Chasing a national championship

National youth championships in the USA are the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Whoever thinks these up should be stoned. — Horst Bertl, Dallas Comets

What is the reason for having roses when blood is shed carelessly? It must be for something more than vanity. — 10,000 Maniacs, Eden

For something we shouldn’t be doing, we sure do national championships a lot. Teams and families travel thousands of miles to see just how cruel and heartbreaking this sport can be.

At the U.S. Youth Soccer championships today, I wound up standing behind a lot of parents from Legends FC, the Southern California powerhouse club that qualified four teams for nationals.

I shouldn’t sympathize with them. Their mission/vision statement reeks of arrogance and a results-first mentality. (To nitpick something else on their website, David Epstein’s The Sports Gene refutes the “10,000 hour” thing.) And they certainly didn’t seem like the underdog against NEFC Elite (Mass.).

But in the Under-14 girls championship, I was indeed caught up in hoping for the best. Perhaps it was because their parents, while certainly arguing the occasional call, were far from the most obnoxious parents I encountered this weekend. (From other fields: Seriously, how do you see your kid play more than 100 competitive games and still not know the difference between a free kick and a penalty kick?) Perhaps it was the cheering/screaming section of previously eliminated Legends teams from other age groups, which mixed a few original cheers along with one adapted from Remember the Titans. (Sub “Legends” for “Titans” …)

Or perhaps it was because they were playing terrific soccer. Possession stats for the game would be outrageously in their favor, and they were playing sharp passing combinations to set up shots that just would not get in the net. On the closest chance, off a deft combination between Alexandra Jaquez and Kaylee Ramirez, a shot was pushed up by the keeper in the middle of the box, and it floated upward in a long, slow arc before falling on top of the crossbar.

These games are tense and tight, and you could see it in the finishing. Players were exhausted from a week playing in the summer SoccerPlex sun. Late in the scoreless regulation time, a good Legends shot led to a rebound with the goal at least partially open. The shot skewed high.

Early in the first overtime, NEFC’s Taylor Sherman got the ball in the box, shielded it well, turned and fired. Goal.

I could see a Legends defender’s heart break on the spot. She held her arms up to her head until the next kickoff. After they cleared it again, her arms went to her head again. She was fighting tears while her team was trying to claw back an equalizer.

Instead, NEFC’s Marykate McGuire, the leading scorer in the U14 tournament, scored a second.

Legends wasn’t the only team to control play and still lose. It seemed to be a pattern. The U15 YMS Premier Xplosion (E. Pa.) forward combination of Murphy Agnew and Andrea Amaro dissected Jacksonville FC Elite’s defense throughout the second half and got closer and closer to the opening goal. Then Jacksonville scored on a corner kick at the other end. YMS got no closer.

The U16 boys Baltimore Celtic dominated the first half against Ohio Premier Eagles, then finally took a 1-0 lead. Unfortunately, they gave up a free kick, and the Eagles had the tournament’s leading scorer in Emmanuel Dapaa. 1-1. At least Celtic made it through on PKs.

So you can travel across the country (OK, Celtic only drove an hour or so), play great soccer, run into the ground … and lose on one play.

Why would you do this? Why put yourself through such cruelty? (Not to mention the expense.) As Natalie Merchant so elegantly sang, it must be for something more than vanity.

Not all of the games were beautiful. One coach seemed intent on violating every lecture I’ve ever heard on “joystick coaching” (“Go sideways! That way! Now pass!”) and his team’s griping tested the ref’s patience. A couple of teams resorted to hit-and-hope longball tactics a bit too easily.

Yet permeating everything at the SoccerPlex was a powerful love of the game. And a love of legitimate soccer skills.

All the families at the Plex were making large sacrifices on behalf of The Beautiful Game. I’ll forgive them a little bit of sniping at the ref and hope their kids soon forget their disappointment, remembering only their outstanding efforts and the friendships.

(But for future reference: A penalty kick is a one-on-one situation between a shooter and a goalkeeper, awarded for a foul in that big box thing.)

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5 thoughts on “Chasing a national championship

  1. I was there on Saturday morning. There were an awful lot of tears from players who were eliminated in the semifinals, unhappy about only being the third-best team in their age group in the country.

  2. “I shouldn’t sympathize with them. Their mission/vision statement reeks of arrogance and a results-first mentality. (To nitpick something else on their website, David Epstein’s The Sports Gene refutes the “10,000 hour” thing.) And they certainly didn’t seem like the underdog against NEFC Elite (Mass.).”

    Let me nitpick that nitpick. That book rather pointedly did not extend the conclusion to soccer:
    http://www.socceramerica.com/article/53084/nature-vs-nurture-the-sports-gene-search-mostl.html

  3. To split the hair even finer — soccer isn’t discussed in great detail in the book, but neither is it explicitly exempted. And the book does mention the study with a “minimum speed” and certain character traits that are beneficial.

    To be sure, soccer players need more specific skills practice than, say, an offensive lineman. That’s not to say offensive line play is unskilled (it takes more than a casual football fan realizes), but in that case, you’re starting with a pool of big guys. Being big and mobile will be enough to get you on the high school varsity.

  4. Yeah, but that’s why I said “did not extend the conclusion to.” But honestly, I think we can take “vexed” by soccer to mean that the model used for the other sports didn’t really work here.

    Soccer’s certainly not concert violin, but it also isn’t the kind of sport where a generally phenomenal athlete can pick up a ball for the first time in his mid-to-late-teens and four years later be excellent at it, which has been done in football and basketball.

    Just as there’s a speed minimum, there’s almost certainly a practice time minimum, and it might not be 10,000 hrs, but it’s probably a four digit number, and not the low four digits either.

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