A World Cup Interlude

I recently had a discussion with a friend over social media in which he made a joke about the entertainment value of soccer. It’s well-worn territory. People have speculated about why Americans don’t embrace the game for a long time. Despite the vast number of kids who have grown up playing youth soccer over the past forty years, it still seems like an imported sport.

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Maybe that’s because when you see kids playing pickup games, they’re usually recent immigrants. If you see American-born kids playing, it’s almost always in matching uniforms on a manicured field with adults running around trying to control things. Even in high school soccer, I recently overheard a coach trying to explain his offense to the team by using basketball terms.

My son blames organized soccer for the futility of the U.S. Men’s team. He believes the dearth of pickup games leads to a lack of creativity when split-second decisions are required, which leads to a predictable offense and rigid defenses that can’t react to unexpected decisions by the opponent.

I played soccer as a youth, but only for two years in junior high school. I competed with my parish school team, even though I attended public school. Our new, young, assistant pastor started the program, and all of the schools we played were several miles away. We practiced in an open field, where our goal consisted of two large trees about twenty feet apart. My parish was located in a lower-middle class neighborhood on the south side of Louisville, and most of the other teams were situated in the more prosperous east end of the city.

I don’t know what compelled Father Ryan to start the team, but he created a lot of opportunities for kids in our parish, especially in sports and music. Maybe he saw it as an evangelization effort. He later left the priesthood, got married and started his own family, working as an advocate for kids in the Jefferson County Court system. One of my fondest memories of him is when he was watching our B-team basketball game, quietly asking the coach when he was going to put the bench players in. (Of course, one of the bench players was me.)  

Anyway, my high school didn’t have a soccer team, so my playing career ended in eighth grade. Nobody I grew up with played soccer after that, either. My own kids played youth soccer, and two of them played in high school. So I’ve watched a fair amount, and when NBC began broadcasting English Premier League (EPL) games, I became even more of a fan.

I like watching the incredible moves the player make, the distance and accuracy with which they play the ball, the raw foot speed, and the passion of the fans. The parts I don’t like are the faked fouls (“diving”) and constant carping at officials. (I know, I know. Taking up for referees is kind of my own provincialism.) But most of the parts I don’t like are common in other sports (especially my first love, basketball) and there are other positive aspects to pro soccer that the others don’t have. Like relegation.

In the NBA, there are teams that are just plain bad, year after year. The Los Angeles Clippers have never been to the NBA finals. The Kings haven’t even made the playoffs (a low bar for success in the NBA, to be sure) since 2006. The Milwaukee Bucks haven’t won a playoff series since 2001.   

In EPL if you don’t finish in the top 17 of the twenty-team league, you’re banished to the next lower level of soccer. It’s as if you’re the Miami Marlins. MLB comes to you at the end of the season and says, “OK, if you’re not even going to try, your MLB franchise now plays in triple-A. Good luck in the International League.” Then the top three teams in the (lower) Championship League get to come up and try to win in the Premier League.

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There is also no salary cap in the EPL. For a country that claims to value free enterprise and achievement of personal success, it’s always surprised me that Americans don’t object to salary caps. Nobody limits the amount owners can make; why do we want to see restrictions on player earnings?

Maybe it will take sustained success by the U.S. Men’s Team in World Cup play for America to embrace “the beautiful game”. Or maybe it’s that we have too many other sports entertainment options to pay attention to something we didn’t grow up with. But I like it. Especially the World Cup, which is one of the true World Championships in sports. I’ll watch a lot of games over the next few weeks, enjoying both the goals and the play in between.

Besides, I have a bet on Argentina to win the thing.   

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We have met the enemy, and it is us

We’re not the team. You’re the team. We’re only the equipment – like the jockstraps and the helmets.”

Phil Elliott in “North Dallas Forty

 

It’s easy to demonize Rick Pitino for what he’s done to the University of Louisville. Especially for me. I never liked the man, and haven’t been a fan of UL basketball since he arrived in my hometown. But I can’t say I saw this coming. I just hated that 1) he was a University of Kentucky guy, 2) he had prior NCAA problems, and 3) in replacing Denny Crum, the school chose to go with a quick fix “star” instead of growing the program with an up-and-coming coach or Crum assistant. To be perfectly candid, it probably also had something to do with the natural animus a Kentucky boy holds for a slick-haired, fast-talking New Yorker.

Particularly galling in his case is all the “shock” he voices at every scandal. He was shocked when the woman he had a ten-minute affair with on a bar table wanted more money after he paid for her “health insurance” (which was just enough to pay for an abortion). He was shocked that strippers and prostitutes were provided to recruits in the athletic dorm. He was shocked that shoe company money was being passed to a recruit.

