By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 8, 2012) US Soccer Players -- I was in 8th grade in the Fall of 1989, a time when neon was about to give way to plaid and skater haircuts were close to turning into anything that wasn't a skater haircut. This was also an era when professional soccer was still working to reestablish itself as an American sport, so keep that in mind while reading the story I'm about to tell you.
Once upon a time… hey, it might as well start that way. Gym class, the brief section on soccer. Step one, explain to everybody that even though you can blast the ball by kicking it with the toe of your foot, that's not how the game is played. Step two, going through the basics. Both of these were reminders, stuff we'd covered the year before (the don't toe the ball part - conducted by having us line up and blast the ball at a gym wall with the orders to 'kick it as hard as you can') and elementary school (nobody should be pretending the basic rules were a mystery to kids even in the late 80's). Step three, show a video explaining basic moves.
Step three was new, and it's the one I still remember whenever anybody talks about soccer education in the United States. Particularly, one scene. Picture, if you will, a high school soccer player taking on another high school soccer player. The narration explains that we're about to learn what a feint is, with the player in possession of the ball widely maneuvering it around a defender that might as well have been made of stone. The quick takeaway was simple. Unlike say basketball, a sport everyone in the class had seen at every level all the way up to the pros, soccer allowed a ton of space to operate.
At least one hand shot up, not mine. The question was obvious. "Is the defender allowed to move?" The P.E. teacher begrudgingly paused the video, thought about it for a half second too long, and said yes. Back to the video, that thought we needed to see this display of athletic prowess slowed down and then slowed even further with music added. Another hand, still not mine. "If the other player can move, why doesn't he?" Pause the video again, another delayed response. "It's a demonstration." Back to the video.
Over what couldn't have been more than half an hour because the class was 45 minutes, we saw the world's greatest high school soccer player. Scratch that, the world's greatest soccer player. I mean he had to be, right? His moves froze one defender after the other, even if they took five feet to pull off. I have a clear memory of him beguiling multiple players with a tricky display of prowess that consisted of him stepping to his left with the ball and then pushing it forward.
I need to make two things clear. Though I'm playing it up a bit, this is a true story. And, there were future varsity high school soccer players in the class that might not have been laughing along as loudly with the rest of us, but they also weren't offering up any objections. Why not became obvious when we took it outside.
As expected, the more athletic students in the gym class managed to keep possession and avoid tackles by simply being faster than everyone else. It was gym class basketball all over again, and flag football before that. None of these newly discovered masters of the game would end up with a soccer pin on their varsity jackets, forsaking it for the sports that brought high school glory.
My granddad, who died a couple of months ago just short of his 92nd birthday, told me a similar story about gym class soccer when he was in school. He was an athlete. There's a newspaper story on him describing how he drug multiple players - and fortunately the ball - over the goal-line in a high school football game. The title of the article in a bit of old school sportswriter exuberance refers to him as "Man Mountain," a nickname I unfortunately didn't inherit. He told me he was good at soccer because he could kick the ball forward and beat all the other kids to it. Hey, Major League Soccer careers have been built on less.
Still, even back in my gym class days there was the feeling that something was missing. We didn't get to see some long forgotten North American Soccer League highlight film. Nobody mentioned the World Cup, much less the names of big European clubs. It would be months before I saw my first English soccer highlights on late night television. Years before I saw a professional game in person.
I'm telling you this story for a couple of reasons. Things have changed. Basic soccer education stepped up. Coaching education became a priority. The youth club model spread. Even a few years later, the loudest laughs in that gym class would've been from youth soccer players who knew better, hopefully joined by a P.E. teacher that did too.
Then there's the accessibility of the professional game. Highlight shows to tape delayed games to live games, available even on over-air television. Pro soccer not just as an occasional distraction, but a professional sport with an American identity followed just like any other. There are people who never played the game at a competitive level who can discuss why a player shouldn't be a left midfielder and what's going wrong with the choices at (insert name of whatever foreign club you want here). There are US players showing that this game can take you from the middle of nowhere rural America (where that story I told you took place) to the highest pro levels.
Yet all involved in the American game realize there's still so much more to do.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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