Soccer skitters at the edge of the American athletic mainstream, too often dismissed as a foreign game lacking the offensive pyrotechnics to suit our taste. Professional soccer leagues struggle to draw interest in the United States. Soccer does occasionally break into our national sports consciousness, but usually as an oddity; the peculiar savagery of Zinedine Zidane’s inexcusable head butt, which crippled France’s chance at the 2006 World Cup, became a favorite American TV replay this past summer, long outliving interest in the match itself.
Soccer’s fringe status cuts two ways.
The absence of longstanding interest translates into a dearth of soccer fields and playing opportunities through much of North Carolina. When Orange County sought in 2000 to gauge interest in a “soccer superfund” to buy land and build soccer fields, officials were told four dozen new fields might begin serving its population of 120,000. Among the strongest proponents of grassroots soccer were members of the Latino community. “Soccer is our life,” one adult player explained with elegant simplicity. Anson Dorrance, coach of the University of North Carolina women’s team and an early leader of Rainbow Soccer, a grassroots organization of amateur leagues in Chapel Hill, also was a fervent, engaged advocate.
But soccer’s fringe status does have advantages. Because the sport has been neglected, it yawns with possibility. And, with its minimal equipment needs, soccer is among the most democratic of games. Programs are relatively easy to start. So it is that women and Latinos in North Carolina, groups fighting for equal status in and beyond athletics, have turned to soccer for competition and affirmation, as two new books with grandiose subtitles suggest.
A Home on the Field, by Paul Cuadros, chronicles the story of a high school boys’ team from Siler City, composed almost entirely of Latinos, that won a state soccer title and helped deflate prejudice in and beyond Chatham County. “There is nothing like winning to change people’s attitudes,” Cuadros writes.
The book covers a four-year arc from an anti-immigration speech by David Duke in front of Siler City’s town hall to the Jordan-Matthews Jets’ 2004 return as state champs in the sport closest to their hearts. “Latinos are passionate, and that’s why we love soccer so much,” Cuadros writes. “Americans cannot understand how two countries could go to war after a soccer match, as happened in 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador. Latinos ask: How can you not?”
Subtitled “How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America,” Cuadros’ sloppily edited book is in part polemic, an impassioned vehicle for exploring ways in which contemporary America exploits and marginalizes Latinos, particularly the undocumented immigrants lured northward to work in places such as Chatham’s three poultry plants. Cuadros also makes the point that Siler City saw a vast increase in commercial activity, doubled in population, and grew more youthful from 1990 to 2004. He attributes the changes to the revitalizing presence of Latinos. “It was as if the world had leaked into Siler City and transformed it,” he writes, a process he saw replicated throughout the smaller towns of North Carolina.
But, in the time-honored tradition of sports stories of every generation, this is also a coach’s first-person, sentimental account of youthful impetuousness and exuberance, of doubts and obstacles overcome, and of underdogs triumphant.
Where A Home on the Field reads as if written with the movies in mind, Tim Crothers’ book, The Man Watching, is a painstaking dissection apt to appeal to an audience already geared toward soccer or to the nuances of successful coaching.
Crothers’ intensive research details the inner workings of the North Carolina women’s soccer program, the standard against which all collegiate competitors are measured. Most especially, his book is an examination of the program’s progenitor and leader, as suggested by its subtitle, “A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever.”
Dorrance, although a child of privilege, is himself an underdog, according to Crothers. Small of stature and a victim of persistent anti-American sentiment while growing up overseas, Dorrance’s relentlessly competitive nature spurred him to confront any physical challenge. The same passion later drove him to surmount his athletic shortcomings to become an exceptional soccer player at UNC, then to defy his father’s wishes to forge a career in coaching.
The N.C. Central law school student and Rainbow Soccer coach was first hired to direct the Tar Heel men. He soon added the newly created women’s team to his coaching portfolio. North Carolina’s decision to hire Dorrance, and its early commitment to women’s soccer, paid huge competitive dividends. Dorrance’s teams have never lost more than two games in a row. His Tar Heels once won nine straight NCAA championships, and only once between 1981 and 2001 failed to reach the women’s finals.
Crothers explores every nook and cranny of Dorrance’s psyche, ascent and methods, enriching the account with a seemingly endless parade of insights from colleagues, players, competitors and others, as well as letters and speeches the coach shared with his team. The level of detail is occasionally taken to irrelevant extremes, as when the author includes the date of a colonoscopy that left Dorrance joking, “For one day in my life, I’m not full of shit.” (Or “blowing sunshine” as it is called around the soccer program.)
The Man Watching reveals a world-class coach who can be as disorganized off the field as he is organized on it, a man who is quirky, caring, intellectually curious, sarcastic, arrogant and strikingly honest. “There’s little about athletics that elevates you as a human being,” Dorrance says in one of many refreshingly candid moments. “I don’t think athletics is anything more than people running around, breaking a sweat, and having a good time.”
Perhaps the book’s most intriguing aspect is the evolution of Dorrance’s philosophy on dealing with female athletes, including contrasts that led to his decision to quit coaching the UNC men during the late 1980s. (Crothers is no hagiographer, however, and he thoroughly examines the recent sexual harassment suit against Dorrance that was settled prior to trial without any explicit admission of wrongdoing by the coach.)
Dorrance concluded that men love being praised in front of their peers, while women are best lauded one-on-one to avoid resentment or embarrassment. Men need to be shown their mistakes on videotape in order to believe they made them, the coach said, while until recently he eschewed showing tape to his women lest he exacerbate their automatic self-criticism. A halftime display of angry frustration will drive the men to greater heights, whereas a calm intonation of disapproval suffices for the women.
“Now you can hear a chorus of self-flagellation as every woman in the room is taking full responsibility for the disaster that is taking place,” Dorrance observes of a typical locker room talk. “I haven’t criticized anybody, and I don’t need to because they’re their own worst critics.”
Earlier this month, UNC’s women won their 19th national title in 26 seasons, defeating top-ranked Notre Dame at SAS Soccer Park in Cary. That was the same field where the boys’ team from Siler City found affirmation in sports, capturing its high school title against the top-ranked Lejeune Devil Pups. Symbolically, the bus carrying players called Lobo and Fish and Perico and Indio and Chaquetas, young men anxious to escape being thrust to the edge of U.S. society, broke down en route to the game.
While awaiting assistance, Cuadros asked his charges, “‘Okay, how many of you guys have crossed the border?’” He wrote: “Immediately most of their arms went up in the air. ‘Let me tell youthis is easier than that.’ The boys burst out laughing. They knew they had been through far worse than being stranded by the side of the road.”