by Dan Shanoff
When the ball skirted past England goalkeeper Robert Green for the game-tying goal against the United States on Saturday, I leaped from my chair, whooping. A few seconds later, I was stunned by a sensation I hadn’t felt in nearly 30 years.
From 1981–1983, I was the single-worst goalie in the age group of my youth soccer league. I have no game logs to back this up. But I was the keeper on the least successful team in the league, four seasons running. Circumstantially, I have a strong case.
Playing youth league soccer was pretty much a requirement in the DC suburb of Montgomery County, where I grew up. Even the league name felt professionalized: “Montgomery Soccer Incorporated”-known to all simply as “MSI.”
But at the time, MSI was the farthest thing from the crass competitiveness that overran youth soccer in the 1990s and the past decade: the early-age sport-specialization, the expensive and pressure-packed “travel” teams, the emphasis on winning and individual success.
Back then, it was just a bunch of 2nd-graders from my elementary school who wanted to try soccer, like every other kid in the area. This was no hand-picked team of all-stars, just kids in my class who wanted to give it a shot. And my team was a motley bunch:
• Our best player was a girl who, a few years later, would save me from Bar Mitzvah humiliation by being the only girl invitee to dance with me-in fact, she asked me to dance. I will maintain a crush on her for life.
• One kid was what in the early-80s was known as “hyper.” In reality, he probably had a debilitating case of ADHD. Same diff. That few parents would allow him over to play at their homes was probably cruel, but entirely necessary.
• One kid, a close friend of mine, maintains a place of honor in my family history as the boy who got the “spoiler” from me in kindergarten about the provenance of his Christmas gifts.
• One girl, known as “The Snail,” turned out to be one of those kids who writes so brilliantly as an elementary school student that every year when I see the NYPL “Young Lions” list or the New Yorker “Under 40” list, I expect her to be on it.
• One kid had the unfortunate combination of severe behavioral problems, substantial family wealth and an overbearing mom. (Surprise: He went to Landon. He lived a few doors down from our public elementary school, which got him on the team.)
* * *
Our coach was an energetic woman, a former soccer player with a husky voice who wanted nothing more than to have us enjoy our first experience with the game. To this day, she remains the only person who could pull off calling me “Danny.” A few years later, she invited the entire team to her wedding.
When Coach “Keeni” picked up our jerseys that first season, either she got to the league office late or she didn’t care or she intentionally wanted to make a point about players transcending their uniforms: Our team T-shirts were brown. Turd brown.
We needed a name and came up with one as a team. We called ourselves the “Brown Bombers,” which sounds now like something you would look up in Urban Dictionary and gasp at.
I am not sure why I wanted to be the goalie. With nearly 30 years to more fully understand the core neuroses from my childhood, I suspect I enjoyed the exceptionalism of the position. You are alone, the last line of defense. You even wear your own distinct jersey.
Here was the problem: I was terrible at being a goalie. I was not particularly athletic. I did not kick the ball particularly hard. I experienced a constant dread that the ball would hit me in the face. If I could describe my style in the box, it would be “Flinchy.”
* * *
From the start, Coach Keeni wanted us to have fun. Winning was simply not important. Consequently, we got drilled.
Game after game we would lose by astonishing margins. Despite truly earnest efforts, I allowed so many goals that it was clear that one of the significant contributing factors to our team sucking was me, specifically.
And yet on Saturdays at whatever local field we were scheduled to play at (requisite orange slices and water bottles brought by that week’s designated parent), I would look at Coach Keeni’s yellow legal pad with the lineups sketched on them, and see “Danny” listed in goal.
Despite being Montgomery County’s worst 8-year-old (then 9-year-old, then 10-year-old) goalie, I never thought about not pulling on my special mesh penny jersey, not trotting out to the goalie box and not taking my place as the team’s “stopper.”
My intentions were sincere. I wanted to be in there. I wanted to play. I enjoyed my position and I enjoyed the game. In retrospect, it seems entirely sensible that the same coach who wanted her players to do nothing more than love the game would refuse to bench the worst goalie in the league.
I cannot speak for England coach Fabio Capello, nor is it appropriate to judge Robert Green’s fitness for remaining as England’s goalkeeper just because he might really really really want to keep the job. Intentions are wonderful to nurture in an MSI league for 8-year-olds, less so at the World Cup.
But in that one instant watching what was happening on the field in South Africa, I was transported back to 1981. And I understood Green’s anguish, at least as far as an 8-year-old goalie could. Giving up goals is, by job description, the worst offense. But you get back up and try to stop the next one.
* * *
After two years and four remarkably unsuccessful seasons, Coach Keeni left the team. This coincided with our entry into the fourth grade. It also brought the unexpected transfer to our school of a new kid, who just so happened to be one of the best schoolboy goalies in the county, if not the state. That I would be displaced from my favorite position was a given; I don’t even think the new coach considered it for a moment.
Our team, almost entirely the same from previous seasons (except for the netminder), promptly won our division. Given where we had started a few years earlier-the Brown Bombers, crapping all over the field-it was a turnaround that I still feel ranks up there with the greatest in the history of sport.
From that success, a neighboring “select” team poached half our team’s players. Kids who had played with classmates all through elementary school were split up, and there were plenty of bad feelings. I was the last player siphoned onto the “good” team, where I got cool pro-style jerseys (home AND away) with my name on the back. Winning mattered, a lot. I was the worst player on the team, barely played (certainly not in goal) and was miserable.
Soccer was ruined for me. I lasted another season or two, then quit the sport entirely, just as we got to the age when the vortex of competitive sports merges with puberty and turns a bunch of potentially good kids into future bros.
* * *
I am freaked out that this tectonic shift that happened for me right around age 11 and 12 now happens to kids at age 7 or 8-and, increasingly, much younger. Looking back, that first year I played organized soccer, being the worst 8-year-old goalie in the world, might just turn out to be the most cherished sports memory of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for any level of greater success as a soccer player as I got older.
My older son has just turned 4. We had him in a kiddie soccer class last year that he really enjoyed-the emphasis was simply (and appropriately) on developing a love for the sport, for playing with other kids, for listening to coaches. Last weekend, I made sure to show him the missed save by Robert Green, promising myself that, for fun, the two of us would recreate it with me in the park: him playing Clint Dempsey, me playing Robert Green. I think I can pull it off pretty convincingly.
Dan Shanoff is a Brooklyn-based writer and parent-that really narrows it down-and, for lack of a better phrase, “media industry consultant.” He previously wrote here about going on a third date with his future wife… in Italy.