I think it was the tag line of Alive and Kicking that caught my eye. "When Soccer Moms Take The Field And Change Their Lives Forever" I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I was browsing around Amazon for some soccer books and figured for a couple bucks used, it was worth a try (it’s out of print apparently).
Harvey Araton, who is a sports columnist for the NY Times, lives in suburban Montclair, New Jersey with his wife Beth and their two sons. Like many American families, they have kids who play youth soccer. Then, with one phone call, Beth went from Soccer Mom on the sidelines to soccer player and Harvey came along for the wild ride of a number of Montclair women who decided it would be a lot of fun to actually play the game instead of always watching it.
This all begins one afternoon while Lisa Ciardi is kicking the ball around with one of her children. One of the league’s soccer trainers from the UK commented that she had good form. Both later approached a local coach who ran an indoor soccer complex about starting a clinic for women to practice soccer skills. Skeptical at first, he agrees and Lisa manages to recruit a sizable group of women to participate. As the group grows, they decide to form a league and play at the local indoor soccer complex. Sounds simple enough, right?
If you’re involved in youth soccer in any way, you can almost predict what happens, though I was surprised how quickly it did. People got upset when a certain group didn’t ask them to play on their team. Fierce rivalries developed between some of the more competitive teams. The women out there to just kick the ball around and have fun suddenly found themselves getting pounded on by the more athletic and intense women who thrived on the competition. And yes, at least one fist fight did ensue!
One striking thing was how some relationships in Montclair could not survive soccer. I’ve seen this myself. Soccer can become a passion for many people, young and old. For me it has been one of the best experiences of my life, coaching kids and helping form our league. But there’s no denying how big a part of my life it has become. If my wife had not also been happily sucked into the maelstrom, it’s easy to see how it would have created immense conflict and pressure in our relationship – even though we both love it, there STILL can be some conflict over soccer. Alive and Kicking notes that a few of the soccer mom’s do get divorced, including the league founder. While relationships are complex things and there are usually many reasons for breakups – it was clear that soccer taking up much of one spouse’s time while the other had no interest in it didn’t help things. I’ve seen this happen in our league as well and I don’t think many people realize it’s happening until it’s too late.
Thanks to his wife’s involvement on Lisa Ciardi’s team, Harvey was able to witness much of what happened in the budding women’s league firsthand. The book highlights how the league became a passion for some while others felt pushed out of the initial group because they just weren’t that athletic or didn’t want things to be so competitive. It didn’t take long for the league to split into two divisions to accommodate these differences. Yet it continued to grow and attract more women, and soon younger more skilled women, many who played soccer in college. Suddenly the competitive and athletic ‘originals’ were finding themselves pushed out by even more aggressive and skilled younger players. But through all the turmoil, the league perseveres, and the impact of the league on the women’s lives is profound.
This book is not just about the formation of this women’s league. The interesting part is the impact it has on the women’s lives. New friendships, new challenges, and a sense of community provide a parallel story to the league itself. Cancer, divorce, war, and other hardships strengthen the bonds these women formed on the field and it is clear the league became a new social network for many.
Like most, Lisa was not content to sit back once the league had grown. She eventually helped organize a tournament with some teams from women’s teams from New York, and that quickly grew into a cancer fundraising and awareness event. All in the span of two years. The book chronicles much of the early days, from the first clinics, to the first few years the women played indoors, to the inaugural tournament and cancer fundraiser. Harvey also sprinkles in chapters about other budding women’s sports efforts from across the country, including a very interesting bit about the players from the New York team that decide to play in some amateur tournaments across the country – needless to say it is an eyeopening experience.
All in all, the book was an enjoyable read. I found the parallels between what happened to the women when they first started playing competitively and what you often face in youth soccer to be intriguing. But what was even more fun, after I finished the book, was doing some research online to see ‘where are they now’ as the book had come out in 2001.
Lisa Ciardi’s passion clearly moved on from the local women’s league to the cancer awareness tournament she helped put together. She and a few of the other players formed an organization called Goals for Life, which handles the annual soccer tournament as well as other events. The focus was broadened from cancer to women’s health issues and different charities benefit from each year’s events. Their website has a lot on interesting information about their formation and the various events they hold. Harvey Araton clearly remained involved with things, as he is currently on the Goals for Life Board of Trustees.
The indoor facility they played at can be seen at the Sports Domain website, where you’ll see quite the offering of soccer programs, run by the coach who initially helped Lisa organize the soccer mom clinics.
The New York Times Review can be found here. I agree with the reviewer that the chapter on basketball was interesting, but a digression.
The Montclair Times did a profile piece on the various moms playing in the league a few years ago, titled The Divine Sisters of the Ya-Ya Soccerhood.
For me this was an enjoyable read. These mom’s weren’t trail blazers, as there have been women’s leagues across the country for some time. But they were blazing a trail in their community. Reading about the various conflicts, strengthened friendships, divorces, and other interpersonal issues that surrounded the formation of the league struck a chord with me. I’ve seen and experienced a lot over the past five years, being a part of the formation of our local youth league, and it hasn’t all been ‘good’. There have been difficult times. So it was reassuring in a way to see that is not unusual.
So many soccer books deal with the same types of things. History of the game itself, player profiles and sagas, tutorials, or other things related to the professional or youth game. This book was enjoyably different as it dealt with a small slice of the American soccer pie, one you wouldn’t normally expect. There are a lot of used copies available, so grab one and see what happens when the soccer moms take the pitch.