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Of Rationale, Responsibility, and Regret

State Cup Semifinals vs MTA 96 Elite Blue

Finally, a beautiful day for soccer! Sunny, warm, slight breeze.

Left my house at 12:30PM for the 2PM game versus our U13 Blue team. Halfway to Lakeland I went through a mental check to make sure I had everything. Sunscreen? Check. Notebook? Check. Camera? Check. Player passes? Player passes?!?!? Has anyone seen our player passes?

Vaguely remember the ref handing them to my assistant coach Mark Goulding yesterday after the game, so called up JoJo (his wife and my team manager) to verify that she had them. She didn't, and verified with her husband that he handed them to me after the ref handed them to him.

Oh crap. I've been known to space out and misplace these passes in previous years. Pulled over and took my car apart looking for them. No luck. Checked the pockets of the 3 different jackets in my car - my car is a moving closet due to our lovely MN spring weather. No luck. Called the wife at home and her and the her parents (over for the weekend) tore apart my home office. No luck.

I turned around to head home to look myself. Halfway back home, I pulled over again, knowing that I would never bring the passes inside with me. Under the seats. No luck. In my soccer bag? No luck. But I did find an old sucker. Yes!

One more time through my jacket pockets. Success! Swear I checked that pocket already.

Called my worried team manager back to put her mind at ease, and headed out to the fields. Fun start.

* * * * *

Our game was scheduled on Field #21. We'd been on #22 for all the games up until this point, and it was a decent field. Field #21 was OK, but really rough with dried dirt strips down the center of the south end of the field. We'd try to defend this side first, maybe blunting the 13's attack a bit.

Though we faced a team that was stronger than us overall, I didn't change our team formation. If this was an absolutely crucial game for us, I would have given some serious consideration to playing a more defensive 4-5-1 formation. Defend like demons, frustrate the older team, and look for a counter attack goal.

But, though the 13s are capable of lighting us up on any given day, my girls are battlers. I believed if they played up to their potential we'd give the 13s a run for their money and keep the game close.

So, I kept the girls in a 4-4-2. Our 4-3-3 would have likely left us out numbered and exposed in midfield, with three girls standing up front useless a great majority of the time as it would have been difficult for us to get them the ball.

What was the game plan? Very similar to what I said above. Defend like demons - close the ball down, pressure the older players into making hasty decisions, double team players whenever possible, and work hard to block shots and crosses. Be confident in our attack when we have the ball, show me composure on the ball, enjoy the game and the day.

I contemplated playing Meg in goal. As one of our taller girls, she had a better chance than many in stopping some long, high shots from distance. I talked to her about it right away at the fields, and to her credit, she accepted the challenge. However, after seeing her complete uncomfortability in net (she hasn't played there a lot), I realized that the game would be a complete baptism by fire for her and I couldn't put her through that.

My thought was then to put either Vivi or Em in goal. Normy is our best GK at this time, but she had played the entire Prior Lake game in goal yesterday, though I had promised to try and take her out in the second half. She loves playing on the field. I decided to talk to her anyway and leave the decision up to her. I told her that I realize she played the whole game yesterday and we were out of our GK rotation a bit, but she said she really didn't care if she played, even after I stressed that it didn't matter to me if she didn't and I'd put someone else in. She thought about it for a few seconds, then said she'd play the first half... much to Meg's relief I'm sure. I prepped Vivi and Em that one of them would go into goal in the second half.

We had Babes back today from her cruise. She had missed our last 3 State Cup games, but showed up today tan and excited to contribute. We missed her scoring punch in the last 3 games, but the 15 girls we had got the job done in group play.

We got the half we wanted to defend (the more patchy and bumpy half), and I settled down with a bag of giant sunflower seeds and a Sobe to enjoy the afternoon.

As expected, the 13s controlled much of the early going. We were pinned in our half early on, managing a foray or two into the attacking half, with no real threat at goal though.

