Tuesday, April 09, 2013


Eli 11.8 is captain of his school's fifth/sixth grade soccer team. They play in the highest division, and they won 6-2 in their first game last week.

Eli, to his disappointment, is a sweeper this season. It's tough for him, because he can be such a dominating midfielder, but his coach wants the assurance of knowing he's the last line of defense, and Eli responded. In their first game (up 6-0), the coach moved him to midfielder late in the game, and his team gave up 2 goals in 10 minutes.

Eli plays his position as well as you'd expect, but what he does best is organize the team from the back row. He gives clear instructions to the three defenders in front of him, making sure that they stay together and play as a unit.

So it's not the position he'd hoped for, but he's strong in his role. The coach also made him the team captain, which Eli takes very seriously.

Tonight, they played their second game, and immediately, it was clear that this was going to be a different game. Instead of dominating position, they were being dominated, and attack after attack came Eli's way, because the other defenders just couldn't physically match up. He stopped every early attack, including a host of situations where he was the last line of defense with no help in sight.

This team could run. Eli's team runs well, but this team ran better, and Eli was the only one fast enough to stay with them. Plus they had a kid who was at least 5'9" (Seriously? How freaking tall can kids get these days?), and he had excellent ball skills.

In other words, it was clearly an uphill battle.

Still, it was 0-0 when the other team scored on a corner kick, a strong left-footed shot that deflected off another defender and into the net.

At halftime, Eli's team was down 1-0, but they were playing hard.

In the second half, the game was slightly more even, but on another corner kick, one of Eli's teammates--who was at least fifteen yards from the goal--deflected the corner, and it took a crazy bounce right to the foot of an opposing player in front of the net. Easy goal.

It was pretty clear at this point that Eli's team was going to lose, but he still tried to marshal a comeback, encouraging his teammates and trying to pick them up. And he made three or four more terrific stops on defense, saving his team again and again.

Then, on a long ball, Eli, his goalkeeper, and an opposing player all arrived at the same time. The goalie reached for the ball, but it slipped out of his hands, and Eli grabbed it.

Goalie instinct.

It was a penalty shot, and they scored again. Final score: 3-1.

After shaking hands with the opposing team, Eli walked off the field with his head down. I put my hand on his shoulder. "Look at me," I said, and he did so, reluctantly. "I know you accept responsibility for that one second, but you also have to be willing to accept responsibility for how you played the rest of the game. You were tremendous." He gave me a little smile, then we all walked off together.

On the way to dinner, I made a tentative conversation probe. "So do you understand why those bad bounces kept going against you guys?" I asked.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because they had possession two-thirds of the time," I said. "It's just like hockey. When you have the ball most of the time, good things will happen for you. But they immediately challenged possession every time you guys touched the ball, and they generated a ton of turnovers. What did you see out there?"

"We didn't attack the right way," he said. "Against that team, you can't attack with a series of short passes, because you won't control the ball long enough. We needed to chip the ball in and go chase it with pressure."

That's dumping the puck in, in hockey terms.

"Dad, I'm going to read, okay?" he asked, pulling out a book that he was reading as a homework assignment.

"Sure," I said. We drove the rest of the way to Chipotle in silence.

After I parked, we got out of the car and started walking toward the restaurant. "Well, I guess I'll have a handball sandwich with a side of handballs," he said. I burst out laughing, and he did, too.

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