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Lessons From A Lower Level
John Domini
October 03, 1977
After years away from the game, the author tries out for his hometown soccer club and, in the course of a difficult morning, rediscovers the mysteries of foot and ball
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October 03, 1977

Lessons From A Lower Level

After years away from the game, the author tries out for his hometown soccer club and, in the course of a difficult morning, rediscovers the mysteries of foot and ball

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Last spring, at the age of 24, I tried out for my hometown soccer team. I don't mean a school or company team, but a team that is supposed to represent my town in one of the many loosely organized soccer leagues that have sprung up during the last couple of decades in southern Connecticut. The team is ranked at B level, the lowest for players over 18 years old, according to International Football Association Board rules covering newly formed teams. Because of the weedlike growth of local soccer and the laissez-faire attitude of local team owners and the impatience of local players ("Let's just start the game, for Chrissake"), the ranking was little more than a technicality. My brother, who was five years younger than I and played fullback, assured me that the club had players the equal of those at A level or even Premier, the step below professional. Yet, paradoxically, this news increased my confidence that I could make the team.

I felt this way because, unlike in football, basketball or hockey, you need not be exceptionally strong or tall or specially talented to play soccer well. Success at the game depends to a considerable degree on concentration and stamina. Beyond that, soccer in this country seems unsure of itself, open to suggestion at every level of the sport. Even the firmly entrenched North American Soccer League, home to Pel� and Franz Beckenbauer and Kyle Rote, has allowed thick-fingered tamperings with the rules. Ties are an intrinsic part of soccer, yet the NASL uses an artificial tiebreaker, called a shootout, which indicates an utter insensitivity to the traditions of the game. American soccer is wide open.

Therefore, at the time of my trying out, the thought that our little B-level squad had players who might soon be playing for crack teams in Portland or Las Vegas or Fort Lauderdale only heightened my certainty that there was a spot for me. The game said come and get it. Who was I to resist such a siren call?

There was one more boost to my confidence, perhaps the most important of all: soccer is my family's game. My father played professionally in Naples, Italy, and he was responsible for soccer's first appearance in our community. I played roughhouse games at the age of seven with more than 30 other boys, from soft and drippy April through hard and chilly November, under the agitated direction of my father, who played now goalie, now center forward, now wing, now fullback. Out of such beginnings can there come a regular halfback of a B-level club? Yes, emphatically. A native-born American with soccer experience extending back before high school is still a rarity. Anyone who watches American soccer—at least in our area—sees at once that the most obviously skilled players are those who curse in foreign languages. When my brother produced an old pair of soccer shoes for me to wear at the tryouts, I saw that from their cleats hung the calcified dirt of unknown fields. Although I had not played competitively in six years. I recognized in that ancient dirt the experience that would put me over the top. So I thought.

The tryouts were held on a windy late morning on a field behind what had originally been a high school and was now a junior high. Off to one side was the great green expanse of two baseball fields. On the other sides, the soccer field was hemmed in by thick secondary forest, at the foot of which lay deep, mud-lined drainage ditches, uncomfortably close to the sidelines. Yet apparently those ditches had done their job; the field was dry enough, for mid-April. The lines were clearly limed, the grass closely mown, the goal nets brand new.

There were 26 players. Except for a short soft-spoken young man, who my brother told me was from Buenos Aires, my competition seemed to be nothing more than ordinary and ordinarily skilled Americans. Including my brother, there were only seven players returning from the previous year's team.

The coach clapped his hands and called us together. He was plainly and blondly American, 40 (he told us) and had an odd way of simultaneously looking over your head and pointing at the ground as he spoke. He said, without a hint of duplicity, that every position on the team was open. I noticed that the seven returnees were all doing muscle-stretching exercises. The coach said that he would keep 15 of us as regulars and that he would take the phone numbers of five more, because soccer was a strange game and you never knew what might happen. He said it was a long season. "One day you're at the top of the heap," he said firmly, "and the next day at the bottom." He said that the ball takes some funny bounces. He said that you get out of the game what you put into it. By now nearly everyone was down on the ground stretching his muscles. The coach continued in his philosophic vein a few minutes more, undisturbed by the groaning and sharp intakes of breath around him. Then he blew once on his whistle—of course he had a whistle—and told us all to run a mile, four laps around the field. After that, the tryout drills began.

There were only three drills, but each went on a good long time and the coach got a good long look at each player. Three exercises may not seem enough to reveal the true abilities of 26 players, but the indispensable thing in these affairs is that the coach know what he is doing; and, surprising as it may have seemed, this was the case. Although our coach's system was limited and his speech ran to the oldest of old saws, it quickly became clear that he knew his soccer. He himself was involved in two of the drills, working up enough of a sweat to make him remove his jacket; during the other one he circled each prospect, watching his feet with the eye of a philatelist examining a new sheet for inversions. Each of these drills, I have since realized, reflected particular aspects of the game.

The first drill slightly resembled the oldest and easiest soccer exercise, in which a person stands in one place and keeps beating the ball off any available wall. The coach stood before the goal and set up beside him all the balls on hand. Each of the players then took a turn facing him, no more than 20 feet away, while he fired these balls in rapid succession. We had to return them directly to him, rather than simply put them in the goal, and we had to do it with one move, a kick or head shot—no dribbling, no trapping the ball. He exempted my brother and two other veterans from the drill, apparently forgetting his promise that every position was up for grabs; these three he asked to gather up the balls that went past him, while those hopefuls not on the firing line roamed behind the candidates, gathering up the balls they missed. After each player had gone through the drill once, the coach exempted two more veterans plus the Buenos Airean (whose name was Tony) and ran the drill again, more quickly. Then three more were exempted and we went at it more quickly still. It felt like some advanced version of Red Rover, Red Rover. I was not one of those exempted.

In European and Latin American cities, one sees kids everywhere pounding balls off the sides of cafes, apartment houses, garages, shops. A boy will kick or head the ball back at the wall, depending on what the last bounce dictated, which in turn depended on how well and how precisely the previous kick or head shot had redirected the previous bounce, and so on back to the original delivery. Fine exercise. It serves as a reminder of the game's origins: soccer is an urban product, which first took its present form during the early Renaissance in the walled city-states of northern Italy.

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