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Hello Soccer, Goodbye Life

It's a Peculiar, Popular Pastime That Requires Extraordinary Balance, Timing, Patience and Strategy. Chasing a Ball Around a Grass Field Is the Easy Part.

September 06, 1998|John M. Glionna | Times staff writer John M. Glionna's last article for the magazine was a profile of professional skateboarder Tony Hawk

"We're gonna lose this game."

Such is the sour assessment of the Soccer Dad, spoken to no one in particular as he paces the sidelines of the Arcadia playing field, a study in suburban sports concentration.

Nikki DaSilva, brown-skinned and barely 13, her blue uniform shiny under a bright sun, darts breathlessly across midfield. She is among the Glendale team's star players, but even she cannot stop the red-haired girl with the ponytail from scoring through the unguarded left flank. In the bleachers, the San Gabriel parents rise to their feet cheering. Soccer Dad Michael DaSilva shakes his head in disappointment.

At that moment, a few miles away in Pasadena, Michael's wife, Mytrang, also foot-soldiers on the soccer sidelines, watching intently as Erin, the couple's 9-year-old daughter, loses her fourth straight spring league game. That morning, Mytrang awakened the kids, washed their uniforms and rounded up their shin guards, shoes and various-sized soccer balls. Then, with a quick kiss goodbye, the two Soccer Parents headed off in their separate directions, to the fields where they now participate in a peculiar, relatively new American pastime that requires extraordinary balance, timing, patience and strategy: Being a Soccer Family. Sometimes chasing a ball around a grass field is the easy part. There beside Mytrang, (pronounced ME-train) is 5-year-old Jeremy, an imaginative boy who likes to let his Popsicles melt all over his hands, spread his Battlestar Gallactica figures across the sidelines and drag his mother to the Andy Gump outhouse at least two times per half. Mytrang, a financial analyst on other days, has learned to watch the game looking over her shoulder, making sure she arrives back on the sidelines for the quarter breaks to offer water, advice or a pat on the back as needed.

While Mytrang paces the Pasadena sidelines, back in Arcadia another level of family dynamics is in play. Michael DaSilva, 40, has the easy demeanor of a young Bill Cosby and a career as a computer-service executive. But on this weekend, as on most weekends, his career, investments, house payments and just about everything else from the adult world have faded from his consciousness.

"Hey Nik, it's time to step up," Michael calls out. "You just passed the ball to nobody."

Nikki looks toward the sidelines, shooting DaSilva one of those dirty "Daddy, I hate you" glares that only a father could inspire. It's a silent scowl--funny, actually, if you aren't on its receiving end--intended to transform her father into stone, a glower that, in the movies Nikki likes to watch, would have whipped up some malevolent wind to destroy his house, his car and everything he owns.

"Uh-oh, she's mad at me now," Nikki's dad says. "But she knows I'm right."

The rejoinder is classic Soccer Parent, and that, of course, is what the DaSilvas have become--one soccer couple amid tens of thousands of moms and dads across Southern California and America who have watched their adult lives slowly disappear into a frenetic blur of goals: goals scored by kicking a ball into a big white net, and those trickier to define and achieve.

When Nikki DaSilva's team loses, for instance, her dad swallows his disappointment and appears, as always, at his daughter's side with a towel and Coleman cooler. As she tips the jug, quenching her thirst, he tugs on her pigtail. "Good game, Nik," the Soccer Dad says. "Real good game."

*

In sunny Los Angeles, soccer is a year-round endeavor. From January through December, there are games and more games played, coached and observed by a sports fraternity that includes families of every ethnic, economic and attitudinal combination. For these loyal participants in the volunteer American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), there is no escape. Theirs is a round-the-clock soccer subculture, filled with kids, ego-driven coaches, other parents (often grumpier than their children), hectic schedules, practices, bad-attitude referees (see parents), more practice, still more games, seminars, father-to-daughter pep talks and mother-and-son strategy sessions. Eighteen million Americans played the sport at least once last year, and the number of serious players--who played more than 25 days--rose from 7.7 million to 8.5 million, according to the Soccer Industry Council of America. Kids are playing, too. Some 3 million players under age 19 compete in three leagues. AYSO, the dominant youth-soccer force in California, encompasses 250,000 kids--nearly half its total of 600,000 players in this state. Around L.A., more children are playing soccer than baseball and football combined. And, as the DaSilvas know, it's not enough to just watch from the sidelines.

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