(The United Chronicles is a fictional account of an elite youth soccer team. Any similarity to real life people and situations in your area are almost surely coincidental, while any similarity in names is a complete accident.)
Derek looked around the center circle at the 18 young men in their red, white and gray United FC training gear and suppressed a grin. As much as he was confident he had done good things for his many successful groups and players in the past, part of him felt a little like a mad scientist whenever he began to work with a team.
After handling introductions, he asked the group a simple question.
“What is this team about?”
After a brief pause, Trevor Walker spoke up confidently. “Winning,” he exclaimed.
“Oh yeah,” another boy grunted and a few high fives and fist bumps were exchanged among the group.
“OK,” Derek responded. “Winning what?”
“Everything,” said the boy who had shouted out previously. This was Edgar “Fricko” Frick, a big defender who tended to pal around with Trevor. “We won State Cup last year and this year we’ll win the Nationals.”
More guffaws and gesticulations followed. Derek already knew about the group’s reputation for cockiness, and he didn’t see this as an altogether bad thing, but he also knew managing this by occasional injections of humility was part of his mission.
“OK, so if your goal is to win Nationals, how do you propose to make that happen?”
After a slightly longer pause, another boy, standing a short distance away from the core group, offered more quietly, “Hard work?” This was Freddie Barazza, sometimes called Froggy because of his deep, raspy voice. Nobody else said anything in response, which Derek noted.
“OK, hard work is part of winning, that is true,” he said. “But what does hard work even mean? What are you working at?”
Derek saw some perplexed looks coming back at him and figured he’d better complete the narrative.
“My point is, you are talking about being the best team in the nation. From what Coach Parker tells me, you have that kind of talent, so it’s a worthwhile goal, but it has to be just one part of your goal. Tell me this, how many of you want to play professional soccer?”
Every player raised his hand.
“OK,” Derek said. “Do you think this team could go out today and play Man United and do well?”
Most of the players immediately laughed and said ‘no,” – but hot shot forward Joe Mitchell flashed a big smile and shouted out “Except for me. I could school Rooney.”
Derek continued on, “Of course you can. But for the REST of us who cannot, what needs to happen for use to be that good?”
“Steroids?” said team goalkeeper Caleb Waugh. Everyone laughed and Derek smiled too.
“You have to get bigger, yes, but legally,” he said, turning to face Caleb (more laughter). But you don’t win at higher levels just by being bigger or faster, you have to be smarter. You have to be more skilled, right?”
Some players nodded affirmatively.
“So my point is, we have to work hard at being better soccer players. You guys have won a lot around here because most of the best players know that this is the best team and they all want to come here, and your moms and dads make sure that you can get here. But that only gets so far. You can’t just think we’re good because we’re good. You have to continually work to improve as players as thinkers, as athletes, and as young men. That’s what your real goal has to be.”
Derek saw a lot of positive looks back, along with a few skeptical ones, notably from Fricko and Trevor. He figured this was enough preaching for the opening session and instructed the players through some passing drills. As he watched, he recalled Warren’s words about the team, that they were very athletic and had some good technical players, but also needed some great improvement in the latter area, as well as cohesiveness, mental toughness and a better understanding of the tactical part of the game.
He put the team through some more drills and then had a brief 9v9 scrimmage. He noticed that Fricko, Trevor and few of the others did better in this segment of training than they had in the technical drills.
As the session closed, Derek turned to leave the ground and was surprised to see Pamela just a few feet away from, smiling broadly and looking at him more intently than he was comfortable with.
“Oh Coach, I’m so glad you are here. I can tell already you are going to be perfect for this team,” she said.”
Derek winced and forced out a thank you. He was just about to mention that he preferred parents not come onto the training ground when she continued.
“We’re taking you out this evening to a welcoming dinner. It’s my treat and the parents are all so eager to meet you. I’ve taken care of everything.”
Derek figured he would need to meet the parents at some point anyway, and he didn’t really have any plans, and wow, Pamela really was attractive – but wait, that was not why he was telling her he’d be glad to go.
Meeting the Parents
Twenty minutes later he was walking into Scotty’s Sports House, a stereotypical place with about 200 TVs and a lot of high-fat, high-calorie food. Derek found himself sitting on the end of one table with Pamela immediately to his right. The parents, typically one connected to each player, were seated on each side of a trio of tables that had been pulled together. The boys were in a room on the other side of a window. Many of them were playing pool or shooting darts, and it appeared a few players, and their parents, did not make the trip. He was about to ask Pamela about this when she stood and called to the others.
“Everyone,” she said with an air of authority. The din in the surrounding restaurant lowered for a moment, but Pamela continued speaking to the group.
“Thank you for coming. I thought it was important to show Derek some United FC hospitality upon his arrival.”
As she said this she gripped his forearm tightly and made his skin feel a little tingly. “I thought it would be nice for him to be able to meet everyone and give him a chance to tell us all his plans for our team.”
Derek knew he tended to think too much about word choice anyway, but he was picking Pamela’s remarks apart mentally. “OUR team?” he thought.
“Share my PLANS? – don’t count on it.”
Even as he was thinking this he suddenly realized he was staring at Pamela, who was smiling back at him, and then as he looked at the rest of the group, he knew that they were all taking this in. The whole moment had lasted probably for that long – a moment – but he was embarrassed nonetheless, so he began to speak.
“Err, I, thank you for inviting me here,” he stammered. “I’m really excited about the chance to coach at the club and your boys especially. I understand it’s a talented group and I see a lot of potential. I’m hopeful I can help each of them improve a great deal as players.”
“Coach?” It was John Metzger, father of twin brothers Rich and Ron. “Do you like your teams to play a Brazilian Samba style or is it more English or German?”
Derek noticed some parents suppressing laughs at this and saw a few eyes roll. John had just identified himself as the team soccer geek both with his question and the inflections with which he pronounced “Brazilian Samba.”
“I kind of like the Utah Disco style of play myself,” Derek joked, drawing laughs from the group and a confused look from John, who was wondering if he had missed a new tactical innovation somewhere. “I think maybe too much is made of those differences. Soccer is 11 players, a ball, a field and 2 goals, wherever it is played. Players need to have skill, understanding, fitness and athleticism. They need to be committed to improving as players and if they can do that, they should be able to play most styles. I do like my teams to play something more complicated than just kicking it up the field and running after it, because that style always meets its match somewhere. If you really learn how to play, then you have a chance to beat anyone, but you can’t just ignore that it’s a physical, athletic game. Does that make sense?”
John nodded and everyone continued ordering food and drinks. Other than introductions, Derek spent the rest of the dinner listening to Pamela tell stories about Trevor, her older son, and various philanthropic causes she was involved in, usually somehow related to the well-being of the club. He listened politely and tried to avoid staring at her. The other parents seemed caught up in their own conversations and occasionally checking on the boys in the other room.
As the gathering started to break up, Derek noticed the parents were picking up their own tabs but that only Pamela was covering his. “Shh,” she whispered when he started to object. “Don’t say anything. Actually I need you to hang around just a little longer to ask you some questions please. I really need your advice.”
So as he accepted more well-wishes from departing guests, his mind started racing with the possibilities of this additional meeting with the beautiful but conniving Mrs. Walker.
“Well look who is staying behind,” Jerry Anderson said to Maggie Heffner as they walked out of the restaurant. “Yeah,” Maggie replied. “I guess we know who the star of THIS team is going to be.”