By Scott Martin
If you read my last post (Read More) you are aware that the high school team that I am the assistant for finished the regular season with a thud and lacked the style and flow that was expected to appear. As we saw it, the regular season didn’t go as expected. But others saw it differently as five of our players received all-conference honors and our leading scorer was named Player of the Year.
Heading into the playoffs, I noticed something different in the team during a video review session of our upcoming opponent. I brought cheese balls as a snack to pass around as we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of our first-round counter. As a group, we noticed a weak left side, a soft midfield, and an attack that was focused on one player. Finally, there was a focus in this small group of 13 players.
Our game plan was simple: Attack their left, clog the midfield, and play organized defense that relied on complete communication. The result was a solid 5-1 win that saw our inner James Brown funk return. The question was whether The Godfather of Soul would stick around.
Our head coach, Nick, had known for months that if we won our playoff opener he would miss the next match, the Regional Final, to stand at a dear friend’s wedding. After the win, Nick and I sorted out match balls, paperwork, and keys to the soccer complex. And before we both entered our cars on a very cold and wet Wisconsin, October evening, I told him to enjoy himself or I’d kick his ass. Truth!
Nick knows that I’ve been coaching for 40 years. I’m currently working with our area U15 Select boys and have managed programs at the high school and college levels, so we were covered. Still, I knew that he would be sitting on pins and needles awaiting the result of our next match. Hopefully, he would be dancing to YMCA, more than one polka, and the Chicken Dance — a Wisconsin tradition.
With Friday off before playing the Final on Saturday afternoon, we knew a great deal about our opponent whom we had tied 0-0 during the regular season. So, with the intent of both proving my belief in our players and providing an opportunity for them to “buy in”, I asked our central players of the defense, midfield and attack, Bennett, Sam and Charlie to come to my house to lay out our scheme at the kitchen table.
Designing a formation with a roster of 13 doesn’t sound difficult. But, much like assembling a 1,000 piece puzzle, it is a challenge. We knew the outer pieces but put ourselves to the test filling in the middle.
The basics of the concept were to play with a solid defensive core of three backs. Next, we concluded the importance of clogging the midfield with numbers. This, we expected, would allow us to begin counter-attacks from the midfield rather than from our back third. That put our number of midfielders at five. Finally, our two frontrunners, Charlie and Jacob, would not have set positions. Instead, they would be expected to evaluate weaknesses and strengths and align themselves accordingly. This, too, was done as a means to get the players to “buy in” to what I was selling: Confidence — something that was lacking during the regular season but had returned for our last match.
This new formation and scheme required a full walkthrough by the team, so the players were asked to arrive a bit early. I’ve always used the adage that I will ask more questions of my players than to tell them what to do. That was followed as we bantered around the concepts of weakside shifts and overlaps during our group meeting on the field.
The players were set as fans began to arrive. During COVID, the term “fans” refers to parents and family only as our school allows only two fans per player — for both teams. Our opponent’s parents were not something I took into account in devising our gameplan.
From the kickoff, their parents, covered in parkas, hats, and blankets to combat temps in the low 30s, began yelling on every play of the ball. My god! I felt as if I was back in 1982 standing on the sideline of a match between my undefeated U12 kids and their undefeated cross-town rival which saw every square inch of the field surrounded by friends, family, and media. Yes, two newspapers and two TV stations attended to cover the match. It was crazy.
For the second match in a row — a record for this season — James Brown was on stage dancing, singing and gyrating. The ball flowed forward and from side to side. Our defense communicated on every movement when they possessed the ball, never allowing a quality shot. But not according to the rash of non-stop hoots and hollers of the Zombie Parents.
Of course, there were the usual calls of “Good kick, John!” and “Great hustle, Gary!”. But there was also the ever-present chimes at our players after a clean tackle or interception.
As they became tenser, shouts of “Come on, ref!” became common. As was “That’s the third time he’s . . .” from the Zombie clan.
Perhaps the loudest challenge came after Max stripped the ball from one of their backs then slotted a pass to Jacob for a goal, only for the goal to be wiped away after a discussion between the referee and the assistant referee on the fan side of the field. With still 15 minutes to go in the first half, the score remained at 0-0 which made their fans even more rabid.
At halftime, our group discussion was more about the team of parents than the team in white that we were playing against. “We need to shut them up by staying in control and keeping our wits about us.” I summarized for my players. “Put one away and they’ll back off.”
I’m laughing as I type because I was sooooo wrong. Much of the play continued going our way in the second half. We still controlled the midfield. Our backs still communicated and denied threats. And our fronts were able to make quality runs. But we failed to score.
Like the fireplace in our home these past cold nights, the opposing parents continued to stoke the flames. Granted, it was their “support” that kept their kids playing hard. But the longer the score remained at zero, the more this group of Zombie Parents kept coming. And coming. And coming.
With 15 minutes to go, Sam struck a firm direct kick from an angled 30 yards which bounced off an opposing defender to Charlie’s right foot and into the goal. “Finally!” I thought. Scoring wasn’t my biggest concern. Instead, I thought the parents would quiet down.
Nope! The yelling ramped up even more as our opponent began to play long ball after long ball from their defensive third and sometimes from the midfield to our goalkeeper who stood calmly to snuff out any threat. As did the incessant calls against the officials, our players and in favor of their kids.
To add to the chaos, the clock malfunctioned and the center official called out every minute that remained beginning at five. And as the minute markers were announced, the yelling grew louder and louder. I reminded myself that we discuss the psychology of match play with our players. I remember telling our kids to “Chillax” during halftime. And that they did as the final whistle blew and they earned a trip to the next stage of the Wisconsin state playoffs.
Not surprisingly, I dreamt of zombies last night.
Let’s simplify the game.