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But the source of tawdry behavior in organized sports goes much deeper than a few desperate, greedy coaches. It’s also easy to blame summer basketball. It’s relatively unsupervised. Sure, there are coaches and tournament/team coordinators. But most of those people have a profit motive in getting the best teams, the best players on their team or to their event. I’ve heard more than a few calls for abolition of “AAU” basketball.

But even this is somewhat misplaced. AAU is a different animal than the elite shoe company sponsored events. While I was writing the book, several coaches told me that AAU is now considered more of a second-tier summer basketball program. Some highly ranked teams may appear in a few AAU-sponsored events. But If a kid is truly a Division 1 prospect, he typically plays on the Adidas/Nike/Under Armour circuit because there’s more exposure.

So how about the shoe companies? Ah. There it is. Filthy lucre. According to ESPN, Louisville has a ten-year, 160 million dollar contract with Adidas. That’s a lot of money, and it’s not even in the top five. Pitino has the richest college basketball coaching contract in the country, good for 7.76 million per year. Over $2 million of that comes directly from Adidas. So why wouldn’t he think of them as his employer?

Fact is, the shoe companies are doing what businesses do. Spending money (on grassroots and college basketball) to make money (selling shoes and apparel). I’m no lawyer, but apparently the ones at the Department of Justice believe passing laundered money to a recruit is a crime. Nobody seems to object to shoe companies paying colleges and coaches to advertise their product, though. And, on the surface, it seems like an open, honest exchange between the shoe company and the school would be a win-win. The product gets exposure, and the college gets money that it could – theoretically, at least – pass on to students in benefits or lower costs.  

What about the players and/or their families who are trying to get an advance on their anticipated pro career? To be sure, there are a lot of grown-ups with their hands out. One coach told me that many elite players have “handlers” as they travel the summer basketball circuit. The handlers – sometimes family, sometimes not – control access to the kid and influence financial decisions. There is no structure for monitoring or supervision of those people.

Reporters contacted the mother of the recruit apparently involved in the Louisville scandal, and she said “I don’t know anything about that.” Wouldn’t you expect an innocent person to deny that it happened? Something like, “Hell no, we didn’t get any money”?

But if I was a top-tier athlete seeing everybody around me making money from my talent, I think it’d be easy to justify taking a piece of the action. Coaches, shoe company employees, tournament organizers. Even the school recruiting me – especially the school recruiting me – is making money hand over fist. And I can’t have an I-phone out of it?

So who does that leave to blame, and what do we do about it? This commercial exchange of talented kids ends up debasing the player, the institution, and all of the adults scrambling to grab a scrap that falls from the table.

This week I refereed a youth soccer game with a guy from Holland. Before the game we started talking about youth sports and the differences between the US and Europe.

“You guys take it so seriously over here,” he said. We were putting on our thirty-dollar referee shirts, adding our badges to the pocket (annual renewal fees of $60 and $80 for high school and US Soccer, respectively). We watched as kids in uniform warmed up for their game ($300-$500 annual league fee). We each had envelopes in our bags with $50 cash for officiating sixty minutes of youth soccer.

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“You know what you get for refereeing in the Netherlands?” he asked. “You get a coupon for a free beer. Half the time the referee doesn’t show up, and a parent officiates with a couple of volunteer linesman. Everybody has played the game over there, so it’s not a problem to find somebody.

“Most people play for ten or fifteen years, then referee for five years after they stop playing. I mean, the really good players are identified and go to academies. But not most kids.”

Maybe the enemy is us. I say this fully acknowledging that I am a part of the problem. I write about and referee sports, and get paid for both. I don’t know that I’d do either one for a beer, though I have on occasion done them for free. But maybe we shouldn’t be making youth sports so formal. Maybe kids don’t need $150 basketball shoes. Maybe they shouldn’t be traveling to other cities to play soccer when they’re eight years old. They see parents yelling at coaches, coaches yelling at players, and everybody yelling at the officials. What are they supposed to think? That it’s play time?

 

 

 

Back in the saddle

Inveterate (and maybe even veterate) readers may recall that I was having back trouble in late winter/early spring. After a failed attempt at relief through a chiropractor, I wound up going back to my doctor and getting a referral to a different orthopedist. One who would not immediately jump to surgery as the only option. The new doctors tried a cortisone shot followed by physical therapy, and within a few weeks I was almost completely pain-free and able to resume normal exercise.

The back pain had become so troublesome by March that I had to cancel all of my soccer referee matches for the spring season. I tried my first game, but the pain was so bad that I had trouble even getting into position as an assistant referee. (Note: for non-soccer fans, the AR only has to move one half the length of the field. But it’s critical to stay even with the second-to-last defender or the ball to help with offsides calls. Meaning you often have to go from standing still to a sprint.) Luckily, the game was suspended after about five minutes due to lightning. When I got home, I notified all of the assignors that I was out for the foreseeable future.

