It doesn’t matter if you are a fan, parent, coach, or administrator. It doesn’t matter if all you’ve ever known was MLS and pro ball and haven’t ever seen a youth soccer match. It doesn’t matter if you’ve only become a soccer fan since you caught that one World Cup match by accident in a local bar and now can’t stop watching FSC. All of you need to go read Soccerhead. Right. Now.
Soccerhead, An Accidental Journey into the Heart of the American Game comes to us from Jim Haner, a journalist in Baltimore. No, he’s not a sport writer – he covers the Metro beat in Baltimore. His journey into American soccer began like it has for so many of us who are sucked into soccer, never to return: he signed his child up to play and went to orientation:
It was a night made for werewolves and stickup men – one of those airless southern summer evenings – the sort of swampy half-moon nocturne that can evoke a sense of anxiety all by itself. June bugs rattled in the canopies of the streetlights on Fifty-first Avenue. The smoke from my cigarette hung motionless in the air. Nearby, a freight train trundled by, bound for Washington, D.C., too slow to stir the torpid vapors. As I mounted the metal steps for Parents’ Night, I was beset by dread.
"Soccer?" I asked myself again, flicking the smoldering butt down onto the parking lot. "What in the hell do I know about soccer?"
So begins an education about soccer as ‘The American Game’ that few of us could even dream of.
The book chronicles the success and failure of Jim as coach along with his parents and players that make up the College Park Hornets, a group of 8 and 9 year olds who are reaching that level where soccer becomes less swarm ball and more serious. He quickly learns that he really doesn’t know much about soccer and begins an educational journey that will eventually take him to the sacred halls of the history and power for soccer in America. From the gritty textile towns in New Jersey to Oneonta, New York where he gets to touch the DeWar Trophy. He intersperses chapters about his beloved Hornets with chapters dedicated to the history of American Soccer, how soccer rose from it’s own ashes like a phoenix to become a defining sport and experience for America’s youth.
It isn’t all good feelings either. His Rec team struggles as it runs into bigger and stronger teams from the larger nearby leagues, but stays standing and continues to improve. His team has a sole girl named The Mosquito who often will leave bigger sneering boys in the dirt while she darts upfield with the ball she just stole. I couldn’t help but laugh reading about the exploits of this girl named Shelby when I have a little spitfire on my U8’s named Shelby as well, one who begs her mom to let her stay for her sister’s U10 practice week after week so she can get more ball touches and learn ‘from the bigger kids’
Now, before you MLS fans roll your eyes and scream ‘Next!’, hear me out.
Jim spends a lot of time talking to the ‘old-timers’ who played soccer in America long before the NFL was ‘cool’. Players who frequently broke bones, dislocated joints, and came back for more, week after week. Players who bore jagged scars from the nails driven through shoes to make ‘cleats’ in the day. Matches that turned into borderline riots when ethnic rivalries and hatred brewed to the surface. My favorite depiction is of a match in the late 50’s where the crowd surged onto the field to attack a player who had taken down their team’s player with a vicious tackle. The melee subsided only when 3 priests walked onto the pitch towards the offending player, parting and calming the crowd, and proceeded to beat him with their umbrellas.
Soccerhead is a fun read. I started reading it after I got home from my usual Saturday maelstrom of soccer and didn’t put it down until I finished it at 2:30AM. That’s right. A book about a kids Rec team and the history of soccer kept me up until the wee hours of the morning, sometimes laughing out loud, much to the annoyance of my sleeping wife beside me. I got up to start writing this review as she turned the first page. I haven’t heard from her since.
The book is packed with an amazing amount of facts related both to the history of the game in America as well as the absolute explosion of it in the past decade as a youth sport. Have you ever wondered why most soccer leagues are run as independent non-profits and not as extensions of local Rec programs? Have you ever wondered why parents suddenly started signing their kids up en masse for soccer? Have you ever wondered what ONT stood for? Did you know the likes of Man U and other storied clubs used to travel to one of the worst pitches in the world, located in the US, just to face teams made up primarily of mill workers? Did you know Native Indians were playing a form of soccer before the pilgrims brought their style of play? Did you know soccer in its earliest forms was often used to teach tactics to the military?
This book takes you on a journey through the dark days, when baseball conspired to ‘adopt’ soccer to keep it’s venues in use during the off season, only to smother it once the money men saw it as a risk to their lifeblood. As Jim notes "The fingerprints of big-league baseball are all over the knife that cut soccer’s throat." True, baseball isn’t the only reason soccer vaporized in America, but it helped the decline. The Depression was a huge factor as most teams were run by industries that cratered after 1929. But baseball knew a threat when it saw it and began to work against soccer as far back as the 19th century.
MLS fans will find a rich trove of soccer history that is enough to get even the most tepid of fans asking for more. However, where Soccerhead really excels is as a magnifying glass into the youth game. The future of soccer in America lies with our kids and the millions of volunteers working to teach them the game, get them to practices, and more. If you want to know why America might someday win the World Cup outright in the next 15-20 years, why foreign soccer powers will publicly ridicule American soccer in public only to whisper dire warnings privately that America may someday rule the game, you need to learn how youth soccer is run in America and why it has exploded.
The news is not all good, but more on that in a minute.
One thing many people don’t understand is that youth soccer is not just another kid’s sports. It can become an integral part of a family and community’s social fabric. You’ve likely heard the media describe soccer as a way of life for other countries and that the US will never succeed at soccer because that’ll never happen here. Baseball, we’re always told, is America’s game. Please. Over 17 million kids are playing soccer in the US, the second biggest youth sport in the US and we’re gaining on basketball. What the media doesn’t get is that youth soccer is almost a religion for a sizable portion of it’s participants, both young and old. I can’t explain it, but Soccerhead does an excellent job.
