The thing I enjoyed the most back in the old days at Avoiding the Drop was being part of a team: the collaboration, the give-and-take, being exposed to views other than my own, in a word, there was a dynamism that it has been hard to create at this one man shop that I now run. As you might imagine, in such a situation it’s hard not to become isolated in terms of approach, topic, and execution- and I don’t like that. In an effort to remedy this situation I’m going to be posting a series of articles in the coming weeks that are the result of collaboration with others. I started with a piece on the role of religion in football with KCGunner, in this next piece I reached out to another of the site’s regular readers and commenters- Sculptor?!?
I’ve known Sculptor?!? on and off line for years now- we’ve traveled halfway across the country together (don’t speed in Ohio), I’ve been victimized by an air conditioner-related practical joke, and introduced her to the best steak sandwich in the world to name just a few of our adventures. I’ve also relied on Sculptor?!? as a sounding board (voice of reason, critic, support system, etc.) where my internet endeavors have been involved and she’s never let me down. In this most recent case, I asked her to provide me with some perspective. It’s very easy for me to “think” that I know what you, the reader, might want to know about my soccer-related background, but it’s also very easy for me to be wrong about that.
With that in mind, I asked Sculptor?!? to come up with a series of questions for me to answer that might give you a better idea of my relationship with this most beautiful of games. The list of questions she sent me rocked my little internet world. Having to put some serious thought into the answers ran me through the entire spectrum of emotions, from elation to disappointment. Below you will find my responses to her questions. If you’d like to ask a follow-up question or a question of your own, feel free to do so in the comments section.
1. When did you first decide football was ‘it’ for you?
As a player, the decision was made for me over the course a decade or so. As a child I played baseball, soccer, basketball, and I skied. Baseball ended when we made the jump to Little League- I was revealed as an “all glove, no bat” SS/2B. Competitive basketball ended when everyone else grew and I didn’t. I enjoyed playing around the neighborhood and in rec leagues through college, but in this case, I was “all pass, no shot.” In college also I tried out for club volleyball (my college had no varsity team) and, thinking I had no shot at making it, I skipped the last practice. It turned out I had made it, but got cut for skipping the practice. Lesson learned. Other than soccer, I stuck with skiing the longest because I loved it, but by the time high school rolled around most of my teammates were regularly competing in the Junior Worlds and Junior Olympics every winter while I was finishing last on our team in every race. Except for once, once I finished second to last!
Where soccer was concerned things went very differently for me. I started playing in a town league founded by a Hungarian family that moved to our town and I played in it until middle school when we all switched to playing for our school. Unlike the other sports I played, I found that as the quality, speed of play, and size of the players increased each year I was able to keep up and that in certain areas of the game I was starting to creep ahead a bit. So, as a player, this is where the “it” happened- it’s easy to develop a love for something when you realize that you’re getting pretty good at it. More on this in the next answer.
As a fan Sculptor?!?’s question brought me to an epiphany. I’m a rabid Boston Red Sox fan and I am a passionate fan of baseball history, but I’m not a baseball fan. If the Red Sox aren’t playing it’s unlikely I’ll watch a game. Conversely, I will watch soccer at any time, at any place, and at any level. I once spent an hour (and changed buses three times) to get to Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld to watch Scotland play Iceland in a meaningless U21 match- and loved every minute of the ordeal. I honestly can’t help myself.
2. Why not baseball, hockey, American Football, or some other sport?
I think “not” is too strong a word. I’m a sports fan in general and have always been a loyal fan of the various Boston/New England teams and I’m sure I always will be. I think soccer won out in the end because for me, it was the intersection of so many things in my life. It was the sport I was best at as an individual, it has strong ties to my ancestry, it plays into my fashion sensibilities, with the exception of one season of softball it’s the only sport I’ve ever coached, and I don’t think there is a sport- other than perhaps hockey in Canada- that has developed such a strong culture/subculture.
It’s also worth pointing out that in my (small) hometown soccer was the be-all end-all when it came to sports. My high school program was a very successful one and just making the varsity team was a huge deal for a player. It was also big deal for me because it was literally the only activity in high school where I mingled with the “popular” kids. I say that with no bitterness- I was generally too busy going to hardcore shows, writing for the school paper, etc. to be bothered with “mainstream” pursuits- because I actually thought that the “meritocracy” of our team was pretty amazing and I gave a lot of credit to my coach for that- even more after I became a coach myself and found that coaching players off the field takes just as much time as coaching them on it.
If I may jump two-footed into nerdinesss, I also think that as an historian of Industrial Revolution Britain there is no better prism through which to look at the period than through soccer. It comes out of the public schools, is co-opted by the working classes, moves from regional to national with the growth of the railroads, is entwined with immigration and emigration… I could go on.
