You’ve heard it been said, “Soccer is a cruel game sometimes...” but I tell you, I hate that sentence clause. I mean, I’ve been there before, in my career and in my education. The point in which... no matter how much drive, or willingness to put in more effort one has to change the outcome of a result, there is no time left. No second chances, or instances for any kind of redemption in the story. One has to close the book, end the chapter, and move along. Which is cruel. But I still hate that sentence clause. Because it doesn’t really do anything to console the fans that are hurt when a season gets cut short. The fans that continuously read articles and blogs, and then write their own articles and create their own blogs just to stay close to the game they love. I hate it because it’s not enough for those of us who still love the game—still want to watch or play it—even with all of its flaws.
The following is a story of four soccer matches I saw this year that I found particularly interesting. I use these stories to help explain (to myself) how to tell the only future generation of players I know personally—my three nephews—what happens next.(Note: two of them are too young to even care, but it’s still fun to write to them.)
My eldest nephew played on his first soccer team this year, and I went to see him play because I firmly believe that showing interest in all levels of the game is key to keeping the future generation of players invested.
As I watched, it was easy to tell how nervous my nephew was to play. At one point, he got so excited about a throw in, he didn’t realize that it was awarded to the other team. He got embarrassed, and it took a lot of effort and positive reinforcement from everyone there to get him back in the game. But he came back.
As I watched him try hard to keep up with the flow of the match, it was clear that his nerves were getting the better of him. This put up more barriers making it difficult to just play and have fun. But he kept going because he saw how important it was to all of us watching him. After he calmed his nerves, it became more fun for him to play. As I watched, I tried to find anything that might count as words of encouragement I could offer him at the end of the match. Because at the end of the day, playing well mattered to him, the same way I imagine it matters to all RSL. He didn’t directly ask for words of encouragement, but I felt this urge to tell him that it’ll come if he tries hard enough. Not the will, the desire, or the willingness to put in as much effort as one can, but the tools needed to break down whatever it is that makes one nervous. That eventually, that beast that fights us and tells us we aren’t good enough gets silenced, and the effort comes out in waves as we play and fight for a result. But when does that kick in? “When am I as good as RSL?” he asked.
Walking into the RioT for the first time this past season was a mixed bag of emotions. We were coming off of a two-month winless streak and (in all fairness) a pre-season that left a lot to be desired. It was natural to be as excited as one was cautious. To have doubt, questions, and hope.
As I watched, though, it became more and more obvious that the team was nervous and unconfident. The nerves affected the way they played immensely, making the game more and more ugly as it went on. The same went for Toronto (who should’ve decimated us). Neither of the teams were in good form, and it showed, but that wasn’t necessarily it. Nobody made a mistake that led them to the sideline, but it was apparent that the weight of the previous season had not left the minds of some of the players. That weight made it difficult to let the beautiful game come out. An ugly 0-0 draw to start the season, and all I wanted afterward was to go in and remind the team to dig back to their roots. To remember why they play, and why they love this cruel game enough to make a career out of it. In short, I wanted to go back and console whomever needed consoling, and remind these professionals about their love for the game. I couldn’t do it, but I talked about it all the way home. “How far back does ____ need to go to remember they love the game?” I kept asking myself. How far back does anyone have to go to fall back in love with anything?
On the drive to my nephew’s last game, I remember being curious, above all things, about how much he had improved over his first season. I was excited to watch him, but I was interested to see if his nerves had relaxed enough to let his love for the game shine. Within the first few minutes, it became clear that he was much more confident in his ability to play. Across the field, it became clear it didn’t matter how talented a player was, just that they all wanted to play. In short, the love for the game came out in ways that just weren’t present in that first game I had seen, that was riddled with nerves.
When all was said and done, the score (again, way to much to count) didn’t matter. It was over and time to move on to the next one. One can imagine how difficult it must have been for him to hear that that had in fact been the last match of the season. As we talked, it was clear that he wasn’t ready for it to be over. He still wanted to play, to improve, to keep the nerves away and let the effort come out in waves. The fact that there were no chances wasn’t something that was just cruel, but something that he couldn’t really understand. Something that nobody, no matter how articulate, could help him understand. Still, I tried. “We can still go to RSL games, bud. We can still play outside when we’re both free; soccer doesn’t have to be over because somebody blew the whistle. “Can we still go to games?” he asked.
“Of course! There will always be another game...”
Even though RSL was playing for their playoff lives, knowing that they had to win to even have a chance to compete for a spot, this game had something more than a sense of urgency. The players came out with something more than just a good effort. It was clear that they loved what they were doing, were happy to be doing it, and were willing to fight for each other in order to do it. In short, the love for the game came out in ways that just weren’t present in that first game of the season. It should come as no surprise that Silva scored so quickly, and then that they were able to keep the pressure on SKC. Like my nephew’s team, these players did not look ready for it to be over. Everything was going according to plan, at least for a while. And it was wonderful to see. But sometimes, the game is cruel...
When the whistle blew, marking the end of a season of amazing growth, several optimists started looking toward the next game that always comes. And why shouldn’t they? They understood that it was the end, that (at least this season) there wouldn’t be more games, and they were okay with that. They didn’t need anybody to articulate it, it just made sense. I didn’t have the heart to tell my nephew that it was over. All I could say was, “This might be the last one for a few months, bud... But you know what, that’s okay.”
“Why?” he asked. I’m still looking for an answer.
Watching all three of my nephews grow into soccer lovers has been the best experience of my life. Seeing their interest in players, positions, and techniques fills me with more joy than winning ever can. I feed off of knowing that their interest represents their generation’s growing interest in the beautiful game.
But, what happens now?
I’m sure we have all heard some form of this question in the last month. How do we keep the younger generations interested and invested in soccer if the US is already out of the World Cup? How do we get them playing, help instill that love, and overall, keep them interested in the beautiful game? I’m not trying to say that there is a right answer, nor that I even have a small idea of what we can do as a nation to keep future generations interested. And in the mess of “Pay to play,” and “Invest in academies,” and “Send younger players to Europe sooner,” rhetoric, it becomes so easy to lose track of the fact that we don’t need this be-all-end-all strategy. The love, the interest, the desire is there. We don’t need somebody to articulate something that would instill this love for the game into the next generation. We don’t need to expose the future generation to every opportunity we can for the sole purpose of getting them to fall in love with the game. The love is there because it’s been instilled within us. What’s important to us becomes important to them. We just have to make sure it stays. There is always another game.