Our defenders, usually unsung heroes and not mentioned much in my writings as I try and document our goals for my reference, deserve mention now if they ever did. Normy (GK), Mal (CB), Phi Phi (CB), Meg (RD), Cal (RD), Gizmo (LD), Quicksy (LD), Bam Bam (LD) all played well. The 13s have some real fast and skillful attackers, but our girls didn't back down an inch. There were one or two scrambles in our own box, but the fight and grit the girls showed to swarm the ball, sacrifice their bodies and fly all over the ball to block shots, and clear the danger was fantastic.

The girls in midfield (Bargsy, Bam Bam, B-Money, Babes, Quicksy, Gia, Vivi, Em, Cal, and Payt) did a terrific job overall in terms of double teaming the ball when needed and harrying the opposing midfielders and forwards.

The 13s first clear chance came 22 minutes in as the ball fell to Ruby about 10 yards from goal, just to the left of the goal. Ruby's uncontested volley was hit over the bar. Great chance that Ruby will usually take well.

The 13s created maybe one or two other quality chances, but Normy was not forced to make a tough save.

Mickey, Payt, Gia, Babes, and Vivi all saw time up top, but we failed to demonstrate enough build up to create a quality shot, let alone a quality chance of our own.

The half ended 0-0.

Halftime talk? I was proud of the girls thus far and the heart they were playing with. I talked about how we've been here a lot in the last 5 games... coming into halftime with a great half of soccer behind us, only to fade a bit in the second half. My challenge to the girls was to put a complete game together.

Tactically, I wanted to see more of the same from them. We talked about achieving our team goal of advancing out of our group in this competition. We then set two stretch goals for the second half. Could we work to get a shot off, could we find a way to score a goal.

Lastly, I asked the girls to make sure to stay tuned in on the 13s corner kicks. In the first half, the 13s had some chances to play quickly on these and catch us off guard, but the 13s could seem to see the opportunities when they arose. I know their coach Andy, and I know he would talk to them about these opportunities at halftime. I wanted to make sure we were aware and focused when the ball went out of play.

Em went into net for the second half.

Second half started out well for us. Mickey (LF) who had been strong and tough on the ball the entire first half, received the ball at midfield and turned to run at the 13 defense. Past one midfielder up the left flank, past her defender, near the endline where her cross attempt was blocked for a corner kick. Some of the girls get on Mickey for not passing the ball enough. I heard some of the girls yelling to her to release the ball on her run, but that wasn't the right thing to say. In a game when we're defending so much, our only time to rest is when we have the ball in possession. Mickey's ability to hold the ball and her explosive run up the field was valuable for us in a game like this. Moreover, she won us a set piece which we're good at :)

B-Money sent a driven corner kick in to the near post area. AJ (GK) was screened a bit due to the mass of bodies in that area, thus she bobbled the ball as she dropped to her knees to catch it at the near post. I saw a mass of light blue (13s) and white (us) shirts, as the ball pinged around, then saw Mickey who had been pushed over in the melee, swing her leg, connect with the loose ball, and drive it home.

The girls went wild, both on the bench with me and on the field. We've got to work on our goal celebrations more.

The joy was short lived however. I had just finished making the notes in my notebook and was setting it aside when I looked up to see a low hard shot being taken by one of the 13 players at the top of our box. Em made a fantastic diving save to her right to deflect the hard shot, but another 13 attacker beat our defenders to the ball to slot home the equalizer. Light blue's turn to go wild.

From a defending aspect, we continued to work to deny the 13s quality chances. They had a few corner kicks (which we were tuned in for!) and a few long, flip throw-ins in our attacking third, but could not threaten as I expected them to do.

Amazed and proud of the girls' efforts and organization on the day.

The ref blew his whistle to end regulation time. Off to 2 x 10 minutes of OT.

Not much to say during the break. I was proud of the girls' performance (I think I said that two them 20 times today) regardless of what the next 20 minutes brought. Go out, enjoy the OT, play hard, stay behind your teammates.

