The bottom of the soccer pyramid – The Philly Soccer Page

Photo: Chris Gibbons

The grass on this field is as nice as any I’ve played on in my 40 years.

Three widths of carefully lined, cleanly leveled, meticulously trimmed green shoots, and a ball being pinged around each one. Well… pinged around two of the three, I should say. On my field, there are eight players and a cloud of dust.

Welcome to the bottom of the American soccer pyramid: U-9 Boys travel soccer in suburban Philadelphia.

In my day

Any story of the way things are has to start with the way they were.

When I was a kid, soccer as an 8 year old included a reversible pinnie with the screen printing “Biddy Soccer League” on it, mandatory mouth guards, and halftime orange slices. The only traveling we did was to the next neighborhood over, timeless match ups like Boalsburg against Park Forest.

Today, the attire is a custom home and away kit from Soccer.com, shin guards for everyone, and a “bring your own water” league rule. Away days in Malvern might be an hour for some parents – both ways (and this is the lowest of the three travel tiers in this age group. The kids who’ve developed early? Weekend excursions from the Brotherly Suburbs to the nation’s capitol, central New Jersey, and parks unknown in Maryland).

As it was, the first practice of the season was on the Tuesday before Saturday’s game, at some point after Labor Day. As it is, this first practice is three full months before any league game. That seems like a lot, though when that impossibly far-off time comes, at least official scores won’t be kept (and aren’t until U-13).

To say I wasn’t at all prepared for this when I went to the preseason coaches meeting is an understatement. A lot has changed.

Just like it was in my day however, and no matter the tier, these bright-eyed kids are still learning the basics.

Kicking and running… sometimes

Practice starts with a scrimmage – what better way to assess individual talent than to see it in a tumbled scrum of limbs, like when Calvin and Hobbes get into a fight.

Out of the chaos, some clarity.

One of the kids is a veritable Dax McCarty, buzzing around the midfield with the shock of red hair, getting stuck in any chance he gets. On the ball, he is burying his teammates with his signature (and perhaps only) move: the cut back.

Another is more a bespectacled Yaya Toure – eighty percent legs, strides as tall as some of his teammates, and enough power to move the proverbial pile. The ball always ends up at his feet, as do a wake of toppled teammates.

Most of the gathered young men are a lot like my kid though: growing into their bodies, trying to figure out how to turn their hips in order to hit the ball with their instep (and settling for toe pokes as the ninety minutes of training tires on), and asking if we can “practice hat tricks.” That’s an actual request and, frankly, I don’t know what that means exactly. But we did practice juggling because one of the Coopers asked – there is more than one Cooper, and the team record for keepy-uppy is 3 at the time of publication.

To be serious, this is the most organized league I’ve ever been a part of – almost jarringly so.

There are over 50 teams across the ages, divisions, and gender separations, all led by volunteer parents who (mostly) have some level of USSF teaching license. For our first practice, there was the head coach, an assistant (me), and another part-time assistant who goes back and forth between this age group and that of his older twin boys. Nothing is accidental, everything is planned, and though most of it is player-driven, even that’s by design.

The parents who are not volunteering are clustered under some trees, chasing the widening shade. There aren’t any orange slices that I can divine, but plenty of emails being checked and quick glances toward the playground to make sure the younger siblings in attendance are doing alright.

My youngest is among that bunch, and she keeps running across the field to show me the flower she’s picked up or to steal some of her brother’s water. It’ll be her turn to put the boots on next year, and since she’s half ballerina, half middle linebacker… well, opponents beware.

Is enough too much?

By the time we get to fall, we’ll have had nearly as many practices as my high school soccer team did in all of our formal preseason – again, this is the lowest tier of U9s we’re talking about here.

Frequent PSP commenter el Pachyderm has opined on these pages more than once about the state of the American soccer pyramid – rarely in glowing terms. Too much structure, like what I’m butting up against first hand. From that structure, too much predictive or methodical playing and a focus on game-winning, but not enough “beautiful game” in the process.

He’s certainly not the only voice in this chorus of reform.

To be fair, we’re not in the thick of that yet, but it’s clearly on the horizon. We went from lumpy 4-a-side matches on a dirt field in the city to this in a few months – it’s a lot to take in.

And yet…

I’d have killed for a pitch like this as a kid (I was sure I’d end up the starting quarterback for our local college, irrespective of the fact that I didn’t like to get tackled and topped out as a high schooler in the 140s for weight). Three supportive dads, showing me how to plant my foot to deliver a controllable pass? Incredible – who could ask for more?

And really, I remember all the good coaches I had along the way (almost as much as the bad ones).

So maybe this is great, maybe this is a trifect of things I want (time with my kids, furthering my soccer education, and time away from a laptop or work email), maybe I’m the grumpy old man here.

Let them play!

Or maybe not, as come fall it’ll be two nights a week of practice and games on Saturday – plus the girl’s intramural league, which I’ll also be assistant coaching. Maybe I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

My goal for them? To get out of the house, play organized sports, and more than anything, try different ones each season. That’s more manageable.

To that end, one practice in and it’s been wildly successful so far…

But ask me again in the fall.

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