“You want to play on a real team? A team of real players who need real competition?”
The questions were rapid fire. I tried not to think too hard as I wiped my brow after an indoor game at a place in Palatine, Illinois called Soccer City.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said. A man with a thick, salt and peppery beard stared back at me and nodded.
“The team’s full of lads like you. Lads who need a bit more competition. You can look the part against guys your age. Try doing that against men, you’ll see how far you’ve got to go.” He handed me a card with his phone number and an address on Chicago’s west side. “Training is Monday through Friday at 11 pm. Make as many sessions as you can. We ain’t got a schedule for games yet, but you’ll be in some cash tournaments in the city and around Milwaukee. This ain’t Mickey Mouse stuff, mate. This ain’t to be publicized to your “coach” out there,” he said as he looked across the field at my club coach. “This,” he said, “is off the record.”
Geordie was a simple man. He’d come to the United States after he married an American woman, and played a bit in the doldrums of American soccer after pissing away trials at Wolves, Fulham, and Notts County. He’d recently been divorced and presumably lived in his truck. He worked in the stockyards and loved the game. He hated the politics of the American soccer system. Geordie didn’t believe in coaching licenses. He didn’t want to play the favoritism game and certainly wanted nothing to do with club scene. He wanted to coach on his terms. The task was simple. Assemble a group of promising players aged 16 and up and enter cash tournaments. Any cash won was split among the team with Geordie taking a “coaching fee”. We didn’t care. Training was free. It was a chance for the players he’d seen to get better outside of the overly-structured and watered down American soccer system.
Our first training the ragtag group of players I called teammates looked at one another with disdain. We’d all been amalgamated and were crazy enough to show up to a warehouse to train at night in a tough part of town. The team was made up of Polish, Hispanic, Italian, Bosnian, Croatian players and me. I was the youngest player at 16. This was what underground development looked and smelled like.
“You lot want to do tricks? If you do then join the fucking circus.”
Geordie was rough around the edges, but he was a truly amazing coach. He believed in team play. Direct play differed from Route One under his tutelage. Pass the ball, move, share the work. When he didn’t feel we were circulating the ball quick enough or with enough authority, he would throw us a tennis ball and make us play with that. The passes became concentrated. Players actually showed for the ball. It pissed us off. In hindsight, I think he was just seeing how we would react.
I loved his sessions. One of my favorite places to train was a warehouse on the west side of Chicago. It had turf, steel goals, and sharp objects everywhere. We’d train from 11pm to 1 or 2 am. The older guys would go off to work, home, or to the bar. I’d catch a ride home with two players who were brothers and lived near me and worked in a furniture warehouse in Addison. I’d be in bed by 3 am up by 6 am for school. Geordie could play. His calves were the size of grapefruits and he had this ability to demonstrate what he wanted from us while coaching. I could never tell if he was right footed or left footed. I did know he loved using both — usually in the tackle. He oozed passion for the game and believed in tough and rough treatment when it was necessary. He’d motivate us when we needed motivating and nurture the younger ones when it was clear we’d had enough of getting the shit kicked out of us.
The field was amazing for us. Sure, it wasn’t Wembley but it might as well have been! Shoddy turf loosely laid down in an industrial warehouse. After training we had to roll the turf up and store it to the side. The industrial-sized fans buzzed and hummed while the lights overhead flickered and droned. Geordie was most likely certifiably insane. We played a few tournaments in Milwaukee and Chicago. We played in Chicago’s Metro League, against Polish, Croatian, Mexican, and Bosnian teams.
The truth is back then I would have done whatever it took to be a better player. As good as I thought I was, I realized that I was a late-bloomer in soccer. I still had the awkward lankiness of growing six inches over a four month span. My knees hurt from an overuse injury called Osgood-Schlatter’s disease (it’s not really a disease). I wasn’t exactly timid, but I wasn’t the raving psycho that Geordie wanted me to be. The whole experience, however, affected me profoundly. I trained with Geordie for around two years. Sometimes the group of players waned and changed, but I kept going to the sessions. I was learning what being a journeyman player was all about.
The nature of the warehouse pick-up games, the brutal combativeness of the environment, the late hours and early mornings turned me into a player carved of stone. Fitness was a non-factor as I was training double or even triple what players in my age group were. And the training was nothing they could fathom doing. But, I was a late-bloomer and for every accolade I earned with my club team, I discovered another “deficiency” against seasoned players at the warehouse. These were players who used to play professionally in Eastern Europe and Central America. My ride home was with two Guatemalan brothers who fled their country and won a lottery to enter the United States through a missionary program. The progress I made was exponentially greater than anything I would have been able to accomplish had I gone the “conventional” route. What I used to think about during games became instinctual. Tackling, ball distribution, shooting, communicating in different languages, working for my teammates was par for the course. I was becoming a player.
I found myself training in my basement, getting thousands of repetitions in before school. After my first training session, I came home and slept before jogging to a local park to meet Jose and Ricardo to go to the warehouse. My parents allowed this because they knew I loved the game and weren’t going to stop me from sneaking out to play anyway. None of us had any aspirations or dared think we could play professionally. The system wasn’t cut out for players the game had or, in my case, was going to leave behind. My parents didn’t have the money to hire someone to videotape my games let alone buy our own camcorder. My high school coach was clueless and routinely benched me when colleges came to see me. He didn’t get on with my father so he took it took on me. Geordie’s training sessions were the answer.
One of the last sessions I attended, Geordie said, “You’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes to get something out of this game. At the end of the it all — and it goes quick — you’re left with fuck all. So, at the very least, enjoy it.”
On my way to training the next day a semi-truck blew a red light and smashed into my car. I was left with a broken neck, fractured skull, broken ribs, and massive concussion, and had to beg the surgeon I wasn’t going to sever my spinal cord by struggling to move after several Valium injections to prevent me from moving so much. I spent the better part of the next year in a back and neck brace — learning to walk, dreaming of playing, overcoming nightmares where I’d wake up a quadriplegic. The reality is I missed my window well before that accident. As it came to pass, I recovered and made the decision to play in college. Gone were the scholarship offers to my top choice schools, but it didn’t matter. I was happy to play again at the Division I level.
The first chance I had, I drove to see if Geordie was still at the warehouse training players. The warehouse had been converted to a Whole Foods. Where I used to play was now home to over-priced organic food. I inquired about Geordie for a few years but never did hear about where he went off to. Ricardo and Jose still talk to me. We still go out for beers when I go back home. And they still work in a warehouse stocking furniture on industrial-sized shelving units.
On the off chance I ever get into coaching again, I’m going to do it on my terms like Geordie did (just not as insanely). I would have done whatever it took to be the player I think I would be had it not been for that car accident. But, I wouldn’t trade my experiences training “underground” under the languid and unforgiving warehouse lights with a coach as mysterious as he was crazy for anything. I played with some of the best players in an environment that lives only in our memories.
Would you do whatever it takes to be the best version of yourself? Would you do whatever it takes to be the best player you could be? If not, ask yourself why and remember: you only get one go-round at this game.