My thougths were a-whirl. The 13s are a better team overall than we were. They would do our club proud at Regionals if they got past either the White team or EP (game was to be played after ours). It would be better for the club and for MN to have them represent the state at the Midwest Region Championships. We were here for the experience. I was silently cheering for the 13s to score a goal. More on this later.

As the overtime progressed, my thoughts went back to my previous State Cup experience.

Back in 2004, I had the current U17 Woodbury Inferno as U12s. We were playing U13 MYSA league, thus qualified for State Cup competition that year. We drew the Bangu Tsunami Stars in our group and got hammered 8-0. We advanced as a wild card and came up against the Wings U13 team in the semifinals. After regulation and OT ended 0-0, we eventually lost in PKs as our 5th shooter (after we made the first 4) hit the post.

In 2006, I had the current U15 MTA 94 Elite Blues as U12s in the same situation - playing U13 league as a U12 team and competing in the U13 State Cup. We didn't advance out of group play that year.

In both instances, the idea was to get the U12s familiar with the State Cup event in order to feel more comfortable in following years when it really counted - as we looked to represent the state as true U13s. It's the same idea as MYSA's ODP program has. Get players comfortable with the out of state ODP camp at the youngest age groups so that the players can perform better in later years in a no-longer-new environment.

In both instances, the teams went on to represent the State at Regionals as U13s. The Inferno have been the state reps for 4 years straight, the MTA group for 2. Both look poised to continue their streaks this year as well.

In 2003, the Bangu Tsunami Stars won the U13 State Cup as U12s and moved on to Regionals playing a year up. I think they were actually competitive there as well.

Last year, the Bangu Tsunami 12s beat the Bangu Tsunami 13s in PKs in the MN State Cup final to advance to Regionals, only to get hammered in all 3 games.

I did not want to put my 12s through that Regional experience. Oh, we might have done OK had we drawn 13 teams from ND, SD, or IA. But put us in a group with most other RII states and we'd be asking a lot for the 12s to be competitive.

That 12 v 13 final last year was played back to back with the U14 final; a final that saw my girls go to PKs against our White team. I remember talking to Andy (the U12 coach) after that game, saying that I wish I would have been with him (and not engrossed in my own game) as I would have likely encouraged him to have his players pass the ball to the GK for their PKs and send the true U13s to Regionals.

I remember discussions with my own team's parents last year after that, and again this year in parent meetings regarding this very subject. When I gave them my yearly plan for the team, a plan that included State Cup participation, some of them asked (knowing what I had said about Andy's 12s last year) if we were going into the State Cup tournament only to throw an eventual deciding match to our 13 Blue team if we got there. I said last fall and again in an early winter parent meeting that if it came down to a controllable moment, I would probably find a way to let the 13s go through over our team.

On the flip side of things, it would be fantastic for me to add another success notch onto my coaching belt if we do happen to pull this game off. If we did AND managed to make it through past our White team or EP in the final, what a benefit it would be to my Skillzys® company to have this group of girls be a tangible testament to the company philosophy. It would be another successful chapter in the book I know I'm going to write about my youth soccer coaching experience.

But helping send the state's most competitive U13 team to represent Minnesota (if they got by the final) was more important to me at that time.

All this ran through my head during the OT period when I wasn't shouting out encouragement and instruction to the players. Part of me was still coaching the girls to play better and eek out a win, part of me was hoping the 13s scored. If we were able to take the game to PKs, I would give the game to the 13s.

And to make a long post longer, like some sick story, that is exactly what came to be, though there was a legit PK call against us in the dying seconds of the second OT that the ref should have blown. Man, that would have been a Godsend as things turned out if the 13s got that call and converted the spot kick to avoid heading into PKs.

Final whistle indicating the end of OT and on to PKs. I walked out to the middle of the field and brought the girls in. Some of the 13s were jumping around hugging each other because the game was going into PKs and they have done very well in situations like this prior. To me it was more of a show though. Many of their eyes told me that they were not as sure about things as their outward expressions lent to. My girls were giggling nervously and smiling and I remember the intense feeling the day was in our grasp.

