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The Sights, the Sounds, the Smells: It's Soccer Season

September 18, 2002|Chris Erskine

For 12 seasons now we've been coming to our soccer league's Opening Day Parade of Teams, 2,500 kids with morning breath, dressed in the bright colors of Post-It Notes. For me, it is the social event of the year.

"Hi, Coach," yells Ellen, last year's goalkeeper.

"Hey, Coach," says Walt, one of last year's dads.

Most of the time, I'm just another good-looking guy with a $12 haircut and a dopey, Opie, Ron Howard grin. But at opening day, I am someone.

"Hey, Coach," one little girl says.

"Who are you again?"

"Your daughter," she says.

"Likely story," I say.

To our left, some mother is trying to thread her team banner onto eight feet of wobbly plastic pipe. Twice now, I have nearly been harpooned by mothers like these, rushing to assemble their banners. It's like walking through a fondue pot.

"Watch out," says the little girl, who grabs my hand, knowing her father is a magnet for stupid behavior.

"Over here," I say, pulling her along.

With my luck, I'd get harpooned near vital organs (aren't most organs vital?) and the ER doctors would decide that it would be safer to leave the pole in.

"Plus, your HMO won't cover it," a nurse would explain.

So I'd wear a banner pole the rest of my life--4 feet sticking out the front, 4 feet out the back.

"Hey, here comes the human shish kebab," my friends would joke at backyard barbecues. After a while, I'd begin to shun such occasions, or anything else that involves skewered meats.

It goes well, this Opening Day Parade of Teams. There is a cool to the morning air that wasn't there a month before.

As always, the youngest kids go first, parading around the junior college track in front of parents and other relatives.

"Our next team is the Shooting Stars," the announcer says, and in the stands, 12 sets of parents clap till their hands burn.

"Our next team is the Vipers," the announcer says, and so on.

Out on the field, we await our turn. We're in the middle of all the teams. Above us, a mushroom cloud of morning breath has now formed.

And as the sun heats up, 5,000 little feet begin to sweat, many of them in last year's soccer shoes, giving the whole place the aroma of a tire factory. Or bad cheese.

I stand there in the middle of it all, wondering how Notre Dame is doing. Trying to remember what time UCLA kicks off.

Next to me, a player hops on one foot, as if clearing an insect from her ear.

"What are you doing?" I ask.

"Hopping," she says.

"Anybody bring doughnuts?" someone else asks.

"Anybody seen our banner?" I ask, for the 10th time.

"Hi, Coach," says another parent, stopping by to say hello.

There is a sprinkling of original names among the parade of teams. One team is called the "Ear Wax." Another team is the "Whatever."

I can just picture that coach asking his players what they'd like to be called.

"So, what should our team name be?" he'd ask after an early season practice.

"The Shooting Stars!" one kid would shout.

"Everybody like that name?" the coach would say.

"Whatever," a tired 10-year-old would moan.

And soccer history is made.

In a few hours, we'll have our opening game, on a field where the grass grows all the way up to the players' shins. Parents will put their lawn chairs along the sidelines, in grass sticky from fruit punch and Gatorade.

Some things will go very well. Some things will go not so well. That's the soccer life. That's opening day.

But in my experience as a coach, there are certain things that guarantee a good season. Follow them closely--or not at all--and you will never regret it.

Fifteen rules for a successful soccer season (and a full, well-rounded life):

1) Be realistic with your expectations.

2) Stress fundamentals.

3) Stress team play.

4) Delegate important responsibilities (since you'll probably forget them all anyway).

5) Be positive.

6) Be negative.

7) Be positive, then negative, then positive again.

8) Draft lots of kids from Mexico and Brazil.

9) Don't test your referee whistle in the minivan or the bathroom.

10) Refrain from hugging mothers you're not married to, even after big goals.

11) Don't throw your clipboard in disgust (it'll guillotine your foot).

12) Don't skimp on the sunscreen.

13) Remember your Valium.

14. Just win, baby.

15) Just win, win, win, win, win.

Now, the most controversial of these rules are probably Nos. 14 and 15. Many coaches at this level downplay winning because it puts too much pressure on the children.

On our teams, we prefer to stress that winning is everything yet nothing. All at once.

"What's the score, Coach?" players will ask during games.

"I don't know," I'll say.

"Are we winning?" they'll ask.

"Not sure," I'll say.

This isn't because I don't care. It's because I'm lousy at math. Two goals in the first half, three more in the second. Free kicks. Penalty kicks. Who can keep track, what with all the parents screaming and snoring and making all the other sideline sounds parents make?

So, our intent in every game is to score so many goals that it doesn't matter how many we have exactly, only that we have more than our opponents.

It's like paying for breakfast in a foreign currency you haven't quite grasped. You just overpay, trusting that you didn't just finance some waiter's new villa.

"We win, Coach?" they ask me after every game.

"I think so," I say.

"What was the score?"

"Who am I, Copernicus?" I say.

"Whatever," they say.

Let the games begin.

Chris Erskine's column is published Wednesdays. He can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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