Bonk! : OK, so a Dodger double-header can be a laugh and a half, but for those into comedy of errors, youth soccer is the biggest kick of all.
Want to spend an hour at a sporting event where you’ll laugh so hard you’ll swear the next morning that Bo Jackson must have repeatedly slammed into your ribs with his helmet? Want to watch athletes who have little or no knowledge of what they’re doing and don’t particularly care to learn? Would you like to see all this, yet you don’t want to spend $20 for a ticket to a Los Angeles Kings game?
Well, then you’re going to fall hard for youth soccer.
On any Saturday, you can spend an entire day in a sideline seat--you have to bring your own--at an athletic spectacle that resembles a non-stop blooper film. You can scream and yell and work yourself into a frenzy that will make Tina Turner appear to be on depressants.
But on the field, the athletes go about their business in a very detached manner, immersed in their own little world of distractions. A blowing leaf. A jet soaring high overhead. A butterfly. Virtually anything can grab a player’s full attention even while the action of the game swirls about him.
OK, so you can get the same feeling at a Dodger double-header. But between now and next April, youth soccer fills that void very nicely.
It is played by thousands of kids in the San Fernando Valley. As they progress through the leagues, and their ages break into double figures, and their arms and legs begin to respond more clearly to commands sent from the brain, and they begin to absorb the idea that winning is very important, the humor in their game diminishes.
But in the early stages, when a grown man is imploring a 6-year-old kid to put down the soggy eucalyptus leaf that he is trying to stick up his little nose and play some tough defense, when a middle-aged gentleman in glasses is bellowing at a boy to attack from the left wing and that boy wants only to be left alone to pluck bugs from a tuft of grass and put them on his tongue, that’s when soccer is funnier than a Pia Zadora film festival.
Sure, you can have the same raucous laughter by watching Benoit Benjamin of the Clippers on a nightly basis, but you’ve got to pay for that. Youth soccer games are free. Free parking. Free admission. And there are no refreshments available, so you don’t feel obligated to pay $3 for a wrinkled hot dog that was steam-blasted during the last home stand and stored in the same room with the cleaning solvents for the last 72 hours.
“It’s nothing but fun for the kids,” said Vache Kaledjian, 20, co-coach of the American Youth Soccer Organization Region 71 Cobras of Canoga Park, a madcap collection of 7-year-olds. “Win or lose, it’s the same reaction. The game ends and they lose, 4-0, and they’re so happy. We always get one kid after every game who asks, ‘Who won?’ They’re just happy to have played.”
Last weekend the Cobras battled to a scoreless tie. Kaledjian and co-coach Garo Akcelik tried desperately to maintain some order as the action gusted around two kids named Patrick, along with Spencer and Austin and Atul and Eric and Justin and Benjamin and Matthew and Jason and Cory and Niclas and Harley.
Anyway, the boys romped about on the field in occasional pursuit of a soccer ball that was, in scale, roughly the size of a hot-air balloon to an adult. On the sideline hung the team poster, a five-foot felt artwork with a giant red cobra balancing a soccer ball just above his incredibly poisonous fangs. What the cobra looked out upon was amateur sport at its finest.
Four Cobra defenders were lined up in front of their goal as the other team came storming toward them with the ball. One defender stood stiffly, his eyes staring at the ground. Another also had his eyes glued to the earth, but he was pawing at the sod with his left foot, slowly but steadily untangling and extricating a brown leaf from the grass. A third defender stood with his feet crossed, neck craned skyward as a plane swept in and out of the dark storm clouds that had gathered.
Somehow, the other team failed to score, and as action moved to the far end of the field, the four defenders gathered in a semicircle, each clutching a large eucalyptus leaf, with which they proceeded to swat each other on top of the head, amid a typhoon of giggling.
“You see the weirdest things,” said Akcelik. “These guys are so young, it’s hard to get them to pay attention to anything for very long. We teach them to stay in their positions, but it’s very tough. When they get interested in the game at all, they tend to all bunch up and chase the ball around. But then they lose interest in that, and you don’t know what they might be doing a minute later. But they have so much fun.”
All of which makes for fine entertainment. It would be nicer if some of the parents and coaches didn’t take the game quite so seriously, but there appears to be no way of shutting off that disturbing social trend that began years ago when fathers of 6-year-old baseball players began threatening to maim the umpire and set his family’s dog on fire.
One parent called a soccer league commissioner just hours after a violent storm had moved through the Valley and asked if games would be played that day.
“We play unless there’s lightning,” was the commissioner’s response.
Akcelik and Kaledjian have seen the ugly side of their sport. They don’t like it, but they try to live with it.
“There was an Armenian kid on another team, and his father kept screaming at him in Armenian,” Akcelik said. “No one understood what he was saying, but I’m Armenian, too. I understood. He was calling his son ‘stupid.’ ”
Akcelik was involved in a game earlier this year in which a boy took a long shot and the ball rolled between the distracted goalie’s legs and into the goal.
“No more gifts,” bellowed a frustrated parent from the goalie’s team.
“Hey, we can always use another gift like that,” bellowed a parent from the other team.
The two began arguing.
“You have a right to your opinion,” one angry parent said to the other angry parent. “And maybe I have a right to kick your brains in.”
That ugliness is infrequent, though. Most parents scream and yell only encouragement to their children. And even amid their frenzy they pause to smile, recognizing the action on the field for what it is.
“The parents yell, but they’re just being supportive,” Kaledjian said. “They yell a lot because they care. I’d rather have them here yelling than not have them here at all.”
His fellow coach knows first-hand about that feeling.
“I remember when I was playing Little League baseball,” Akcelik said. “My parents had to work a lot so they would just drop me off for the games. Other parents were at all the games, and I felt bad sometimes. My parents would come to watch me on Sundays, and I always played harder then, when I could see them in the stands.”
Luck of the Falcons
Back on the field, the Falcons are playing in the second game of the day. The Falcons have not won a game all season. The Falcons have not scored a goal all season. But now there has been a penalty called against the other team, and Eric Van Trump, of the Woodland Hills Van Trumps, is chosen by his coach to take the penalty kick for the Falcons.
He moves in on the goalie and boots the ball, which eludes the goalie’s lunge but slams against the right goal post. But Van Trump moves quickly to the ball and smacks the rebound into the net for a goal. His teammates erupt in celebration.
As Eric Van Trump makes his way to the sideline, his gap-toothed smile lights up the whole park under the heavy storm clouds. If Eric had slammed his fingers in the car door later that day, it probably would still have been the happiest day of his life.
“The parents yell and the coaches yell, but this game isn’t about any of us,” Kaledjian said. “This game is about those kids. It’s really nice just to be able to watch them.”