I told them I was so proud of their efforts, but I wanted them to step up and pass the ball to the U13 GK when it was their turn to shoot. Shocked looks and gasps of "What?!?!" greeted that instruction. I tried to explain that we were here for the experience, an experience that we earned and would benefit from, and now we were going to let the 13s move on to the final against either the Whites or EP.

I asked the girls who wanted to take the kicks, and nine hands went up. They were all a little nervous, but giggling. I picked 5 at random, turned my back and walked over to the bench to sit down. Payt (dead tired after giving it her all on the field) saw the 5 shooters and made a comment like "You are letting so-and-so shoot?!?!? Not so-and-so?!?!?" I told the girls on the bench what was happening, and the utter dismay (especially in Payt's eyes) was heart breaking.

It's nearly 20 hours later and it's all a blur.

I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Pissed off that we were in this situation, pissed off that the 13s couldn't find a way to beat us, pissed off that I even wanted the 13s to beat us, pissed off at betraying my girls (I'm sure that's how some of them saw this) who had played their butts off for 90 minutes.

I think Babes stepped up first for us. Apparently there was a coin toss that I missed and we were going to shoot first. She passed the ball to a surely surprised AJ in goal and turned back to jog sheepishly back to her waiting teammates. There were a lot of people around the field. The next semifinal was scheduled to kick off right after ours and others were there to take in the game.

The silence was deafening. I felt the sun on my face, brushed a tic off my lower leg, and listened to the highway traffic on I94. I don't think I'll forget that moment for a long time.  I knew I had spent the last year talking myself into a huge mistake.

The first 13 stepped up and Normy (back in goal for the PKs) made a save. At that moment I gave serious contemplation to yelling out for the girls to go for goal, but I didn't. Someone stepped up for us and rolled the ball to AJ again. If people didn't know what was going on after Babes, our most powerful shooter, happened to somehow be so nervous that her shot barely managed to reach the goal on our first try, they knew what was going on now. The silence got silenter, though broke by a smattering of cheers from a few 13 girls who, caught up in the moment and with no idea what was going on, somehow couldn't contain their glee at their good fortune of having our first two shooters "miss".

I think the 13s scored on their second shot, we passed in our third, they hit the crossbar on their third, we passed in our fourth, they scored to end the game.

The 13s were celebratory, not helping the negative feelings many, if not all the 12s were feeling. But I couldn't blame them. I made a choice, my girls followed the lead of their coach and did what I asked them to do, now I'd need to deal with the consequences of my actions.

It was an obvious roller coaster for the girls. Fighting through a hard game, knowing that they were exceeding even the loftiest of our collective expectations, only to be asked to bow out at the end. I couldn't expect them to understand. Heck, I wasn't sure I even understood everything. I did what I did with the thought of our club and MN soccer, but didn't even come close to gauging the reactions of my own players. But I had talked myself into this decision for a year, and felt that I'd stick to my guns.

I kept the girls around for a good deal of time after the game to try and explain my reasoning. I think the group on the field after OT was in shock when I told them about what I wanted to do, but now the reality was sinking in.

Girls share a collective brain sometimes. I'll ask a question at training and they'll all answer same ridiculous answer. Same sort of thing happened in our team talk after the game. Seemed like things were OK, still needed addressing but players seemed OK, then I started talking to them in a group and one girl became teary-eyed. Next second, 12 girls are shedding tears, some pulling their headgear down over their eyes in apparent despair.

I tried to stress that the way the game ended should in no way take away from the performance the team showed in the 90 minutes prior. That fell on deaf ears, understandably. Some of the girls questioned if another team would do the same for us next year if we were in a similar position, some girls commented that even though we played hard, the 13s were a better team. That was countered by comments that the game should have decided which team was better on the day. That struck home.

