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A Goalie Who Uses His Head in a Game Designed for the Feet

September 19, 1986|RICH TOSCHES | Times Staff Writer

Mike Caputo figures he was the first guy to tear through the door when they were handing out good luck. He wanted to be a soccer player, and that wish came true. He is also allowed to show up in any color jersey he likes and gets to wear a darned nice pair of gloves, too. And best of all, unlike everyone else on his team, he is not forced to constantly run up and down a field roughly the size of New England until his tongue hangs dangerously close to his cleats.

Caputo is the goalie at Cal State Northridge, and each and every day he counts his blessings.

"There's no question, we're the smarter ones," he said. "I'm so thankful I didn't end up being a forward. You ever see how much those guys have to run?"

On average, soccer goalies are forced to work for 30 seconds in each 90-minute match. If you want a position with less work than this, you'd better apply for the bartender's job at a Mormon convention.

But no job is without its drawbacks. In the case of a soccer goalie, the drawbacks are just little things:

People shooting a very hard soccer ball at you at speeds up to 80 m.p.h. High shots can send you to a plastic surgeon for a face transplant. Low shots can send you to a knee clinic. Shots directed somewhere in the middle can send you to an adoption agency.

Being forced several times a game to heave your body high into the air and snare a soccer ball. This is not the dangerous part. The dangerous part comes a moment later when you must land, usually in a horizontal position, face down, while clutching the ball against your midsection. Ever have an adult Cape buffalo stumble and fall onto your stomach? OK, then. You know the feeling.

Being called a "hairball," "goat face," or "carcass breath" if you should be so clumsy and stupid as to allow a very talented athlete to kick a ball past you into gigantic net. And these are just the names you are called by your teammates and immediate family members. If you allow more than two goals in a game, you are generally viewed with the same admiration reserved for a guy who yanks the chair away as Mother Teresa is sitting down.

Having to spend most of your time alone in what is perhaps the most team-oriented sport of all, and having to fight off the widely held belief that all soccer goalies are crazy, perhaps only a step away from ski jumpers.

"I tell my players to leave the goalie alone," said CSUN Coach Marwan Ass'ad. "Goalies practice alone and they play the game alone. They are best left alone. They're in a different world, and it's better to leave them there."

Earlier this week, a dozen members of the soccer team walked across the campus towards the practice field. They were dressed in their combat fatigues--soccer shoes, high white socks, shorts and jerseys. They were ready to sweat. Near the back of the pack was Caputo, the goalie. It was easy to pick him out. He was the one wearing the sweater, fine slacks and casual shoes. And walking the bicycle.

"I've got to wait until the coach gets here," Caputo explained. "I forgot all my stuff in his office and he's bringing it. That's a goalie for you, right?"

Right. At least according to Ass'ad.

"Goalkeepers are different, there is no question about that," Ass'ad said. "All over the world, they are different. They're the nuts of the game, the zanies. Anyone that wants to stand in a net and let someone drill a soccer ball at their head from 15 feet away, you realize right away those people are different. When you talk goalkeepers, you're talking about guys with something different going on up there in their heads."

The difference is often apparent at a very young age. At the youth soccer level, coaches can quickly pick out the kids who will make decent goalies. When you kick a ball real hard directly at a group of 7- and 8-year-old kids, the vast majority of them will duck. Some will scream. Others will weep. But there are always a few who will throw themselves at the ball or the kicker. These are the kids that will become goalies. Or chapter presidents of the Hell's Angels.

Caputo was one of those kids.

"I just liked it," he said. "I was about 7, and they needed a goalie and I volunteered. I loved the contact with the ball and being able to clobber the kids with the ball when they came near the net. It seemed more like football to me.

"I remember once when I was a little kid I jumped for a hard shot and I missed and the ball hit me square in the head. It knocked me out cold. When I woke up I was really afraid, but everyone started slapping me on the back saying, 'Great save.' Right then I decided I liked being the goalie."

There's another reason why some people emerge from the pack as goalies.

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