Monday, April 16, 2007

Showdown at El Diablo

I guess that post title could be a little misleading. It's not really a "showdown," since it's a soccer league for five-year-olds and no one keeps score. And the field isn't really called "El Diablo"--it's something like YMCA Youth Soccer League Field or something.

Other than that, though, "Showdown at El Diablo" is a perfect fit.

Eli 5.8 and his soccer team had another league match on Saturday morning. Fifty degrees, thirty mile-an-hour winds. Ideal weather for a seal hunt.

They were playing the best team in the league, Eli said. How did Eli know they were the best? Because they told him, that's how. Before the game started, one kid gave Eli a thumbs-down and said they had no chance.

I couldn't figure out why a little kid would act that way--until I saw their coaches. Seriously, they made Bill Cowher look laid back.

It was scary.

Here are my detailed tactical instructions to Eli before every game: "Run and kick the ball. Have a good time." That seems about right for a kid who still packs a beany bear into his backpack every morning.

What I didn't realize, though, was that this titantic match between pre-schoolers was apparently the UEFA Championship Finals.

These coaches had a strategy--when we were attacking, and by "attacking" I mean running in a clump around the ball in their end of the field, they would yell at their best player to stand at midfield, hoping the ball would wander out to him before our defense did.

What am I saying? We don't even have a defense.

In other words, they were taking advantage of a no-offsides rule in a league for five-year-olds.

When their designated scorer broke free on a run, one of their coaches ran alongside him on the sideline, windmilling his arms and yelling "GO! GO! GO!" The shot hit the post and went wide, and the coach actually made a punching motion toward the ground with his fist.

Later in the half, on a throw-in, they spent several minutes arranging their team in a complex in-bounds play, all designed to get the ball to their scorer by the front of the goal. The only flaw in this shrewd bit of tactical genius was that it required a five-year old girl to throw a soccer ball fifteen yards. After endless positioning and explaining, the whistle was finally blown, and she wound up for an epic heave which came within inches of hitting her in the head, as the ball basically went straight up and straight down.

At halftime, it was clear that in spite of their ferocious coaching intensity, their team was getting tooled. Shut out. I have no idea why or how--it would be like trying to analyze a fire ant mound--but there was no disputing what was happening.

Also at halftime, the other team's moms laid out this snack spread that made Thanksgiving dinner look like the drive-through window at Taco Bell. They had homemade cookies and fresh vegetables and homemade lemonade.

We had pretzel sticks.

The way substitutions work in this league is that there are five players from each team on the field, and there are generally ten players a team. That means that all five players get subbed out every few minutes, like shifts in hockey. For the second half, the master strategists changed the shift of their best player so that he would be playing against our weaker side (which included Eli and his best friend).

And they started double-shifting the kid. He played almost the entire second half, and even though no one keeps score in this league (4-1), I'm pretty sure (4-1) we still beat the snot out of them (4-1). Eli also had his first game without an own-goal, another signature moment in his career.

I'm sure both coaches will be resigning "to spend more time with their families."

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