When the fall season began a couple of weeks ago, I felt pretty good but knew the lack of exercise had affected my stamina. I signed up to referee, but only scheduled one game per day. I planned to wait and see how I did with a U-15 rec-plus contest to make sure I could still keep up.  

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In the weeks leading up to the match, I did some running on a nearby empty soccer field to simulate a game. I alternated between jogging, sprints, and walking for about 40 minutes. Games are 70-80 minutes, but I knew adrenaline would help quite a bit. Plus, running in the hot sun on an empty field is boring. (Insert your own “soccer is also boring” joke here.)

The game was on a warm Thursday afternoon at 5 PM, just a short drive from my house. It was listed as a dual whistle game (two referees, no AR) which means each official is responsible for an entire sideline plus one half of the field for all calls. (Technically the soccer field is known as a “pitch”. But I can’t say that, because I think it makes me sound like Robin Leach.)

I got to the field about a half-hour early. The home team coach was one of those overly-friendly types that you just know is going to blast you from the sideline every time he disagrees with a call. We shook hands and he asked me a couple of questions about how the match would be called. Normally I give very ambiguous answers in this context. Otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up for controversy. If you say “Yeah, I’m not going to call it close on throw-ins this early in the season” and you call a violation on a kid who fires the ball in overhand, you can bet the coach will be screaming bloody murder. But the questions were pretty safe and I was able to answer just by giving him the substitutions rule.

Then he complained briefly about referee positioning in his last match (“they both officiated from the center circle”), paid me, and went back to his bench. (Unlike basketball, it’s customary for the coach to pay the referee in cash prior to kickoff. Which feels awkward, but, you know….when in Rome.) As we got closer to kickoff, I inspected equipment on both teams, checked the goals, and completed the coin toss. Still no second ref present. Now, I’ve officiated matches alone before. It’s more running, for sure, but the real problem is that you can’t really judge the sidelines or offsides effectively. And no matter how much coaches claim they’ll “take it easy” on complaining, in the heat of the game that commitment is forgotten.

I asked the home coach to recruit two parents to watch the lines for me, but a woman came up and said that her 17-year-old daughter Kylie* was waiting for a later game, was a certified referee and would be willing to help out. I gratefully accepted, and after I handed Kylie my spare whistle we started the match.

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The visiting coach had mentioned that it was his first season, and apologized in advance for his lack of experience. (I must confess I was glad to hear this. First match back, and at least one coach probably won’t be in my ear.) There were a couple of screw-ups on substitutions, but nothing too bad. Anytime I was close to his bench, I’d gently tell him the proper process, and he’d thank me profusely.

The home coach was in game mode. He constantly yelled at his players, but didn’t say much to me. In the first half I was moving sideways on the field along his bench area, but the ball was booted long and I had to swivel and run suddenly. As I spun around I felt my elbow strike a soft middle-aged paunch and heard “Ooof”. I turned my head and saw the coach doubled over holding his gut. I couldn’t help but chuckle, but managed an “Ouch, sorry coach” as I kept running. I heard him wheeze out “No, no, that’s OK, my fault.”

I have hoped for this kind of thing in other circumstances. Mostly in basketball. But this time it was entirely accidental, and he was right. It was his fault. I’m supposed to be within two feet of the sideline; he’s not. Anyway, at the next stoppage I asked if he was OK, and he laughed and said yeah, repeating that it was on him.

Later a ball was kicked to a visiting player deep in the home side and the coach started yelling “Offside!”. The player’s shot hit the crossbar, bounced on the ground and the goalkeeper caught the ball deep in the goal mouth. As I signaled goal scored, the coach said “Matt, they were offside!”. I just shook my head no, and signaled for kickoff.

I don’t mind talking to coaches, but there was no basis for discussion. There’s no instant replay, I didn’t think the kid was offside and the coach did. What would we talk about other than yes he was/no he wasn’t?

The second half was pretty uneventful, and the home team won 6-3. Both coaches thanked Kylie and me in the handshake line. I gave Kylie half of the money, admonished her to report the income on her tax return and sat on the ground to change shoes.

I was hot, sweaty, and a little tired, but my hip wasn’t hurting at all. I knew my knees would require ice and Tylenol, but that’s standard. I really felt like I could do another game if I had to. But I didn’t have to. Because I’m retired. And I “don’t do business that don’t make me smile”.**    

*Not her real name. She’s a minor, yo.

**“Treetop Flyer”, Stephen Stills. He was referring to drug smugglers, and I’m a middle school soccer referee. But, still.