Two weeks ago I had a chance to score my first goal. Not everyone showed up to our soccer practice, so we played a game of 5-on-5 on just half the field. I was open near the opponent’s goal (yet surprisingly onside). My teammate passed the ball to me. Not a single other player near me. Unfortunately, my back was to the goal. That meant I had to complete what seemed like a thousand mental calculations, which I did with the swiftness of stop motion claymation.
Keep eye on ball.
Stop ball with chest.
Let ball land at feet.
Stop ball from rolling away.
Turn toward goal.
Hey, where did they come from?
As a reminder, this spring I decided to take a do-over for my 10-year-old self – I decided to play soccer. Before this spring my last day on the soccer field was in 1978, when I stormed off the field (but only after recovering from having the wind knocked out of me). That day I added team sports to my list of fears, which also now includes heights and squirrels.
When I moved to Portland a little over a year ago, I became an instant fan of the Portland Timbers. Even this year as the team has been struggling, I am a fan. The phrase is “Rose City ‘Till I Die” after all, not “Rose City As Long As They Win.”
I know Americans like to claim soccer is boring, but I disagree. If the score is too low for you, just multiple each goal by six, like they do in football. A game that ends in a 0-0 draw? I used to think that was odd too, but with no timeouts and nonstop action, a draw keeps the tension going for 90 minutes. That’s to say that after avoiding team sports for decades, I had decided I wanted to play soccer. Soccer would become my do-over, my chance to get it right for the 10-year-old me.
My first challenge was finding a club that would welcome a middle-aged man who had played only one day of soccer decades earlier and has a tendency to flinch when a ball comes toward him. That proved to be easier than expected. I found the NetRippers FC, Portland’s LGBTQ soccer club. They welcome players of all abilities, even though most of the players are quite skilled. They have shown amazing patience as I try to learn skills a 5th grader has mastered.
Each week practice begins with drills followed by a scrimmage. I fell naturally into the role of defender. It allowed me to get a feel for the game, and being a bigger guy I can help “defend” by basically just being in the way. A bit of a brick wall the ball can’t get past. In those first couple weeks I managed to block the ball a few times. However, I think I started to confuse being a brick wall with improving. That delusion was shattered the week when only four of us showed up because everyone else was in Seattle for a tournament.
They decided to kick the ball like a hacky sack, keeping the ball moving and off the ground for as long as possible.
I was still acting like a brick wall. When the ball came to me, it was nearly guaranteed to drop to the ground. Actually, that was if I was lucky. Usually, it would bounce off me, flying away to distant corners. My teammates, rather than just let me struggle, showed me some tips and even some drills I could practice at home.
Trying to keep a soccer ball in the air using your knees is not easy. I could do it two or three times before it would bounce away from me. Not to mention becoming completely winded by something that looks so simple. Knowing this, I didn’t want to practice in front of the world. Instead, early in the morning, I headed down to my apartment’s garage to practice.
The following week, more of us showed up, but still only enough for a scrimmage of 5-on-5, using half a field. I thought using just half the field would be easier. With just five to a team, there was no hanging back as a defender. We all had to run forward, which meant we also had to race back.
“Race.” Completely. Winded.
No timeouts, no commercial breaks. The game just keeps going.
At this point it would be very easy to claim that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. That’s a stupid way to go through life. What I need to do is lose weight and get in shape.