The ‘Long Post’ about my son’s first-ever soccer practice…(little Effzeh content here, sorry!)

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International break usually means a boring stretch of days for me, sports-wise, as the Effzeh disappears from competition for the better part of two weeks, along with most of the rest of the club-level soccer-playing world.

While I support the US men’s national team, I don’t really get excited about the qualification process. I assume they’ll make it into the field and take no real joy in watching them throttle teams of nations with tiny fractions of the population of ours. Of course, they don’t always beat those teams, which shows the program has a long way to go to make all the resources available translate into the sort of dominance in the region you could reasonably assume, at least to a degree.

Last night, of course, the US beat arch-rival Mexico 2:0 in Columbus, Ohio putting them in position to book their trip to Brazil pending the result of the Honduras – Panama match, which came through an hour later.

Don’t get me wrong. I look forward to watching the World Cup and even have genuine concern about how Jürgen Klinsmann is going to address some of the amazingly poor back line play he gets from the players available to him. It’s one thing to put together a run of results against teams from relatively poor Latin American nations. It’s another to think that is going to withstand attacks from more-talented squads, which will be just about everyone in Brazil for the world championship. I fully expect and accept that, at some point, I’ll be forced to abandon hope for the USA and hope I still have the Germans to support at that point.

Whatever the case, I have a new favorite soccer team outside the city limits of Köln. They’re called “the Superheroes.” They’ve only had one practice so far, but it was one of the most-amazing things I’ve ever experienced.

Of course, without a deep biological tie to any of the players, I can’t say I’d recommend cancelling any travel plans you may have made to Sao Paolo in order to fly to Seattle to hope to catch a Superheroes match.

We’re still working on the “no hands” thing. Hey, he’s an American! We use our hands here!

For one hour yesterday, I sat just beyond the barely visible goal line of a pitch in a public park in southwestern Seattle and watched my three-year-old son take part in his first-ever organized-sports anything. If you’ve been there and done that, you already have some idea how great my afternoon was. If not, I doubt I can properly put it into words, but I also doubt you have much interest. I’m well aware how dull it can be for the childless to hear endless stories about all the incredible adventures of their friends’ and colleagues’ progeny. Likewise, people with a disdain for sports put enough effort into broadcasting their disdain that YES, WE ALL GET HOW MUCH YOU HATE SPORTS!

So, read further at your own risk of annoyance and involuntary eye-rolling. What follows is a whole lot of middle-aged dude fawning over the genius of children in the early stages of learning a sport. Or, more specifically, my older child’s first foray into what has become my favorite sport.

Before we get to the big day, however, a bit of background.

And, by “bit,” I mean “entirely too much because I’m a wordy type of so-and-so.”

It all started, probably, with the purchase of a $15 soccer goal and ball set. We bought it well before Owen was old enough to kick a ball around, and likely just bought it because it was $15 and loved the idea of buying stuff in anticipation of all the possible things our boy could grow to be. While I’d started dabbling in watching the sport by then, my interest level was cursory, at best.

As my interest in the game grew, so did my son.  What little time we have the television on while the boys are awake, excluding the occasional PBS morning run of cartoons while waiting for “Daddy Pancakes” to finish baking, is pretty much for sports viewing, and even that is fairly limited, which means, proportionally, the Bundesliga somewhat dominates the non-Dinosaur Train TV content in our house, as far as Owen can tell. This could have played a role, as well.

We had a Sunday night in our house toward the end of last season on which Owen showed his first interest in soccer on the television. He sat with me in “Daddy’s chair” and watched a chunk of highlights, which made me incredibly happy, especially as he started imitating some of the enthusiastic gesticulations of Markus Weinzierl and became fascinated with Mame Diouf, if only because “Diouf” is fun to say for a boy recently minted as an official three-year-old.

Once the weather turned, this turn of fortune inspired me to locate and assemble the long-ago-purchased soccer set and start kicking the ball around the front yard with my son, all Father & Son-like.

Somewhere along the lines, the ball and goal switched from something we’d use occasionally when the idea popped into one of our heads into the source of “Daddy, can we go outside and play soccer?” being asked the minute Owen walked into the house after a day at “school” (day care, to some), even when Daddy is smack in the middle of making dinner at 6:30.

Dinner preparation and ingestion was clearly an impediment to playing soccer every night, which seemed to be leading to some behavioral issues. This probably should have indicated to his parents that soccer was more than a passing fancy for Owen.

It was actually Mommy who investigated the potential existence of organized soccer for children as young as three. With my only other real youth sport experience coming from officiating and my own participation, I was certain we were many, many years away from Owen joining a team, but the Missus found out otherwise. She learned, in fact, that we were already behind the times, in that the lower age limit seemed to be three. THREE!

