It’s a tough time to give thanks. But soccer teaches many lessons, like perseverance and resilience. A third is that the game is the best teacher. If we’ve learned anything from the past eight months, it is that the American soccer world has much to be thankful for.
We should be grateful for the game’s administrators. Often maligned, they’ve been tested mightily since March. Decisions on whether or not to play affect every athlete and family. Physical health is one consideration; so is the mental health of youngsters. There are economic repercussions too. They’re not scientists, but soccer officials weigh reams of data, some of it contradictory. Any decision heartens some people, enrages others. Each state organization, and many leagues and clubs, must make their own choices. None is done without lots of research, long debates and tremendous soul-searching.
We should be grateful for national administrators too. When U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy imploded in the spring, MLS Next and the Girls Academy stepped into the breach. Some of the issues were COVID-related; others were not. But at a time when leadership was needed, new voices spoke up. Thanks go too to other national leagues, like the ECNL. Administrators recognized that the landscape was rapidly changing, and they reacted to it.
MLS, NWSL and USL leaders faced daunting tasks. Despite teams spread across the continent and constantly shifting conditions, they got their leagues back in action. Professional soccer is entertainment, not life or death. But at a time when we really were focused on life and death, the value of entertainment cannot be overestimated.
Thanks are due to every college coach. Many lost their fall seasons; some lost their livelihoods. But whether they played, practiced or could not meet at all, they did whatever they could for their athletes. Some was technical and tactical; much was emotional. College coaches’ resourcefulness was challenged as never before this year, and they came through like champions.
Coaches at many other levels deserve thanks too. Whether keeping their teams together through online videos and Zoom chats, adapting to new rules and regulations once training and matches resumed, or simply offering a safe space for stressed-out kids that transcends wins and losses, club, high school and youth coaches did more off-the-field work than ever before. And they did it very, very well.
Referees must be included in any thanks. Adaptations like wearing masks and using electronic whistles are important. Far more praiseworthy is the new role many took on. It’s anecdotal, but across the country it seems officials realized that when soccer resumed, players dealt with far more stress than usual. Referees this fall seem to be less harshly judgmental than in past years, more open to handling situations with voices rather than cards.
Thanks go to parents too. Many used the pandemic as an opportunity to reassess their relationship with soccer. With time on their hands – and no demand to spend exorbitant sums on endless weekends away from home – some in the youth soccer arms race took a step back. They’re examining where soccer fits in their kids’ lives (and their own), and wondering what the new college soccer landscape means for their fifth grader. It’s not yet an avalanche of change – but rumblings are heard.
This year’s final – and most important – thanks go to players. Amid all the horrors since spring, the game has been a constant. Those fortunate enough to train and play realize – even if they can’t articulate it – that time spent on the field is precious. The joy of reuniting with teammates and coaches, after weeks or months away, is palpable.
Being able to run, pass, defend, make saves, score, celebrate – even miss a tackle or an empty net – is beautiful. Every soccer fan saw that, every time a child, teenager or national team member took the field. During this unprecedented, difficult Thanksgiving, we are reminded powerfully again why we love this beautiful game.