Fall's soccer ritual kicks in

Cleats, doughnuts and bail money: Welcome to youth soccer

SO HERE I AM,O HERE I AM, in my 17th season of AYSO, the Joe Paterno of youth soccer. I am like one of those guys who marries the same woman three times, not realizing my mistake, thinking this go-around will somehow be different. "Do you, Coach, take this team to drive you completely bonkers for the next three months, till death do you part?"

"I do."

Of course, I do. How else would I spend a fall Saturday? Sure, I find myself eyeing books unread. Or fantasizing about a cool weekend on a warm couch, where saner men collapse and study their wives -- the constellations of their freckles, the laugh lines around their eyes.

Me, I prefer coaching a monkey pen of 5-year-olds.

"Men," I tell my players, "we need to talk."

Let me describe this little team. They seem to be constructed of spare IKEA parts, the stuff left over after you assemble the new coffee table.

Most of them still have puppy breath, which they exhale through their mouths and ears. Some of them breathe through their butts. Trust me, if you've ever been in a huddle with a bunch of 5-year-old soccer players, you know what I mean.

"Men, we have the potential to be a great, great team," I say.

"We do?" asks one.

"Yes, we do," I say.

They nod and smile, not sure what to make of me, their coach, their Moses. I am older than most of their houses. I smell of cheap Dominican cigars and apparently give myself my own haircuts. My clothes don't fit so great. My face is always flushed. To them, I am not unlike the clowns who entertain at birthday parties.

"Your dad is so funny," one player tells my son.

"I know," the little guy says. "Some people don't like that."

It's too early to draw conclusions about our season. So far, we've had a couple of practices, a couple of games, dozens of glazed doughnuts.

Last weekend, we had some sort of opening ceremony at the Rose Bowl that was like Mardi Gras without the booze. Somewhere, in the crush of 3,500 kids, we lost two of our players. I'm pretty sure they'll turn up eventually.

"That's not too bad, just two," notes Coach Scott, one of my 12 assistants.

"They'll turn up," I say.

In our defense, we had the players hold hands as we exited the giant stadium, in a row like ducklings, and still four of them almost wandered off toward a team of 7-year-old girls they'd been eyeing. One of the many AYSO tenets is "Don't lose the kids," so we quickly rounded them up and marched them to a spot where their parents could claim them, assuming they had a driver's license and a valid receipt.

It was a great morning, really. The whole opening ceremony couldn't have taken more than a few hours.