Commentary / Local / Local Leagues / Youth Soccer

The bottom of the soccer pyramid: An update

Photo: Stephen Speer

This is the second installment of a first hand account of coaching in one of the suburban Philadelphia youth travel leagues. The initial piece can be found here.

The sun was hot. 

It was the kind of spring Sunday where no one has the right clothes – too warm for a jacket, too cold for pants – and everyone gets their first good sunburn of the year. For the kids, the heat was special: given the cold of the morning, the afternoon might as well have felt like the surface of the sun. 

As such, there were a lot of red faces. 

The far away fields were full when we got there so our pregame warm up routine – rondos and some 1v1 drills, to remind everyone that there are no friends on field of battle – was relegated to the unmoved corner of the complex. My goal was a crescendoing symphony. Instead there were lots of heavy legs, slow touches, and foreshadowing. 

The other team faced the same problems as ours of course, with one minor difference: this was their fourth match of the weekend and sixth gathering of the week, including practices.

No time for a rondo? No problem at all. They already did that a half dozen times in the last 36 hours and were otherwise born ready. 

This meant we were also scrambling to get a lineup together once we finally did get on the field. Missing 4 regulars, adding 2 fill-ins, and generally being short-handed, the decisions were technically easy if practically less than ideal. The other team was out and lined up before I’d even gotten the cap off the whiteboard marker – me of the Pep Guardiolo school of, “You can play winger today, right?” tactics.

The delay might’ve been a blessing in disguise. 

Kickoff and the first half

From the first kick, I knew we were in trouble.

Why? I’ll allow Dan Blank and his wonderful book, “Soccer I.Q.,” to lay the groundwork:

“Let’s begin at the beginning. Speed of play. It’s the holy grail of soccer. Understanding this is the preeminent prerequisite for becoming a smart soccer player.”

The other team? Playing fast. 

Our team? Not playing fast. 

Specifically, not really playing at all and really only walking.

We were behind quickly. Then further behind before lots of the parents had finished putting on their sun screen.

I was pacing, selectively reminding my wonderful players about all of the things we’d practiced over our past 10 months together – including the occasional shout of “RUN!!!!.”

Author’s note: I once had a coach who told me, “I don’t know why, but when I scream run and then throw in a swear word, my players run faster.” I didn’t accept the latter bit of guidance, but do know that not all heroes wear capes.

My counterpart? He’d brought a lawn chair and was leaning back, arms exposed with rolled sleeves to catch some rays. 

This might come off as disrespectful but I didn’t take it that way. He probably had a dozen games that weekend between his various squads. I was squeezing in coaching between mowing the lawn almost too early to abide by the unwritten rules of suburban gas-powered lawn care etiquette and making a long overdue Wegman’s run (“We can eat leftovers again, right?”).

He was tired – I understood. 

The half ended with my only substitute coming off injured and another key player feeling like he might want to be injured too, given how hot it was and how far behind we’d fallen. The score? Who could say – and philosophically – given these are 9 year olds, who should care?

But still…

I pulled the referee aside while my players were rehydrating. I wasn’t about to forfeit, but also wanted to make sure our boys could make it another 25 minutes without another injury or worse – further disinterest

Since we were down a man and since he’d watched us play for a half of soccer, the official magnanimously agreed to shorten the second act by 5 minutes. The other coach offered to play down a man too to keep things fair. 

I accepted both offers. 

The second half and beyond

We shut our opponents out in the second half – a good thing. To qualify, there were two reasons why.

  1. The other boys were instructed to work on passing, spacing, and all things that didn’t include shots on goal. Kind for sure, but pandering – but also not unwelcome. 
  2. Our goalkeeper – when the kids on the other team, against the direction of their coach, simply decided that if 20 consecutive passes was enough for Barcelona to finally get a shot on frame, it was enough for them too – stood on his head. He was all over the pitch, leaping high in the air, diving toward every corner of his minded net, and generally looking more like Gianluigi Buffon than the incredibly warm and friendly kid who occasionally forgets he’s on a soccer field. 

We won the second half. Or at least drew it.

The match itself?

We lost. Perhaps you already surmised as much. 

When we gathered on the bench, I remembered what I’d asked of the group during my halftime pep talk. My single request for organization after a half of Peanuts cartoon-like clouds of dust and limbs.

“Let’s see if we can make it 5 minutes in the second half without allowing a shot on goal.”

I figured if we could commit to a small task together, we’d work our way up to a larger one. With the help of the other team’s coach and his halftime adjustments, we accomplished it. That was undeniable.

“Coach, we did that, right? So you’re gonna tell our parents we should get Rita’s?”

Ahhhh, riight. 

Yeah, I said that. I’d forgotten I had, to be honest, consumed by the fact that – though we’d tightened up at the back – we hadn’t completed more than a few passes in the entirety of the final frame. But I said it – they could get water ice if they buckled down and pitched a 5-minute, no shot shutout… and they were holding me to it. 


I had no leg to stand on in contradicting. They’d done what I’d asked. 

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll tell them.”

Of course I did. 

