The United Chronicles is a fictional account of an elite youth soccer team. Any similarity in names to real-life personalities is a total accident. Any themes reminiscent of real-life situations is intriguing.
The hotel room alarm switched on and Derek awoke to a deep-voiced announcer speaking in Spanish. It was still dark at 5 a.m. and he had to do a quick recalculation to remind himself where he was. Sometimes on the road, especially if he awoke in the middle of the night, it could take him minutes to remember. He’d even called the front desk before to ask a bemused clerk where on earth he was. But this time it took just a few seconds to remember, and the early wake-up reminded him he was about to lead his U14 Boys team into a tournament for the first time.
The parents and players were both excited when Derek had informed them they would be competing in a top Labor Day event. Even as the squad rolled through its first few State League games with ease in August, everyone had the big tournament on his mind. This team had won tournaments before, but Derek made it clear that it would need to start testing itself regularly against the best competition in the region and country, and the Labor Day Tourney was the first chance to do so.
Derek tended to hide his emotions, and he’s been through these things before, but he had to admit he was anticipating the event himself. The way the team had responded in training, the way it had crushed its early-season opposition, and especially the way most of the players were really picking up on what he wanted, was giving Derek reason to believe Warren was right about this team in particular having the ability to be something special.
He also was finding his time with the team to be something of a refuge, because he found himself spending a lot more time on administrative tasks as part of his role as director (“interim director” he reminded himself often). The original plan was for him to coach four teams, and that was reduced to two after Warren’s stroke and Derek’s promotion, but even the 2nd team, the U17 Girls team, he was basically co-coaching with Charlie McIntosh, the coach he was getting to know and trust a bit more than the rest of the staff.
So as he showered he was thinking through the morning routine, but he digressed to the few weeks since his after-dinner meeting with Pamela. He had trained her son Trevor a few times and he had to admit the boy did have some real potential, although his attitude would need to improve.
At the sessions he had been polite but relatively short in his dealings with Pamela. She always brought coffee and he took a few perfunctory sips, but made a point to leave immediately after the session, also vetoing her suggestion that he conduct the training sessions at her home.
For this trip, Pamela had called him to offer herself as a chauffeur for the journey, noting that the long drive would offer the chance “for us to get to know each other.” She had also mentioned that Trevor would be going with another family, and pointed out that by using her as his travel service, he could pocket most of the travel money the club gave coaches. Derek recognized the problem with this arrangement just on the appearance level, but still he wondered just how she had been allowed to conduct herself like this with her older son’s team.
When he got to the room where the team breakfast would take place, he was happy to see two players, Todd Schleuter and Ruben Lomeli, already on hand. Todd was a somewhat nondescript player but a good team personality, while Ruben was a player just added to the team via a recommendation to Derek by a coach from another town. Ruben had been playing on an unaffiliated team and was definitely from the other side of the tracks compared to most of the other players on the team. Derek had gone to see him and knew in about 10 minutes he was someone worth bringing in, even on full scholarship.
Todd’s dad was there as well, drinking coffee and reading the sports page from the morning paper. Mr. Schleuter had agreed to sponsor Ruben on the trip and Derek wondered if it was out of compassion for the player’s plight or because he thought it would improve his own son’s standing on the team. “Pay to Play has a way of making a lot of things complicated,” Derek thought.
The team began trickling in and as everyone had breakfast, the players seemed upbeat, while most parents were relatively quiet, except for Mickey Hilliard’s mom Karen who was far too much of a morning person for everyone’s liking.
Derek took a moment to tell the team that the things they do in preparing for matches mattered, and reminded them that these would be the toughest games they’d had in their team’s history. He also reminded the parents that he expected their behavior to be a cut above what they were used to, and to strictly avoid any kind of coaching from the sideline. Pamela nodded vigorously in agreement to this, while a couple of other parents seemed agitated by his words.
The matches couldn’t have gone any better. United took its opening match 2-0 and then won a 4-1 decision in the afternoon. Already sure of a semifinal berth, he used some of the bench players a bit more in the Sunday morning match and was very pleased with the response in a 3-1 win. In Sunday afternoon’s semifinal game, Froggy Barazza scored with just a couple of minutes remaining for a 2-1 win over a highly-rated team from Texas, and just like that the team was in the final. At the team dinner that evening the mood was very upbeat and Derek even allowed himself to enjoy a friendly conversation with Pamela in front of the whole room. He knew here effusive compliments were probably well overstated, but he realized he enjoyed hearing it from the beautiful woman.
“Is tonight the big night?” Jerry Anderson whispered to Margie Heffner as they eyed Derek and Pamela from across the table.
“If it hasn’t happened already,” Margie replied. “Then again, he does seem a little more in control of himself than some of the others. I don’t know if she’s quite figured him out yet.”
“Well she can figure me out anytime she likes,” Jerry responded, cracking Margie up.
As happy as everyone seemed to be Sunday evening, there was no preparing for the letdown Labor Day morning when United lost in the final to another highly-rated team, this one from Michigan, 3-1. Derek talked for a few minutes after the game and, he hoped, set a tone by not getting too down over the loss.
“You’re doing a lot of good things but you are not the only good team at this level,” he said. “When you have moments like these you have to determine just how badly you want to be the best.
You say you do, but only time can tell. You have to approach training with an idea of getting better every time. That’s what it takes.”
After the trip home, Derek made some dinner in his apartment. He watched a little TV and was just about to turn in when there was a knock on the door. He glanced at the clock, 10:30 p.m. He moved quietly to the door and peered through the peephole.
It was Pamela.
Next Week – Chapter 5: An Unexpected Visit