Monday, October 19, 2009
The expression "possession is nine tenths of the law" certainly applies to soccer. I saw a great example last night at a high school play-off game. The first ranked team in the bracket was playing the 16th ranked team. At half-time the score was 8-0. When the score reached 16 to 0, the winning team stopped trying to score and simply possessed the ball for the last 12 minutes. They gained a great lesson in how to pass accurately, how to turn the ball away from the opponent, how to regain the ball when lost, and how to use the field to their advantage, but at what cost?
The opposing team had the unenviable task of selecting what aspect of the game demoralized them less: the 16 unanswered goals or the 12 minutes they were the victims of keep away. This huge disparity between teams in training and skill usually only happens in high school playoffs. Club tournament directors rate the applicants in order to create brackets containing some parity in skill levels. State leagues have divisions based on past records to insure teams are within a narrow band of proficiency at the sport. College playoffs have teams who earned their slots by winning conference tournaments or having exemplary records. But high school playoffs include every team in the state in that division regardless of experience or ability. So last night the previous year's state champion played a team where many of the members don't play soccer outside of high school.
When the difference between two teams is so large it seems humiliating to even conduct the game, but under the state rules this is the way it has to happen. There have to be winners and there have to be losers, but, for certain teams, there's really no way that they will advance. While there were some upsets in the first games of the tournament run, these were between teams much more closely ranked. The particular game I saw had the greatest goal differential, but in looking at today's brackets I saw plenty of 11-0, 9-0 and 13-1 games. One high school team simply forfeited. It couldn't get a team together under those circumstances. Last year the teams from last night's game met, and at halftime with the score 10-0, the game was called, and they all went home. Not putting the score up on the board isn't the answer. It doesn't work for U-8 and U-10 teams, and it works even less for high school teams. Everyone can count. Requiring that teams take all starters off the field once the goal differential hits a certain point gets into the messy situation of telling a coach how to run his or her team. So for several teams the first game of the state tournament competition becomes an exercise in self-control. The higher ranked team has to play restrained for at least a portion of the game and the lower ranked team has to resist the urge to walk off the field and say "forget it."
On the upside the higher ranked team can usually afford to allow players who sat on the bench or subbed in for only a few minutes over the season to finally play some extended soccer. It was great when players scored their first goals during that game, giving families a chance to cheer for their sons. And it offers those players who will be stepping up next season to a greater team role the chance to gain experience in the state tournament. But there is little advantage for the lower ranked team.
Giving all teams the opportunity to participate in the tournament run seems necessary. Yet it all comes with unpleasant consequences. As one spectator said to me during the game, "I wonder what that team gets out of playing this game." It really got me thinking about how in a victory obsessed culture we can give kids in no-win situations a reason to participate.
Competitiveness aside, other factors fit into the big picture when it comes to high school sports. Outmatched teams need to define several achievable objectives to consider the game a success. Parents should reinforce that playing a game with dignity even in defeat shows character. For the winning teams good sportsmanship has to be at the center of these lopsided contests. Fans need to be supportive of all good play, players need to have confidence without being smug, and coaches have to be willing to accept a comfortable, rather than an overwhelming, lead and switch to less aggressive play. With possession comes responsibility. It's up to everyone not to abuse their strengths or surrender to their weaknesses.