My contribution to interior design

When I left the house on Thursday, Spacebunny was anticipating that she’d seen the last of the monstrous trophy that the kids had won for our soccer club last spring. It’s a traveling trophy, retained by the winning team for a year, then returned to the sponsoring tournament. As a rule, it stays in the coach’s house, preferably in a conspicuous place where it can be admired by all and sundry.

Last year, the boys from our little club shocked the two biggest clubs in the state, defeating the local professional squad’s kiddy adjunct twice in claiming the tournament championship. Repeating was going to be tough since our goalie had moved up and the professional team asked our two best players to join them after seeing how they played in last year’s tournament. One was too old to play for our team this year anyway, but our little captain wasn’t and I encouraged him to go play for them. It’s a wonderful opportunity for him, but even so, he insisted on finishing out his last season at this level with us before switching clubs.

After last year’s debacle, the professional squad declined to show up but the other big team, Blue, was there and they were pretty heavy favorites since they’d won a major tournament the week before, one in which we’d only finished seventh. But I finally managed to find a goalie, a third-string kid from the pro team who never got to play in tournaments and was delighted to hook up with us, and I was convinced that it was an unusually small field shutting down our open passing game that had been our problem.

We were a little nervy in the first game, winning 2-1, but the kids soon settled down and cruised 3-0 and 8-1 over the next two squads. Blue was cruising too and most of the parents were pretty pessimistic about our chances against them after seeing how they were effortlessly dismantling their opponents. Being in the same group, we met in the fourth game and it was a hard-fought battle that finished as a scoreless tie. I was pretty sure we had been the better team, though, as our attackers blew four or five solid chances created by our midfielders, while their two or three chances were more mistakes on the part of our defense. But the sheer individual skill of their players was a little intimidating.

Either way, it was clear that our two teams were the best in the tournament, as the other group looked relatively weak, so I told our kids to be ready to play Blue again in the finals. They weren’t frightened by the prospect, although some of the parents – two of whom are very soccer-savvy as they played and coached professionally in Holland and Switzerland, respectively – were still less than optimistic since the skills of the Blue players were clearly superior to ours.

But I’ve coached these kids for three years now, I know them well, and the difference between them and every other team I’ve seen is that we don’t have a quitter in the bunch. An all-day tournament takes a lot out of 6 to 8-year olds, so I was confident that our spirit and tactics would prove more important in the end than their technical ability. Both teams finished up with three wins and one tie in the group, with both scoring 13 goals and allowing three for a tied goal difference as well. I offered to give Blue first position in our group since I wanted my guys to go into the final with the confidence of having beaten the top team in group B, but the tournament director insisted of flipping a coin instead. Fortunately, we lost and ended up in second position anyhow.

The boys came out ready to spit fire and I was reminded of why I absolutely hate women in sports. The top team in group B was a girl’s team, most of whom stood about a head taller than my players. Nevertheless, four girls managed to get hurt over the course of the game, we had a goal disallowed because our player’s head hit the goalie’s jaw AFTER he’d already kicked the ball into the net and nearly every foul was called against us, even when a girl pulled down one of our players down to the ground by the shirt and then tripped over him trying to get to the ball. But the ref couldn’t make up for how we destroyed them in every other aspect of the game and we won 5-0. Even better, I was able to pull three of my starters halfway through and let them rest for the final, which was thirty minutes instead of the usual twenty.

Seeing how Blue barely survived a scoreless game that resulted in a penalty shootout against the second-place team in the other group gave the guys plenty of confidence going into the final. The Blue players looked more than a little worn out after squeaking out a 6-5 win in the shootout, so I modified our lineup to go with two midfielders instead of our usual two defenders. With that more offensively minded set, we hit them hard from the onset, scored two goals in the first ten minutes and had them on their heels.

They’re a good team, though, and they have a good coach. He instructed their little Brazilian forward to jump on the ball being passed out to our defenders from the goalie and they stole a goal that way right before halftime. When we gave up a handball in the area early in the second half, it looked as if they’d even the score, but our goalie made a great save on the penalty and their heads began to hang.

Their heads hung even lower when I instructed our goalie to beat their press by punting the ball – he can kick it almost the length of the little field – and our bright little captain anticipated the bounce and headed it past their goalie. The kids were scenting blood and a second header, this one on a corner, made it 4-1 to trigger the rout. By the time the final whistle blew, we were leading 6-1 and our substitutes were aggressively taking the game to their starters.

I couldn’t be prouder of those little guys, each and every one of them. Two years ago, in their first tournament, these very same boys lost to Blue 14-0. But they didn’t quit then and I’ve never seen them do so since, no matter what the score. This tournament was just a small step in the long journey of their lives and they may not even remember it by the time they grow to adulthood. But to me, they will always be lion-hearted champions, twice over.

And it was, of course, a pleasure to walk in the door with a certain silver monstrosity under my arm. “Honey, I’ve got some bad news for you….”