The long-playing joys of youth soccer

Don’t ever leave their musky little soccer shoes in the car overnight. I did once. Had to sell the car.

Because kids’ sweaty soccer shoes develop a funk-mold still unidentified by medical researchers. Fragrant as methane. Ripe as low tide. Only a mother would pick up a shoe like this.

“Ewwwww, little boys,” she thinks to herself. “I really gave birth to that?”

With a garden tool, you can sometimes pry open the crusty soccer shoe, then set it in the sunlight on the porch for a few hours in hopes of drying out the mold/mildew/streptococcus spores. Good luck.


But when you see those shoes piled at the back door at a team pizza party, accompanied by slimy shin guards and Limburger socks, it all seems worth it, doesn’t it?

A steaming pile of life ... youth soccer’s primordial stew.


The tournament takes place on a day that seemed to drop through a hole in the ozone, perfect on arrival.


It is filled with late-autumn leaves of cherry and gold that cling to the trees like dollar bills.

It is filled with kids.

Don’t let that put you off, for what is good about the increasingly corrupt world of youth sports is the kids themselves — the smiles, the stories about how their cat ate a coyote or their new jeans turned their legs all blue.

Our own 8- and 9-year-olds’ team, the Rockets, had a pretty good run this year, and we’re now on to some sort of “Area Play Through” that I don’t much understand or care about, except that it lets us keep playing together for yet one more weekend, followed by an entourage of moms with their Starbucks and dads with their beach chairs.


In Minneapolis, the citizenry spends December afternoons chipping ice chunks off the postman.

Here, we’re still playing soccer in the sun.


Sometimes life seems to be one long Wes Anderson movie.


For instance, the American Youth Soccer Organization insists on citizen refs, which means moms and dads, many of whom have no inkling of what the offside rule means or what a penal foul is. At one referee clinic I attended, when they mentioned penal fouls, several of the dads snickered. One mom got up and walked out.

These days, I don’t know why anyone would volunteer to ref. Despite “zero tolerance” policies in many leagues, the parents and coaches still verbally hammer the refs. The jeering is almost always led by some Tony Soprano type, who takes three grunts to get out of his lawn chair and looks as if the only thing he ever kicked was his dog.

A cynic would say, “Take a breath, America. Get a grip.”

But I’m not going to let these volunteer refs off quite so easy. I say we banish them to some awful Island of Shame, where the hotel tax is 14% and room service takes forever. You order a massage, and Joan Rivers shows up.


While we’re at it, let’s send the college and pro refs to that Island of Shame as well. No sense blaming the players or coaches for any shortcomings. It’s almost always the ref’s fault, right?

I’m not saying we be stupid about it. Call in Clinton or Kissinger. Set up some sort of tribunal, see justice play out.

“What’s the charge here?” the judge will ask.

“Your Honor, it is alleged that the defendant blew a call on a corner kick,” the court clerk will explain.


“I have no patience with that,” the judge will bellow. “Life in prison!”

“But I have four kids!” the ref/defendant will shout, then pause a moment to get ahold of herself. “Yeah, just take me away, OK?”


Still, AYSO is worth it. Why? Hard to explain.


Guess it has something to do with the laughter coming from the back seat during carpool, or the way the players goof around before a big playoff game, the loosest team you’ve ever seen.

Listen, pro sports are fantastic. College sports are better, and if you follow that trend line, that makes youth sports the very best, because there is still nothing better or purer than watching your own child do well under fire, or team up with buddies to take a trophy, or make a run for the cup, a lifelong memory that is as transcendent as it is fleeting.

The gall of some of these kids. This season, we had one opposing player correct a ref on an out-of-bounds call: “Actually, sir, it was off me,” the kid confessed.

Take a breath, America. And hold it till you see a pro player do that.


Take a breath, America. Then savor those funky shoes.