Soccer is different. My kids play soccer and basketball, dance, and do Tae-Kwon-Do. The other activities, are just that: activities. Even a competitive sport like basketball is just that: a sport. We bring our kids, they practice, we cheer them like crazy at games from the bleachers, and head home. Soccer is a different animal. For many it becomes a social fabric that most happily fall into. While the kids learn the core skills of the game, the parents form social networks that probably will often last a lifetime as do the kids. Teams that form when the kids are young and stay together as the kids grow up become a rock for many families. For the coaches and administrators who run the leagues, soccer becomes even more of an obsession. I live at the soccer fields along with dozens of other families and do so happily. While my kids are reminded over and over if they tire of soccer or they find it isn’t fun anymore that they can quit at any time, they wouldn’t think of it because they love it too. You might think it unhealthy at first, but that’s not it. It’s an obsession – of that there can be no doubt. But most soccer parents KNOW it’s an obsession and work to provide well rounded groups of alternative activities for their kids. But soccer is more than an activity, it often will become a key part of a family’s structure, teaching both the kids AND the parents more than they may ever realize and strengthening a social network many felt was shattered after Americans retreated into their homes after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. Remember when we were supposed to seal ourselves in rooms with duct tape?
Soccerhead chronicles Jim’s own journey into that obsession. Lest you think this is all feel good and happy news, it isn’t. Jim quickly learns that youth soccer is at risk from within and unless something is done, and done quick, we risk throwing away the best chance we have of bringing soccer into it’s true place as one of "America’s Sports". He quickly realizes that he is out of his league as a coach and decides to learn as much as he can. He recognizes that he and many other coaches are obsessed with offense, something all other American sports emphasize. (his description of how the NFL repeatedly changes the rules to protect offenses and quarterbacks is hilarious, but true) Coaches take this offensive mindset and try to apply it to soccer, doing the kids a vast disservice. Boomers who grew up doing drills, running laps, and standing in lines bring these same disastrous methods to soccer and end up turning kids off to the sport instead of showing them why it is ‘the beautiful game’. What the upper levels of US soccer are realizing and trying to teach is that young kids just need to play. Let them discover the beauty of the game and coaches simply need to get out of the way.
Lest you think this was going to be nothing but a gushing review, and I admit for the most part it is, this is the one area of Soccerhead that left me wanting more. When Jim realizes that he and the other coaches are way out of their league as his kids age up into ‘travel’ soccer, they discover the Coerver Method and bring in a paid coach to teach the kids, with spectacular results. Now I’m a true believer in the Coerver Method, no question. Our coaches spend WAY too much time trying to teach the finer points of soccer to 6 year olds instead of working on core skills that they’ll combine in later years. While Soccerhead highlights the changes that the new coaching has on Jim’s teams, I was left with the feeling that all your troubles will be solved by finding your local Coerver coach and hiring them. That’s just not realistic and probably wasn’t Jim’s intent, but I couldn’t shake that feeling.
Jim has the epiphany that many youth coaches have when they realize their methods are steeped in other sports and have been hindering their kids. I had one when I took my ‘E’ License class. You feel horrible (what I have I done to ‘my’ kids), your ego is hurt, and hopefully you realize there is ‘a better way’. The trick is what that better way is and Soccerhead only talks about that briefly. There is a revolution brewing in soccer over this very point. Small-sided matches or 11v11. Petunia garden leagues as Jim calls them or competitive training grounds. Drills training or Sharks and Minnows. Things have reached a point where there are now two competing national youth soccer associations with divergent views on how youth soccer should be handled. The success or failure of this resurgence of soccer in America will largely be tied to how we handle coaching and teach our kids. Soccer in the US in amazingly organized, yet millions of kids get their start in soccer as 4 year olds under the tutelage of a volunteer coach with no clue how to coach a soccer team. We need to change that and quick while trying to ensure there isn’t a schism in soccer at the competitive level.
USSF coaching education is just a start. The curricula are being tweaked on a regular basis, but at least in North Carolina, trying to find good instructors and getting local classes to train our coaches has been a struggle. We need to expand the coaching education efforts in America on a scale no other sport has probably considered in their wildest dreams. Soccerhead touches on this, but you know there is so much more to it and that the future of soccer rests in large part with how we handle our youth coaching. Of course Jim has only been coaching for six years or so now, so I can see why this wasn’t dealt with in more detail. In a few more years, he will have even more insights into this, I’m sure. Here’s hoping he shares them with us!
I know when you review something, you should try to stay as objective as you can, no matter how much you like something. However, sometimes you read something that hits you at your core and it’s hard not to gush over it. I loved this book because it spoke to me as someone who has suffered as an American soccer fan and has also been consumed by the secular religion known as American youth soccer. The combination of real life experiences mixed with the history of the game makes it an enjoyable read. I’ve already placed an order for ten copies to give to the core volunteers in our league who’ve been happily spending night after night on the pitch since the beginning. It’s nice to know we’re not the freaks of nature we sometimes fear we’ve become, or if we are – there are a lot more like us. I probably should get a copy for my wife’s family. They think we’re certifiable!
I want to thank Kinney of The DCenters for suggesting this book to me in an earlier thread. For someone who writes about soccer a lot, I never seem to have the time to read about it and rarely have time to even find stuff to read. If you know of other books related to soccer and especially youth soccer that are worth a look, by all means let me know in the comments. Next on my reading list is ‘A Home on the Field‘, suggested by LDSM Soccer Mom. After that – who knows!
If you do end up reading Soccerhead, I’d really like to know what you thought about it. Feel free to post a comment with your impressions or even your own full blown review. The more the merrier! Also, if you happen to buy the book via the link at the top of this story (for the same price you would normally), you’ll help pay the bandwidth bill for On The Pitch just a little, which is always appreciated!