They sprinted to their minders faster than I was able, and without question the fastest they’d moved all day. They obviously relayed the good news whether I would have or not. Now tanned and mellowed in the heat, it appeared as though most were ready to oblige. 

Why not, right?

One parent walked my way with a smile on her face. She patted her player on the head, leaned down to his level to deliver a warm but private message about the game, and then stood and turned to me. 

“Good game today, Coach.”

“Thank you,” I said. “A tough one.”

She smiled again. 

“I thought you showed admirable restraint,” she said with a chuckle, walking off toward the parking lot. 

Given the circumstances, that was high praise. We didn’t play well, didn’t try as hard as we could have, and didn’t implement any of the things we’ve talked about since I started working with the group. But my frustration didn’t show – which I guess is something. 

I took that win. 

On to the next one.

Author’s note: …which we won 9-2. Go figure.


  1. Atomic Spartan says:

    Beautifully written as usual Chris.
    Took in a similar game this weekend as I travelled to watch Darth Harvey’s U8’s battle an equally overwhelming foe. Ten minutes into their pre-game paces, they were already complaining about the heat.
    The game went as you might expect: most of “The Boom” are actually U7 and there are a few U6’s as well, so their opponents scored early and often. Focus was a challenge.
    I’ve gone on record here as opposing Mercy Rule stagnation. I always thought it stifled offensive effort and caused nothing but frustration for the oppressed. But watching my grandson’s team work to successfully steal the ball and even score a goal or two, I’ve changed my mind. There is instructive merit to the rule, especially when the opposing coach applies conditions.
    Most important though, as Darth’s kids joined hands and walked across the field to their parents at the end of the game, there were smiles on their faces – the coach’s greatest reward.

  2. Meanwhile at the top of the US Soccer Pyramid, the USMNT just won the Balogun lottery and got their starting #9 for the foreseeable future – lets go Gold Cup!!

  3. santo bevacqua says:

    This article gave me a very nostalgic feeling of my coaching days which i found very rewarding. The overall good feeling i got when the players executed the practice drills in real time. I still treasure the video of my team winning the championship.

    I want to kindly reiterate once again that you were coaching football and not soccer. I cannot understand how association football derives soccer as the name of the sport. Why not begin a crusade to right this misrepresentation of the beautiful game i will help you anyway i can. I believe you have the passion as well.

    • grrrjames says:

      I find the obsession with football v soccer baffling. When I was growing up (in the UK) my (British) father always referred to what I called ‘football’ as ‘soccer’.

      Maybe ‘soccer’ seems old-fashioned in the rest of the world, but it makes a lot of sense in a culture where the most popular sport is known as ‘football’.

      • santo bevacqua says:

        In the USA they play football with helmets, pads, and long pants, but no feet are used except when its time to kick the oval ball and use a soccer player. Its a literal travesty…BTW i love the premier league.

    • soccerdad720 says:

      My understanding of the origins of the word: In England…the proper name of the game is (was?) “Association Football” – the English have been known to shorten everything into a slang term. Ya know…”likes Bees n Honey for Money?”

      Well, those who were into ‘association football’ were slangily referred to as “socc’ers” – see the “ssoc” part of association?

      Over in THIS country, when the game was starting to be played, there was already a game called “Gridiron Football” – what we today simply call Football. (however, I’ve heard the English still refer to it that way at times) Our game became soccer.

      so…there ya have it…my (mis?) understanding of the origins of the name of the game: Soccer. However — it works for me.

      For the record your holiness — I’m with you. It makes perfect sense that a game that is played 95% (or more) with feet – is called foot – ball.

  4. pragmatist says:

    Fantastic read. I coach 2 different levels at a grade school: 2-4 and 7-8. Different maturity levels, different experience levels, and yet I can relate to every sentence of this article.
    Our 5-6 grade team (different coach, but similar results as mine teams) has struggled over the past 2 years. And 2 years ago they were losing 12-0 after the first 15-minute quarter (it was so hot the teams agreed to 4 15-minute quarters instead of 2 30-minute halves). The game finished 12-0. At one point, a kid on the other team was standing on the 6 with the ball at his feet and no one between him and the goal…and he turned around and passed it back out of the box. Was this pandering, as you mentioned? Absolutely. Was it also welcomed? Again, absolutely.
    I bring this up because there are so many problems in youth sports and too many coaches and parents who forget that these are kids just playing a game. To see someone else have a similar experience where everyone understands sportsmanship just warms my heart.
    We, however, did not follow our loss with a 9-2 win, unfortunately…

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    I’d like to write and expound on this topic. But why bother. This is already a technically and artistically excellent piece. Dear Lord I love the written word. Total enjoyment reading. Carry on.

  6. Deez Nuggs says:

    When my son played travel, I went to more of those games than I care to admit. Often we’d come up against a team deliberately playing down a division in a tournament to ensure that they’d win. Overmatched everyone else. I remember several occasions where the opponent had “scored enough” and had switched to keep away, when our boys suddenly started playing with all their hearts. Some of the most passionate, aggressive, and even effective ball was when they had no chance of victory. That made me proud.

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