I was a smoker then, and I smoked on the sidelines. That probably was the most European thing I did as a soccer coach, probably the only European thing I did. I resembled some character that Billy Bob Thornton probably would play today, smoking away, yelling at little kids, a guy who was American-born, American-bred, American-overconfident and full of American horse manure.
I was the curious face of soccer in this country, part of the reason the U.S. of A. lagged behind the rest of the world. My team was the Newton Suns, a group of fourth and fifth graders that included my son. This was the long, long ago. I didn't know a damn thing about soccer.
I had never played an organized game, not even in a gym class. Hadn't watched many games, even though I was a sportswriter and watched games of all sorts for work. Had become a coach because nobody else volunteered. Put up my hand and somebody placed a whistle in it.
My thought was: Why not?
Sport was sport.
How hard could this be?
The first thing I did was check out a book from the library that detailed a few basic ideas about how to play soccer. Some famous European coach, or maybe Pele, was the author. Can't remember. The first few pages described how to execute various kicks that seemed impossible to do, much less teach. There were also illustrations of a few simple drills, which seemed promising, but involved those impossible kicks. By about page 18, the instruction had become far too technical and designed for players who were older than my collection of 10-year-olds.
Approximately 20 minutes into my first practice, I junked the book. I would figure this out by myself.
Soccer on the world stage is a game of great swoops and rushes, goalies routinely kicking the ball past midfield to switch the work from defense to offense in an instant for their teams. Soccer on the small stage is a cloud of dust moving slowly from one end of the field to the other. Twenty players are inside that cloud, all of them trying to kick the same ball. None of them can kick it very far. The cloud moves and moves and finally reaches one end of the field where a goal might be scored. If it is not, the cloud starts moving in the other direction.
I was working on the small stage.
"Tell the kids not to bunch up," a veteran small-stage coach told me, sort of the same way E.F. Hutton would tell a man to put some money into Microsoft. "Tell them that a lot."
If only one kid could separate himself from the cloud, by maybe 10 or 15 yards on the side, he could score a gazillion goals. All he would need is a pass from another kid who was in the middle of the cloud where everyone else was flailing. Pass, shot, score. Simple geometry. The problem was no one in the cloud could accept this. No one would listen.
"Don't bunch up," I would shout from the sidelines, 50 times a practice, the ash falling off my Winston Light.
"Don't bunch up," I would shout 50 times a game.
"Don't…," I would say, thinking that maybe I slowed myself down the concept would take hold. "Bunch...Up."
Since I didn't know many drills and couldn't teach the kicks, we mostly scrimmaged during practice. (We would do a drill for head shots, headers, whatever they were called. I would throw the ball into the air and tell the kids to try and hit it with their heads. I never did tell them exactly how.) Since I had thrown out the book, I invented my own strategy. We played a 3-3-3.
My idea was that I wanted everyone to have a chance to score a goal. I set up hockey lines. The best kids were the centers on the lines for strength up the middle, a basic in any sport. Right-handed kids were right wings, left-handed kids were on the left. At the end of every period, the kids in the second line at midfield would replace the first line up front. The third line on defense would replace the second line in the middle and the first line would go back to defense. Everybody had a chance to score.
"Stay on your wing," I sometimes said, which was a variation on 'Don't bunch up.'
Since there were 10 kids (plus goalie) from my team on the field in my 3-3-3, not nine, I had one extra player. I would use him as my wild card. He always was one of my better players and if the score were tied, I would add him to the front line for more offense. If we were ahead, I would move him to the back for more defense.
The more soccer literate parents sometimes looked askance at all of this -- I sometimes would tell the kids they should work the "old give-and-go" -- but I figured if they were all that concerned they would be coaching instead of me. I never called the pitch the pitch. It was always the field. I never called the other team a "side." The other team was always the other team. I used Jim Rice or Larry Bird in my motivational speeches. I told my goalies to "cut down the angles, just like Andy Moog" or someone from the Bruins. I tried to make all of this fun.
"When in doubt, kick it out," was my advice always for my defenders when the ball came to them. "Kick it out of bounds."
I think we won more than we lost, maybe finished second in our little league. I think we definitely had fun. I know I did, drawing up my line combinations, getting to know the different personalities of the kids, rooting for us against some of those other teams who had coaches who actually knew a little bit about soccer. It was a blast.
Alas, I also think how much better served those kids would have been if they had learned the right things to do at the beginning. I was teaching French when I couldn't speak French, music without being able to read the scale, carpentry when I wasn't sure of the proper end of the hammer. I didn't exactly set any of those kids out on a course to play for the USMNT. I apologize to them. I apologize to the USMNT.
I go now to my eight-year-old grandson's soccer games and practices and the instruction is 500 percent better. More than that. There are young guys and parents involved who have played the game, who know the game. They have cones and drills and time-tested strategies. The kids are growing up with better coaching, a better appreciation of the sport.
Soccer is big. Soccer is now. I love watching the World Cup, loved our 2-1 win over Ghana, wish the U.S. players well, especially on Sunday against Portugal.
I think they will be OK as long as they don't bunch up.