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Man of the House by Chris Erskine

Opening day with soccer's wild bunch

The uniforms look like sherbet. Who cares? Let the games begin.

September 16, 2004|Chris Erskine | Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

So here we are at the opening day soccer ceremony, the only gathering of 2,000 people in L.A. where you don't have to worry about your pocket being picked. Sure, the kids and parents will fleece you psychologically. Or riddle your soul with their second-guessing and petty gripes. But such is the price of coaching greatness.

"I really like our uniforms," the little girl says as we head for the field.

"Who wouldn't?" I say.

We were on vacation when they handed out the uniforms, so we are graced with colors that the other coaches all rejected. The jerseys are a radioactive shade of sherbet. The only other team to wear such an orangy-pink are Caltrans workers cleaning freeway ramps. When rashes are this color, they are usually fatal.

The pants, meanwhile, are Barney purple and hang on the girls like poodle skirts. The girls roll up the elastic waistlines 30 or 40 times, and it brings the pants up barely to their knees. I fear that when the girls run, the pants will billow like sailboat spinnakers. But not out front, like spinnakers usually do. Out back. Butt spinnakers. On windy days, we'll spend the entire game being blown backward.

"Everybody like the uniforms?" I ask here on opening day, our first chance to show them off publicly.

"Mine's a little big," someone complains.

"It fits you perfect," I lie.

We are here for the long, warm opening ceremonies, which are to soccer what oral surgery is to kissing. The field is painted in September sunlight. The younger teams glisten with dew. They are cute, these younger players in their plaid uniforms. Like new flowers recently sprung.

"Want to sing a song?" I hear one younger coach ask his players.

The younger coaches are still drunk on parenthood. They stumble around stupidly in the grass, trying to keep their kids entertained while waiting for the parade of teams. They have that energy boost young parents get from having children. We roll our eyes and walk to our spots.

"Can we sit down?" one of my players asks.

"Why not," I say, and they collapse upon the warm grass.

On my hip, I have the baby. He's got a bonnet of Ted Koppel hair and is wearing a Hawaiian shirt his mother bought him for occasions just like this: festive and tropical. While we wait, he pulls at my mustache just to make sure it is real and drools profusely on my shoulder. When the drool evaporates, it cools my skin and lowers my body temperature to about 115 degrees. Without him here, I might be dead.

It is a good ceremony. Several league officials give short, inspiring speeches. Thankfully, only a couple of dignitaries are acknowledged. In my experience, acknowledging dignitaries only encourages them.

"I'm excited," one of the kids whispers.

"Why?"

"Christmas is coming," she says.

But first this: soccer season. Foreplay for the holidays. For the next three months, we will race from work, race from school, race everywhere to practices and games. It'll be good conditioning for the holiday season, all this racing around for no apparent purpose. Yet I wouldn't give up soccer season any more than I'd give up Christmas Eve.

On this stadium infield, we're surrounded by the coaches I have known for years. Great dads, most of them, generous with their time and lack of knowledge. For the next 12 weekends, our moods will hinge on whether some goalkeeper with bangs falling into her eyes misplays a soft, buttery shot your grandma could've slapped away in her sleep. It's a dubious recipe for emotional contentment. Maybe there are other rewards.

"Want to sing a song?" I ask the team.

"No thanks," the little girl says.

"When's our first game?" one of the forwards asks.

"Tomorrow," I say.

We have high hopes for the season. A mouthy bunch, our players seem aggressive in ways usually seen only in jailhouse riots. They are fleet. Coachable. Students of the game. They are skittish only around bumblebees and flies, of which we have seen many in our preseason workouts.

Otherwise, nothing seems to faze them. Not even my unorthodox coaching techniques, gleaned from 40 years of observing the Chicago Cubs.

"OK," I say as we finally prepare to leave.

"OK what?" someone asks.

"Listen up," I order.

"Why?" someone asks.

"Here's my plan," I say.

My pep talks often come out like static cellphone conversations where one caller is on a train. Reception goes in and out, but generally, by the time the conversation is over, the gist of what I have to say spills out.

I tell them that tonight, as they are about to fall asleep, they should imagine themselves doing amazing things on the soccer field

They seem excited by the idea. Several, in fact, nod as if they've actually been listening.

Great accomplishments have been based on less.

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