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Fall's soccer ritual kicks in

SportsSoccerJoe PaternoIKEA

SO HERE I AM,O HERE I AM, in my 17th season of AYSO, the Joe Paterno of youth soccer. I am like one of those guys who marries the same woman three times, not realizing my mistake, thinking this go-around will somehow be different. "Do you, Coach, take this team to drive you completely bonkers for the next three months, till death do you part?"

"I do."

Of course, I do. How else would I spend a fall Saturday? Sure, I find myself eyeing books unread. Or fantasizing about a cool weekend on a warm couch, where saner men collapse and study their wives -- the constellations of their freckles, the laugh lines around their eyes.

Me, I prefer coaching a monkey pen of 5-year-olds.

"Men," I tell my players, "we need to talk."

Let me describe this little team. They seem to be constructed of spare IKEA parts, the stuff left over after you assemble the new coffee table.

Most of them still have puppy breath, which they exhale through their mouths and ears. Some of them breathe through their butts. Trust me, if you've ever been in a huddle with a bunch of 5-year-old soccer players, you know what I mean.

"Men, we have the potential to be a great, great team," I say.

"We do?" asks one.

"Yes, we do," I say.

They nod and smile, not sure what to make of me, their coach, their Moses. I am older than most of their houses. I smell of cheap Dominican cigars and apparently give myself my own haircuts. My clothes don't fit so great. My face is always flushed. To them, I am not unlike the clowns who entertain at birthday parties.

"Your dad is so funny," one player tells my son.

"I know," the little guy says. "Some people don't like that."

It's too early to draw conclusions about our season. So far, we've had a couple of practices, a couple of games, dozens of glazed doughnuts.

Last weekend, we had some sort of opening ceremony at the Rose Bowl that was like Mardi Gras without the booze. Somewhere, in the crush of 3,500 kids, we lost two of our players. I'm pretty sure they'll turn up eventually.

"That's not too bad, just two," notes Coach Scott, one of my 12 assistants.

"They'll turn up," I say.

In our defense, we had the players hold hands as we exited the giant stadium, in a row like ducklings, and still four of them almost wandered off toward a team of 7-year-old girls they'd been eyeing. One of the many AYSO tenets is "Don't lose the kids," so we quickly rounded them up and marched them to a spot where their parents could claim them, assuming they had a driver's license and a valid receipt.

It was a great morning, really. The whole opening ceremony couldn't have taken more than a few hours.

Then there are the games. Ours resemble bar fights between teams of tiny choreographers, lots of slapping and kicking and crying. We won our first brawl and split the second. The cops were called, bond was set, we bailed them out. The whole team is now on double-secret probation. One more arrest and we're taking away their scholarships.

"There's a lot of talent out here," one of the dads tells me after the first game.

"Where?" I say.

I think maybe he was talking about the wives. The soccer moms. Our moms are so tough they eat hockey moms for breakfast.

Seriously, we have terrific moms, especially considering that they're getting about four hours of sleep a night now that school has started. One of them, draped in infants and diaper bags and fatigue, showed up at the last practice with Froot Loops stuck to her fanny. I was going to point this out, but I didn't want to embarrass her in front of the other frazzled moms, who can turn on you in an instant. Grrrrrrrr.

Then there are the dads, who stand along the sidelines in their Georgetown and Princeton T-shirts, undermining my authority at every turn. When I scolded the players one day for their newfound habit of spontaneously bearhugging each other during practice, my own assistant said, "Yeah, quit acting like you're 5."

I just assumed he was talking to me.

By the way, while waiting for the opening day parade, we adopted the team motto, "Yes, we are!" We like it because it is irrefutable, slightly droll and doesn't set the bar too high. The last thing we need is for some overly excited parent to stroke out along the sideline. Me, in particular.

"Yes, we are!" I shout as we show up for our third contest of the year.

It's a good motto that aspires to nothing. At the end of the season, we hope to auction it off to a major airline.

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes .com. For more columns, see latimes.com/erskine.

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