Team play

We had another tournament this weekend and we went into it loaded for bear. I ran into one of my best players from last year the night before – he’s of an age to play for the team but has been playing up a level on my recommendation – and invited him along since I wasn’t sure we’d have a full squad or not. As it turned out, we did, but the rest of the boys were so happy to see him again that no one begrudged the possibility of lost playing time.

I was a little worried when we played a very young, very unskilled team in the first game. My kids have a tendency to forget everything and turn into a pack of wolves scenting weak and sick prey when facing such a team. I had to pull my attackers and tell them to settle down and just allow the goals to happen instead of greedily charging forward again and again. That worked, and after easily shutting out the first two teams, they were calm and disciplined when we finally faced a team of similar talent but no concept of tactics.

That game was a pleasure to watch, as the kids methodically broke down the other team with constant passing and ended up beating them worse than the first two teams. The fourth game was really funny, as it was against another weak team and I put our two defenders up front to give them a chance to score. (I also had to put my most aggressive little striker in goal; that was the only way to keep him in the game but out of the other team’s net.) One defender scored quickly, but despite the best efforts of his teammates, the other, who is the smallest and possibly the most gifted child on the team, was too generous to shoot the doggone ball.

Time and time again, they’d pass it to him in front of the net, but instead of shooting he would draw the defense to him and pass off to a wide-open teammate standing right in front of goal, who couldn’t help but kick it in. My best midfielder kept looking over helplessly and shrugging his shoulders after scoring; after the third time that happened, he started standing practically inside the opposing team’s goal and trying to block the ball so that he could pass it back out to our little defender. Even that wasn’t enough, unfortunately, but by the end the parents of both teams were cracking up at how the entire team was laboring to get their teammate a goal that he just refused to accept.

A communications mixup cost us a perfect shutout for the tournament in the fifth game, but the kids poured it on in response to win that game by five and set up for their sixth and last game against the strongest team. That team made an early mistake by breaking everyone on a long clearance from goal that one of our midfielders headed back over their onrushing team; our aggressive little striker was already breaking forward before the ball was even headed and put the ball past the goalie like a seasoned pro. The combination of selfless passing and constant movement without the ball just tore apart their defense as if it wasn’t there, and they controlled the ball so thoroughly that our goalie only touched the ball twice the entire game. I have no idea what the final score was, I quit counting at six.

It’s simply delightful to watch these six, seven and eight year-olds operating like a ruthless machine, more interested in playing smart and destroying the other team than pursuing individual honors. When I asked the boy who usually plays up a level how many goals he’d scored today, he shrugged and said he had no idea, he wasn’t counting. At all levels, the lesson is the same. The better TEAM usually wins, not the team with the better players.