We agreed fairly plainly we’d register our football-obsessed boy in soccer at the local YMCA at first opportunity, which turned out to be fall. Once the decision was made, we asked Owen whether he thought playing in a league would be of interest.

While we received a fairly basic “yes, please” at that point, the fact that he spent the next several weeks telling anyone he came across, “I’m going to play in a soccer league,” was a bit better an indicator as to just how much that was a “YES!!!!!!!!” than a simple affirmative.

So, if you’re one of the unsuspecting many who happened to walk by our home between 6 and 7:45 p.m. on any weeknight in August, I appreciate you humoring my son as he stopped kicking the ball around, told you he was going to play in a soccer league, and asked whether you’d like to see him score a goal. You didn’t have to stop, smile, and watch, but you did, and I thank you for it.

As the initial practice approached, we had a final hurdle to clear, as long as you don’t count the one where my son has no concept of time and can’t let “three weeks” settle the matter of “When am I going to play in my soccer league?” for longer than…oh, I don’t know, about ten minutes, before needing to check again just how much longer he must wait.

No, what we needed to do was source a pair of soccer cleats (a.k.a. “fast-running shoes”) that would fit a tiny pair of feet, as well as similarly tiny shin guards and knee-high athletic socks.

I had poked around the boys’ shoe sections of stores a few times over the summer, wanting a pair of athletic shoes for Owen even prior to soccer registration, simply wanting something other than the slip-ons with a dinosaur on them that flew into the air every now and then after particularly firm strikes at the ball. My general sense was that, even with Owen being on the tall end of the growth chart for his age, nobody was really making athletic shoes THAT small, much less soccer cleats.

Hence, I was a little surprised when The Missus informed me she had gotten all the needed equipment on a single trip to the suburban mall to the south while I was officiating some youth (American) football. Apparently, the clearance rack held a single pair of Nike cleats with a padded insert that not only allowed them to fit my boy’s tiny foot, but also made it so the shoes would be good for probably at least a second season of play.

This is where my wife deserves a bit of applause, actually.

Apparently, there were a moment of drama where the smallest shoe apparently available was tried for size and deemed, “I don’t know, buddy. I think it’s too big; we may have to put it back and look somewhere else,” even after excited proclamations from Owen of, “See Mommy?! It fits!”

Owen doesn’t really do a “fit” the way I’ve always thought of kids throwing fits. Rather, Owen put chin to chest, stuck out the bottom lip, and made sad eyes that are essentially kryptonite to his parents.

Well, not entirely, as my wife stuck to her guns and moved on. Fortunately, a peek a the clearance table provided the needed solution, which meant that, rather than a pouty toddler trailing a dour cloud through the remainder of the day, several strangers in the Southcenter shopping center were accosted by my floppy-haired Diouf-wannabe, explaining that he’d just secured his soccer shoes so he can play in a soccer league.

Again, fellow citizens of the Seattle area, I appreciate your cooperation.

Considering what happened when we finally arrived at home together than evening after an afternoon at another toddler’s birthday party, I’m a little surprised my son didn’t explode at some point between the purchase of the new soccer gear and our return home, because my wife had not even managed to switch the ignition off after parking in our driveway before Owen excitedly demanded, “Daddy, I want to put on my soccer shoes and play soccer.”

Even with the Sunday night blur of bath, books, bed, garbage to curb, laundry wrap-up, dishes, and work-lunch preparation laid out in front of me, I knew that fighting against the idea with even a reasonable explanation of our time restrictions at that point was going to be futile.

I was committed to helping change clothes and kicking the ball around, regardless of what it would ultimately cost in pushing my own bed time later and later into the night.

And I was only too happy to do it, too. Leading to…

Already looking the part, oder?

Once we had the registration AND gear secured, all we had to do was actually get to the first day of practice. I think most would assume that ‘patience’ would not be high on a list of toddler virtues, and this would certainly fit for my son. Fortunately, we had Daddy’s birthday, a change of classroom at school, and a bit camping trip to the Pacific coast on the calendar between gear-purchase day and the first kick-off. Otherwise, I don’t know what we would have offered to distract from continued asking of “When am I going to play in my soccer league?” Somehow, “after camping” was enough of a better answer than “in a few weeks” that we managed the growing excitement.

The morning of the big day, Owen excitedly pulled on his Seattle Sounders jersey, which he had carefully laid upon the gliding footrest of the glider chair in his room Sunday night, smoothing any bumps so it laid perfectly flat. I took Owen in to his school early, as I’d need to leave work early in order to get him to the park on time. When I explained to him for about the eleventh time that morning that he would play with his friends, eat breakfast and lunch, and take a nap all before I’d come to get him, his teacher overheard and asked, “Oh, is today the big day?” Naturally, Owen had been talking about his pending entry into a soccer league not only to strangers and his parents, but also his captive audience of classmates and teachers. And, thanks to the magic of todder time conceptualization, I’m sure he’d been telling everyone for weeks that he’d be playing in that league “tomorrow,” with “tomorrow” being Owen’s default word for any day after today. (We’re working on it!)

