The ten year old plays soccer on Saturday mornings. She's now in the "U12 Girls" division of AYSO. At this age, soccer starts to get to be serious. There aren't as many "do-overs" on throw-ins and goal kicks. Offsides are called with more frequency and drawing the opponent offside is now part of the strategy. There will still tend to be a couple dominant players in each game, but the games that are blowouts, don't happen as much. It is an interesting transformation.
So Saturday morning I set up my folding chair (finally one for us big and tall guys!)and settled in. The ten year old was decked out in her red and black AYSO uniform, but also in sweats, mittens and her Glasgow Celtic Football Club hat (if you have to play soccer in a hat, you may as well wear one that supports a team somewhere). For the early morning games, someone has to come by with the game bag and the corner flags. That person was running late on Saturday, so the ref ran back to his car for a game ball and some linesman's flags -- yep, he was real ref. The referee (at this level the referees tend to be parents who actually understand the game, rather than ones who feel obligated to blow the whistle) then set about checking the nets. I noticed that he didn't have any linesmen yet and with a large field (this age group plays on almost a full-sized field), it is a big help if somebody is watching the sidelines and endlines. So, having once had a class on the laws of soccer (they are not RULES, they are LAWS -- and don't you forget it!) and been trained by AYSO to act as a linesman (probably ten+ years ago for the older kid), I volunteered. We talked about where he wanted me (referees usually work a diagonal and want the linesmen to be watching whichever sideline is the far side from him or her) and what calls he expected. He reminded me that the ball has to completely cross the line for it to be out and he only wanted to see the flag for offsides if someone was in offside position AND part of the play. By that time another parent arrived in linesman's garb and he took the opposite sideline. As the ref was checking shin guards, shoes and earings, the game bag arrived and I planted the corner flags.
Now those of you who know me know that I'm not going to be running sprints anytime soon. So it was up to me to stay ahead of the game. My main concerns were getting throw-ins called correctly and calling goal and corner kicks properly. The ten year old looked at me oddly as she took my chair since she wasn't starting.
For the first half, most of the play was on the other side (and end) of the field. I mentally noted each pass of the ball and who had the last touch. I had a couple calls that were easy and mainly counted substitutes on and off the field. I got behind play once and thereafter tended to anticipate the game more by staying more towards the endline. At halftime, the ref, the other linesman and one of the coaches got into a spirited (it was good-natured, so I wouldn't say heated) discussion of an offsides call. Offsides is a real judgment call in soccer. A player can be offsides, but if he or she isn't really in the play, the violation won't be called. In this instance, a player was hovering around the goal and had distracted the goalie. The other team didn't score, but the coach was concerned that the violation wasn't being called. The ref countered that if the ball had come to that player or if the player had been calling for a pass, he would have called it, but merely distracting the goalie wasn't a problem. I just stood off to the side with a neutral look. Frankly, I didn't have a clue... I would have raised the flag.
The second half brought much of the play to my side and end of the field. You need a lot of focus to recall who last touched the ball and which direction each team is going. I pointed the wrong way (at first -- right color, wrong direction) at least once and overruled the ref (correctly, btw) once, so I figure I was even. I got screened from a call a couple times, but my daughter noticed that I was really paying attention. So I guess I looked the part, even in my Northwestern hoodie and ballcap.
But watching the game from this perspective does change the way the game looks. You see the plays develop and you start to know which players will be playing the ball more intensely and more accurately. You're not as quick on the line calls because some of these kids are just good enough to save a ball on the line. Their skills are really starting to develop. You see the speed and the agility coming out. Some are getting more loft of the ball -- and maintaining control. A few are trying to punt the ball -- two weeks ago, our goalie punted the ball past midfield, the ball bounced once, and one of our players drilled it unopposed into the net. There are even intentional headers from time to time -- although the outcomes of heading the ball tend to be fairly random.
The kids still don't seem to worry about the score and the snacks are as important as the outcome. The parents will cheer just about any play, but you can hear the intensity a bit more -- and most understand the game by now. We're within a couple years of this game getting serious.
In our league, U14 is the next level. At that level, there aren't enough girls to field enough teams to compete over the course of a season, so the teams are co-ed. The sad part, I suppose, is that the girls who play for fun, but don't have the skills yet will tend to drop out, while the girls with the skills will likely get better playing with boys. I'm not sure where Molly will land. She likes playing, but she still doesn't have a nose for the ball or the aggressiveness that she will need soon enough. Sometimes it just clicks. She's still one of the younger ones on the field. I can see her starting to put some of the pieces together, but I suspect that she'll not make the leap to U14. But that's ok. As long as the game is fun for her, I'll drag myself out on Saturday mornings, plant some flags, cheer her on, and raise the linesman's flag from time to time.
It's a bunch of kids running around, kicking a ball, having fun, and not really caring about the final score. It's a game after all -- and much more fun than watching the millionaires who play baseball, basketball and football (the American kind) in this town.