoming a professional soccer player is one that few will complete. Who knows if any of the children I saw play over the weekend will grow and mature into players with the talent and wherewithal to make it to soccer’s top level. They weren’t worried about what the future holds for them; their only concern was having fun.
There’s a lesson in that for all of us.