3. Favorite player position [generally speaking], and why?
They are called “attacking midfielders” now, but I still favor the term “winger.” As a player I started as a fullback, but by high school I played off the wing and I liked it because it played to my two biggest strengths- a long throw-in and accurate passing. Ryan Giggs would be a good example of the kind of player I would have wanted to be when I grew up.
As a coach I don’t know if I could say I had a “favorite” position, but I had a great deal of respect for the spine of the defense (stopper, sweeper, goalkeeper) as I asked a lot of these players. I needed them to always be at their best and to help coach on the field so that I could focus on everyone else- they rarely let me down.
4. Did you play at any significant level (meaning outside of pickup games)?
As I alluded to above, I had the privilege to play in a nationally ranked high school program (some of the details can be found here) for one of the best coaches in U.S. High school history, and I am proud to this day that by my senior year I was the “first player off the bench.” As high school came to an end I realized that, while I could have found a college program to play in, nobody was going to pay me to do it (as they would for my volleyball and softball playing sister a few years later!), and this was an issue in a family of modest means with two more teenagers in the “pipeline.” Instead, I went the “financially prudent” route, finishing college in three years and with no debt. But I’ve strayed from the question…
From my freshman year in college until I was 35 I played in men’s “open” leagues year round. For those who might be unfamiliar with that term, “open” leagues are generally a mix of current/former college players, immigrants, and on occasion, former low-level professional players. The highlight of this period was when I was 29-30 and moved back to my hometown for about a year and a half and got to play on an open team with all of my former high school teammates and my coach! However, while I was still holding my own in open leagues when I hit 35, it was getting harder to keep up and I was relying on my knowledge of the game more than any remaining physical gifts. Needless to say, I was super-excited to be able to play in 35+ leagues and now, 40+ leagues. I currently play in a 40+ indoor league from November through March and in mixed age/gender pick-up games during the rest of the year.
5. What got you into coaching? and why [coach] women’s football, and not men’s?
There were a lot of reasons: love of the game, seeing it as an extension of classroom teaching, knowing my ability to play would end a lot sooner than my ability to coach, etc.. I was also sure from high school on that I wanted to coach. I had a great coach and saw how many of our opponents didn’t and thought I could make a positive impact if given the chance.
Why women’s and not men’s? That’s easy- my first teaching job was at an all-girls boarding school! However, after that experience I was in a few situations where I had my choice and the idea of coaching high school boys was…repellent. I’m generally of the opinion that boys between the ages of 13-18 should be segregated from the general population and then gradually filtered back in as they display some sort of basic maturity. Truthfully, they are probably no better or worse than high school girls, but they are different. I also feel like my initial experience coaching girls fit more with my philosophy as a coach and my general personality. For example, I’ve never used a whistle or yelled at a player while coaching- I’m not sure one could do that with high school boys.
6. Worst moment as coach (aside from leaving)?
Since you’ve taken leaving off the table, this is a simple question to answer- though not an easy one. I was coaching a team that, while not particularly talented, was full of “grinders.” We knew all season that the best we could possibly hope for was to grab the last playoff spot in our league. When the season came to an end we were tied with another school for 8th place. We were also tied on goal differential, head-to-head, and a bunch of other things and we ended up making the playoffs on a coin toss. Naturally, we had to face the first place team (who were also defending champions) in the first round. To put it mildly, they didn’t take us seriously and we were up 3-0 at halftime. And that’s when I got greedy. At halftime I decided to pack the back line and midfield with my best players and try to ride out the storm that I knew was coming- I shifted from a 4-3-3 to a 5-5-0. We lost 4-3.
I don’t know if things would have finished any differently if I’d just kept my smart ideas to myself, but what made it awful is that I put players in positions that they weren’t used to playing, that led to mistakes that caused us to lose a three goal lead and the match, and such was my players’ trust in me that they felt like it was their fault when it so clearly wasn’t. They were hurt, confused, and for the first time in my coaching career I couldn’t find anything to tell them to make them feel any better. “I screwed up” just didn’t cut it.
7. Best moment as coach?
I couldn’t possibly pick one, so I’ll just run through them in a vaguely chronological order…
I should also point out that at both schools we had new kits (picked by me!) by my second year, and team bags and warm-ups by the third year. In all of these cases I lobbied successfully to have the school’s initials replaced by the school’s crest on all of the team’s clothing and gear.
8. For those that may have missed previous explanations, which professional teams do you follow, and why do they deserve your fandom (and if they don’t deserve it, why do you still support the team)?
Ross County F.C.: No club is perfect, but the Staggies are trying really hard to prove that wrong.
New England Revolution: The jury is out at the moment…
United States National Team(s): Largest breed of Albatross? Potential.
Scottish National Team: My heart rules my head…every damn time.
I have sympathetic leaning towards sides with Scottish or American players and Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal can never lose enough, or comically enough for me.
Feel free to use the comments section to ask further questions, mock, whatever you’ve got!