Just how much Owen had been telling everyone at school, though, didn’t really become clear until every adult at the day care center acknowledged Owen on his triumphant march from classroom to my car with an assortment of grins, hugs, hi-fives, and ‘have fun’s. The looks on the faces of all the adults really touched me as they appeared genuinely excited for Owen. If he has to spend his days away from his parents (which he does), I’m glad for the people with whom he spends that time. There are a lot of great people there.

Anyhow…

As you’d likely expect, every stoplight or even slowing down for traffic (construction!) en route to practice spurred my back-seat passenger to ask, “Are we there?” We had at least ten full minutes of discussion about that.

Obligatory action photo

Once there, it was just watch and enjoy…and maybe feel shame at being the only parent who’d not thought to bring water for their child on a sweltering (mid-70’s here is ‘sweltering’) Seattle day.

I don’t know whether it would work for a person who did not have a child among the group, but a cure for any sadness would have to be watching three-year-old children run through drills. First thing coach Chris did was ask his charges whether they knew how to do jumping jacks. It appeared they all said that they did. But, when the whistle blew for them to start, they mostly stood around blankly for a moment before realizing they were being asked to do some sort of thing involving jumping. What followed was simply hilariously cute, in that bouncy children are pretty much hilariously cute, by rule.

A later drill involved teaching about getting up after falling down, which meant intentionally falling to the ground at the whistle. This was easily Owen’s favorite drill, as he LOVES to slide to the ground when we play outside, saying, “sometimes in soccer you fall down.” I had no idea coach Chris would affirm this on day one, as I’d been trying to keep him on his feet!

For his first day of organized sports, I thought my boy acquitted himself well enough. While his soccer skills were naturally just fine for a three-year-old, considering he has spend hours upon hours kicking the ball around, the ideas of paying attention to the coach, following direction, starting action on a whistle, lining up, etc. all proved to be a bit of a mystery to him.

I do know that he was one of the only children to not, at some point wander off to their parent either simply disinterested, distracted, or in a rage of tears due to whatever it is that causes a toddler to suddenly burst into tears in the middle of a park.

Toward the end, coach Chris gathered his tiny squadron of cuteness and got down to the business of selecting a team name. I am sorry to report, I do not know whether “Billy Goats” got suggested. I heard “sharks” and “dinosaurs,” but little else in the mad banter coming from the circle in front of the goal, safely away from nosy parents. Eventually, there was a “1…2…3…SUPERHEROES!” and a dismissal of the team from practice, sending eight of the ten children running for their mommies or the one other Daddy on the other side of the goal line. Left behind were the coach’s son and Owen, who repeated the question he’d asked at least six times (that I heard) throughout the hour-long session, “When are we going to play soccer?”

How can we be done? I want to play soccer!

Oh, buddy…

The coach, his son, and Owen kicked the ball around for a few minutes more before coach Chris helped guide Owen off the pitch and toward me. I apologetically looked at coach and offered a “He’d probably stay out here all night if you don’t just leave,” before re-introducing myself. Coach Chris said that Owen seemed to really know a lot about the game, talking about fouls and free kicks. I explained he was likely just repeating things we’d discussed in the front yard or while watching Bundesliga, but that Owen had not had any formal training in the game and is unlikely to be grasping actual concepts just yet. We answered in the affirmative that Owen had, indeed, been to a few Sounders games, but when asked whether he liked the Sounders, the answer was, “I like the Billy Goats!”

THAT is my boy!

We dimmed some of the disappointment of soccer being finished by playing on the park’s big toy for a while and discussing plans for pizza, which were later thwarted by the inexplicable lack of presence of people at the nearby pizza joint, despite it being during their posted operating hours. Renegotiation led to a trip to Trader Joe’s, which is always a hit with the “Find the stuffed octopus and get a lollipop” feature.

Finally, the next day, we received an email from Owen’s teachers back at school, which I’ll just let you read and tell you that it made me burst involuntarily into laughter while also giving me a shiver of glee while sitting in my work cubicle editing recipes.

“Owen was SO excited to share with all of us today about his soccer last night! Today at circle we had him share, and this is what he told the class… ‘I went to soccer last night and my coach’s name is Chris. He has a big red whistle and we have to kick the ball. But when it was over I got a little grumpy. So we went to Trader Joe’s to look for those round cracker things, you know? And that’s what happened.’

It was just about the cutest thing we have seen all week. Love his excitement! “

Me too, teachers. Me too.

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