You mess with Harpo Marx, you get the horns.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Adult Soccer League

Sorry for the dearth of posts, lately.

With the World Cup less than a week away, there's no better time to start discussing football, and by football I mean the kind actually played with your feet: soccer.*

I play in an adult soccer league. No, no, not that kind of "adult" league. Everyone is fully dressed and the only references to "balls" are the ones that go in the back of the net, thankfully.

The league is a "Sunday league." Sunday league football is the traditional amateur game, where relatively unfit, wannabe players strut their limited skills in front of audiences of wives, girlfriends, and people who got lost on the way to the local pub. 

The American version of this is often primarily Latino, with the odd group of other ethnicities and a smattering of non-Latino Americans. The great thing about this is that there's usually a terrific booth nearby serving fresh homemade tacos, enchiladas, and other Mexican or Central American fare. The downside is that if you're playing you can't eat any rich food before a match unless you enjoy stomach cramps and throwing up in between 50 yard runs down the field. As the Littlest Fando would say, "Awkward!"

Our league is a tad bit more serious than the usual Sunday league fare. So far, I've been knocked down, bashed in the midsection, and undercut in the air so that I landed flat on my 40-something back.  I must add in fairness that, with the possible exception of the last of these, they were fair challenges. I have also seen at least one heavily bloodied nose.

Actually, this is fairly tame, considering that in the previous league I played in I recieved a sprained neck from being kicked in the head.  I also witnessed torn ACLs and  a torn Achilles tendon (Stew Miller's, as a matter of fact).  I even had a relative who had a shoulder blade cracked by a challenge from a player who resembled an NFL quarterback more than the central midfielder role he was occupying.

Also, one of our midfielders, a usually charming and levelheaded fellow named Carlos, once attempted to karate kick an opposing player. This unexpected Chuck Norris impersonation was probably in response to a sucker punch of some kind from an opponent known for his (ahem) gamesmanship. Unfortunately, it came in the opening match of the state Open Cup. There is the slight possibility it could have been a Zinedine Zindane moment also, where the other player said something particularly nasty about a spouse or relative. Carlos didn't ever say, being presumably more preoccupied with figuring out why a player of his considerable talent was unable to connect his studs with the other fellow's jaw.

So, it's average, I suppose.

At 45 years of age, I'm a bit old for this sort of thing. I'm much fitter now than I was in the latter stages of my career in the other league, primarily due to the running I've done as part of my workplace fitness program.  Halving my intake of burgers, sandwiches, and pizzas during meals has also probably helped. Still, I've had a hamstring pull, a neck disc reherniation, and now a separated rib. This latest one is beating the crap out of me, because not only can I not run, even walking at a decent pace is painful. This is mainly because of the fact that deep breathing feels like someone taking my rib and bending it at a 45 degree angle in my chest.

Yes, I know I'm whining. Hush.

The odd thing is that all of my injuries have occurred in pick up matches. The actual three league games I've managed to be fit for I've completed absolutely healthy, albeit completely exhausted.

The play is interesting.  Sometimes, it's quite good, with an occasional volley from outside the box, a clever dribble and turn, or a diving save by an unexpectedly talented keeper. Sometimes, it's sloppy, untactical play, with players dribbling into swarms of defenders, playing passes up to 90 degrees off target, and running into each other more out of exhaustion than menace. Occasionally a player is given a wide open goal to shoot at and fires well wide, greeted with hoots and friendly needling from the player's own friends and teammates.  Depending on how close the match is, these may be mixed with expletives and veiled threats.

Usually though it's somewhere in the middle: just competent enough to resemble a decent adult game, just inaccurate enough to remind you that the players are either past their prime or not up to a higher level of play in the first place. It's rather like international diplomacy in that respect.

Now, there are exceptions.  On the team I managed a decade ago we had two ex-professionals, three players who played for their country at the under-17 level, and a few college players, some of them NCAA Division I. I played on seven a side team with some of the same players.  We also had a six-foot-six, Nigerian, ex-junior college player of the year... in basketball.  He was also a fantastic footballer and on one occasion did the "Pele" move.  He received the ball, juggled it over the head of the diminuative fellow desperately trying to mark him, and volleyed the ball on the other side, drilling a rocket of a shot past the bewildered keeper.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to be in these sides at all, but it did help that I ran one of the teams and had a policy of you pay, you play. To be fair, I started plenty of games in both sides on merit, usually in midfield or defense. Also, keep in mind I was often one of the oldest players on the team, not having started regularly playing until later in life.

It also helped that those leagues had a free substitution process.  At any time players could sub out and then come back in later. As long as there were only 11 players per team on the field (notwithstanding sendings off) everything was cool, even if the players themselves were broiling in the midsummer heat.

In my current league, there are only five substitutions, and like the top level games, once you go off you can't come back.  This means that not everyone always gets in a game. Well, it would mean that, if everyone on the roster ever showed up.  I don't run my current team, but I'm fairly certain that we have somewhere between 18 and 75 players on our roster, give or take a few people who I've never met and may be fictional characters.  We've never had more than 16 show up at any one time. Either work, church, or injuries have accounted for most of the abscences, but I suspect hangovers and apathy have claimed a few as well.

Also, we've suffered some heavy losses this season, something I'm honestly not used to. After a few drubbings (an 8-0 loss I missed was the worst I've heard reported) it's not surprising to find that a few players mysteriously forget to return phone calls or decide that game day was the perfect time to go out of town for an aimless five-hour drive in the lovely spring countryside.

The biggest challenge for my side, a colorful and friendly collection of Latino, Anglo, African, and Vietnamese players is organization.  Most of the longstanding teams are collections of players with a common ethnic heritage.  That heritage often includes a consistent approach to tactics and style.

Our approach is a combination of chaos and limited fitness. When your 45 year old central midfielder is one of the fitter players in the squad, you can expect the team's energy level to drop off after about 10 mintues in each half. We are consistent in that regard.

Also, not everyone speaks the same language and there is limited fluency in English with a couple of players.  Last week, I was managing the team in the absence of our regular boss.  I told one fellow to play central defense. He nodded his head in apparent understanding.  Needless to say, he spent the entire first half alternating runs through the center of midfield and positioning himself wide of our right back, nodding his head in understanding every time I yelled at him to get back in the middle of defense.

He spent the second half recuperating from his tactical confusion on the bench.  He seems a nice fellow, but with a dubious grasp of team shape.

Why did I jump back into the rough and tumble of competitive football in the midst of my middle-adge golfing prime? What can I say?  I love the game and love makes you crazy.  The feeling when a pass or shot goes right is unlike any other. My finest sporting moments have come from kicking a "proper football" around. I scored from 50 yards once, playing keeper on a half-field. You never forget something like that. But I can also remember volleyed and chipped goals in pickup games, passes through swarms of opponents, and the occasional touch that made me think, "What if I'd started sooner?"

Well, I'd have had more material for this post. That's really the only thing I can be sure of. That and I do remember the occasional own goal, and one or two shots that might have won me $10,000 on America's Funniest Home Videos.

This year, the approach of the World Cup this year has certainly got the old feeling going again. Now, all I need to do is figure out a way to stay healthy.

Anyone have a cure for old age, handy?

*One of my favorite t-shirts is a model that has a picture of an American football with the word "Throwball" in big letters. My wife bought one for me and The Littlest Fando.

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