What did I just do? I took the decision out of the girls' hands and dictated a controllable ending to a match against the spirit of competition and of the game itself. Albeit I still stand behind the rationale used in this case, I'm thinking again it was not the right way to deal with the situation. It would have been helpful to have a club coach or director around to bounce this idea off of prior to acting it out.

I'm not sure how long we sat there and talked. Felt like an hour though it was probably like 20 minutes. I just couldn't get through to some of the girls and it was breaking my heart. The look of disappointment and betrayal that some of them held in their eyes was crushing to me. I was so frustrated with the whole thing that I accidentally said "Some of you are going to be poutty and b-i-t-c-h-y to me because of this, but I hope you understand my thought process." I've never used that language with a youth team before, though I'm sure they've heard far worse. The b-word broke the ice, eliciting chuckles from almost every girl, but I still regretted the slip. And regret was already building about other things.

Looking at it now, we should have played the game out. Not saying we would have won, regardless of my positive feelings towards the shootout, but in the spirit of the game and of the competition. If we had won, the 13s would have learned some life lessons in defeat. I thought I was thinking bigger picture, but I should have been thinking even bigger picture.

Though many other MTA coaches and directors were supportive later that afternoon to my face, we'll see what the next days bring. I thought it was the right decision to make at the time (and for the entire last year), I take full responsibility for any repercussions, and through this writing that is always insightful and constructive to me, I'm starting to regret the choice.

* * * * *

Headed home to hug my daughter. In a daze most of the night. Didn't feel much like eating. Sent an email to my parent group, don't know how it was received:


Just some thoughts about today.

It was my decision to have the girls "tank" the PKs today, not the clubs. It broke my heart to see some of the reactions this brought out in the girls and I'm sorry to have put them through it. It's been bugging me since the game and will continue to gnaw at me for a long time down the road.

To me, State Cup is about sending the best team at our age group to represent our state at Regionals. Taking nothing away from our girls, my belief is that the 13s would do a better at this than our group would in June.

The girls put together a valiant performance today. I was so proud of their efforts on the field, and I believe the girls knew they had played up to and beyond anyone's expectations. I didn't play to lose the game. I didn't sit back and have our girls in a defensive formation and I rotated players in relatively "normal" positions, positions in which I feel they help the team the most. If we beat the 13s in regulation or OT, we would beat them in the field of play and move on. When we got to PKs, I made a choice at a controllable moment to bow the team out.

I tried to stress to the girls that what happened at the end of the game shouldn't erase or negate their performance of the 90 minutes prior. However, understandably this fell on some deaf ears following the game.

I've said all along that we are in the MN State Cup for experience this year. Some might think that the experience the team may have gotten at Regionals would have been beneficial as well, but I don't think the benefit to our team would have outweighed the benefit to our club and our State if the true 13s went through.

Undoubtedly some of the girls and some of you are angry about this decision. I appreciate the zero emails and phone calls thus far as our Parent Code of Conduct suggests a 24 hour buffer prior to coach-bashing. I know you all write checks and pay me to take care of this team, and this decision can be looked at as not putting the team first. All I can say is that I will continue to talk to the girls about this this week at training and at the games, think there are valuable lessons to be learned here, and I ask for your support in helping explain things to them. I believe I did the right thing from a bigger picture perspective here, but will be second guessing myself for a long time.

I don't really know how some of you feel about all this, so make sure to connect with me with thoughts if you feel the need. Again, I will talk to the girls about this this week and I apologize that some of them left the field likely feeling confused, hurt, betrayed, etc.

Schedule for the Week
Monday - Optional Training @ McM 7PM - 8:30PM (Note the later starting time from now on at McM)

Tuesday - Game vs Sibley 8:30PM @ Bielenberg (blue/white/blue)

Wednesday - Training @ McM 7PM - 8:30PM

Thursday - Game vs Mahtomedi 5:30PM

See people tomorrow or Tuesday.

