This is the time of the year when I register my son for the spring soccer season. He’s been playing in our local league since he was 7.
But this year he’s hanging up his boots, a modest career in the house league succumbing to extracurricular school activities, sleeping late on weekends, hanging with friends, girls, and – to his parents’ horror – soon a driver’s permit.
It’s been a good run. He forged new friendships, strengthened old ones, and embraced teamwork and perseverance. He learned to win with humility, lose with honor – and to savor a draw on the road.
The quality of play evolved, season by season. It began with swarms of players suffocating the ball and a lonely goalkeeper distracted by a butterfly. During one workout, a dog blazed onto the field, clenched the under-inflated ball in his jaw and dashed off. A dozen laughing, screaming boys gave chase.
As time passed, something clicked. They began to put together one-touch passes, overlaps and classy goals. They embraced the game’s beauty.
The offseasons – summer and winter – hid the team’s physical maturation. Returning from a recent break, the nimble-footed midfielder was approaching 6 feet. A skinny defender had muscle definition. The sunny forward lost his baby fat but not his smile. Voices deepened.
Off-field aspects changed. The trophies-for-everyone disappeared, as did the parents’ sign-up sheet for halftime and postgame snacks.
The days of parents lining the practice field on late weekday afternoons faded as well.
Parting words upon exiting the car: “Have fun, call me on your cell when you’re finished.”
The games turned serious: offside enforcement, yellow cards, penalty kick tiebreakers, and, unfortunately, embellishment upon minor contact.
Volunteer coaches put in their time. Including me. There was the young guide with Argentine roots who wore a Boca Juniors kit to most sessions. There was the Englishman – father of the team’s diminutive attacker – who lived for Manchester United and introduced the players to British football parlance.
On occasion, parents served as assistant referees. The experience, even at a slow, deliberate pace, helped me appreciate the thankless job of policing offside infractions.
Though his playing days are over, my son will always have unbreakable ties to soccer. It’s been with him since birth – literally. He was due around the time of the first MLS Cup in 1996. Instead, he arrived six weeks early.
The evening he was born, I missed D.C. United’s friendly against Salvadoran club Luis Angel Firpo at RFK Stadium. In a fortunate twist, it enabled me to attend the league’s inaugural championship game at old Foxboro Stadium later that fall. I haven’t missed once since. Thanks, boy.
He was named for a relative on my wife’s side. I like to think he was named for Ryan Giggs.
When he was very young and I was on childcare duty, he would tag along to United Park, the club’s old training grounds near Dulles Airport, and kick an oversized ball on the adjacent artificial turf field. The kid corps also included the sons of Jamie Moreno (James), Bruce Arena (Kenny), Dave Sarachan (Ian) and Bob Bradley (Michael), among others.
In later years, my son had an indirect connection to former United player Bryan Namoff: same jersey number (26), position (outside back) and common ending in their respective last names.
There were trips to RFK for league matches and an MLS Cup, and to Columbus and New England for United road games. Ben Olsen would always say hello.
My wife and son joined me in Berlin for the 2006 World Cup final. Upon their arrival, I surprised them with tickets. (Still paying off that credit card charge.) After a peaceful afternoon together at the zoo, we all witnessed Zinedine Zidane’s wild side.
Three years later, we traveled together to Costa Rica ahead of a World Cup qualifier. After volcano hiking, ziplining and rainforest exploring – and an unfortunate encounter with reality-TV creations Spencer and Heidi on the hotel veranda -- I headed to Saprissa for another American cataclysm. They watched from the safety of the hotel.
My son has measured my travels in gift jerseys (Bochum and Bafana Bafana, among others), stadium giveaways (an orange-paneled Houston Dynamo ball) and, when he was much younger, snow globes from around the world. (No Cuban cigars, sorry, kid.)
The next World Cup will intersect with his life: High school graduation falls during the first week of the tournament. Rio will have to wait.
So now we’ve reached the end of the participatory stage of his soccer adventure. So many wonderful memories and lessons learned.
One final anecdote: At age 7 or 8, he came off the field and said: “I’m not good at this.” My heart shattered into a million pieces.
I can say, without hesitation, then and now, he was wrong.