View from the cheap seats: Ageless wonders
"That's what I like about these high school girls: I keep getting older, they stay the same age." -- Wooderson, 'Dazed and Confused'
If you can ignore the silly Romanticist capitalization in Woodsworth's line, you see that the old sod has faith that the child will grow up someday and nurture the species into infinity, or at least until we've destroyed all the rainforests, whales and Olsen twins.
If you can ignore the queasy dirty-old-man-ism of Wooderson's comment, you see that underlying his desire to ogle your little sister is the heroic spirit of a man who refuses to go gently into that good night. Damn you, Time! he is screaming, I won't let you ruin my game. So, come on, all you pretty young things, party at the Moon Tower!
Anyway, these two quotes came to mind the other day after I read Freddy "Much" Adu's outburst about playing time and his growing frustration. I'll leave the "analysis" of Much's whining to Waldo, who promised me he'd get all parental in his column Friday. I'm more curious about what thoughts are hobbling through the minds of MLS's elder statesmen about kids and the kid-friendliness of the league. (Don't call them "old"; predictably, they get all cantankerous when you do that.)
With all the kids running around on the field, MLS games have come to resemble episodes of The Great Space Coaster (unfortunately minus Gary Gnu). First came the young adults like Carlos Parra (20 when he signed with MLS). Then came the adolescents like Bobby Convey (16). And finally, inevitably, came the Golden Pre-pubescent.
Now, the inmates are running the asylum, hogging all the ink (sometimes merely because they are young), and pushing the "wily veterans" to the sidelines. Today, according to the current rosters posted on MLSnet.com, the league boasts only 35 thirtysomethings (plus, K.C.'s Kerry Zavagnin, who hits the big 3-Oh Friday) and one fortysomething. That translates to roughly 15% of MLS players being eligible for my over-30 pub team. (Not that Preki or Jaime Moreno could make our stellar squad.) By comparison, 98 players are 23 or younger (41%), including 13 who can't drink (legally), and one who can't drive (legally).
So is this good or bad?
"It's only good to have young kids in the league," claims D.C. United's Earnie Stewart (born: March 28, 1969, three months before the original Woodstock). I caught up with him Wednesday right after training. "They learn quickly and must learn quickly. I think it's great, and I'm sure Bruce Arena is happy about it."
Earnie knows that his role with United goes beyond roaming the right flank and buying beer for Santino Quaranta. (I'm kidding. Earnie would never corrupt a minor. He'd never corrupt a major either. He's just not a corruptor, that Earnie Stewart.) He and his fellow youthfully-challenged MLSers have a lot to pass on to the kids, and the kids would do well to pay attention. Just listen, don't speak.
"Communication is one the most important jobs for us older guys," Stewart explains. "It's so important and vital, and there is simply a lack of that these days."
It's not explicit, but the "experienced" players are like de facto assistant coaches, the eyes and ears of the manager on the field. I remember how Thomas Rongen, then the Tampa Bay Mutiny coach, always conferred with his "aged" guys like Frank Yallop and Cle Kooiman.
"I don't feel like I have to guide Chad Marshall," says the Crew's Robin Fraser (b. Dec. 17, 1966, during the Johnson administration) of his 19-year-old partner in the Crew's central defense. "But as an older guy, I help him out. It's not a conscious effort, but stuff comes up in games and we talk about what he did well and what he could've done better."
With Preki out of action, Fraser is currently the most "time-honored" player in MLS. ("We need to get Preki back on the field," he jokes.) He's been around long enough to remember when playing pro soccer in the U.S. meant $1,000 a month and maybe a free meal at Bennigan's. That kind of hard-scrabble experience drills the word "professionalism" into your head.
"I try most to pass on what it means to be a professional," Fraser says. "A pro attitude. You've got to show up and compete, work for your teammates. Most of all respect your opponents. Young players don't always remember this stuff. They get big contracts and think they've arrived."
"When you're older, it's not so much about yourself," Stewart explains. "It's about three points. When you're young, you don't think about that as much. You don't think about the little things you have to do. Once you get rid of the ball, your job is not done. You have to think about how to support the next play. There are a lot of young kids in this league who think of themselves and not so much of the team. It's difficult at times. And, look, everyone makes mistakes. I've talked to Freddy about all this. You make mistakes and hopefully you learn from them. That's not just in MLS. That's the same in Holland and everywhere."
Sure, this is a young man's game. It's like rock'n'roll that way -- you go from up-and-coming to established star to shadow of your former self to Vegas lounge act to dead. Unless you OD somewhere early on, then you go straight to icon. Luckily, MLS is not like Menudo. You don't have to leave the league when you turn 18. You can play on and on and on. And think about this: If Preki's any indication, we're going to be reading about Freddy until the year 2031. Maybe by then, we'll forgive him for griping about playing time as a 15-year-old rookie.
Mortal lock: Last week, I picked Colorado to get a result (a tie) in Columbus. I just didn't think they would win -- especially not without John Spencer and my new favorite MLSer, Rey Rey Martinez. (Is head coach Tim Hankinson going to sign Fidel Castro next week?) This week, I'm going back to my old standbys, the Wiz. K.C. over Dallas.
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.