Stood in the shower until the hot water ran out, then hit the hay with my iPod and Coldplay.

Skipped breakfast and lunch today with no appetite, and spent the last 5 hours typing down my thoughts.

I've been hesitant to check the local soccer blog. Sure there is a lot of hate being typed.

Prepared to deal with any/all repercussions. It was my call.

Been in contact with some club officials and the mood is not very good. Though I did what I did for the benefit of the club as a whole, I understand how it is damaging. If the club feels the need to distance themselves from my actions for the good of the program, I'll live with it. If I need to face disciplinary actions, I'll live with it. If I need to contemplate stepping down from working with this team, I'll live with it. If it's the parents' wish that I should step down and for the club to place another coach in place, I'll live with it. Maybe it's time for me to step away from youth coaching anyway. It's all getting so wearing. Extremely enjoyable, but wearing.

Just as important to me though are my damaged relationships with some of my girls. I hope time can heal any wounds and those wounds don't run too deep, but I can't be sure. It was for sure one of the lowest points of my youth soccer coaching career.

I plan to address this issue again this week with the girls. We have an optional training session tonight. We'll see how many parents bring their players to training. We have a league game tomorrow, then an official training session on Wed. I'm going to call for a parent meeting on Wed to chat with the group.

I would love to go for a little time travel ride in a DeLorean specially outfitted with a flux capacitor right about now.


Reader Comments (23)

@ Louise Sherman,

<<If you were concerned about what would happen to your team if you won that game, you should not have played it in the first place>> I don't agree. Competitive soccer is not just about winning.

<<The girls' families pay for them to play competitive soccer, and the girls are there to live the experience. It is NOT all about YOU and your experience as Den Father. Your job is to enable the girls to play, not to play yourself.>> The girls families pay for them to have fun, learn soccer, and, more importantly, learn life through soccer. What action of mine made you think this was for on second about me? Maybe indirectly because I put the club before the girls? Might be right. And my job is what families pay me for; to make soccer fun for the girls, to teach them about the game, and, more importantly, to teach them about life through the sport.

<<If your games are decided by methods like this, what do you think your wins mean?? Nothing...Hollow Achievements, all of them. >> I don't follow this one. All my U12 achievements are hollow? I don't look at them that way. I guarantee the girls or their families don't either.

Thanks for your thoughts
May 24, 2009 | Registered CommenterMark Abboud
Thanks for you reply. I played soccer throughout the 70s and 80s, I have coached etc. and I value people who commit their time to the sport. I know it's not all about winning, there I totally agree with you. But it is about competition...you called it 'competitive soccer'...and you instructed your U12s not to compete when it came to the shootout. That's where you lose me.

I guess what bothers me most is the way a scenario like this teaches a sense of "entitlement" that is terrible for the sport and for the girls. You made the decision that one team was more "entitled" to win, and you ordered the U12s to carry out that plan. In your explanation/apology, I don't sense a lot of real remorse, just a lot of contrived rationalization and the expectation that it will all blow over after a while. For the girls' sake (both teams), I hope their soiled reputation doesn't follow them around and invite verbal abuse from other teams. Then again, maybe they do need to be taken down a notch, suffer some consequences for the underhanded tactics.

The way you work it out with the parents and players is truly your business, between you and them. But from the league's perspective, throwing a game is cheating. The match was admittedly rigged. I can't even believe that the U13s are being allowed to advance, since no one is disputing that the match was thrown. Seems like you are getting a pass here, and you are happy to take it. That is a bad lesson for everyone involved.
May 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLouise Sherman
As a player, fan and referee, I'm not sure how to react to this ... but Mark, I have read your account, and know that in your heart/mind at the time you had noble intentions.

However, in that first minute after the game your gut told you what the perceptions would be.

Unfortunately, this will only increase the schism between the YSA of MN and the MTA which you have worked so hard to build up.

I hope to see you in the near future, and give you my full support during this difficult time.

Peace and futbol.
May 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNeal Logan

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