Fifty-Fifty

Girls soccer
Photo by Rhett Lewis on Unsplash

Of course the coach wasn’t looking. Katie makes a beautiful cross, left-footed, her best pass of the day, and naturally the coach doesn’t see it. Head pointed in the opposite direction, taking notes on some other girl.

Just his luck.

Jim Bessler sat alone in the bleachers, ten feet away from the nearest other parents. He caught snippets of their conversations: home additions, summer camps, vacation plans. If they wanted to chit-chat with each other, fine. He didn’t come here to talk. He waited for Katie to look for him, as she always did after making a good play, and gave her a thumbs-up.

Out of the fifty eight-year-old girls on the field, only two dozen would be selected for the county’s travel soccer club. The rest would be stuck on house teams that had to accept anyone, regardless of ability: the klutzes, the losers, the out-of-shape daydreamers whose parents just wanted them off their phones for a change—girls who would fall further and further behind their peers on the travel club with each passing week and never stand a chance of playing for their high school, much less in college. Katie would not be one of those girls, not if he could help it. Not his daughter.

The ball came to her again, and she dribbled twice, then tapped it to a teammate on her left. The safe play. Not necessarily the best play, considering the wide-open winger on her right, but it would do.

He and Katie’s mother, Tricia, had agreed that she would attend the first day of tryouts and he would attend today’s. Yesterday’s session had gone “okay,” she texted afterwards.

“Okay like just okay or okay like she’ll make the team?” he texted back.

Tricia didn’t answer. But now that Jim was watching, he could tell right away that Katie deserved a spot. She hadn’t necessarily proven it on the field yet, at least not when the coach bothered to look her way, but she was definitely one of the best twenty-four out there. Probably not top ten, if he were being honest, but easily in the high teens. And no wonder—he’d taught her himself. All the important stuff, anyway. Sure, she’d played on youth league teams since she was five, but the “coaches,” if you could call them that, were just volunteer parents whose only qualification was the ability to hand out snacks after practice. All Katie learned from them were useless drills they’d probably stolen from YouTube videos. They couldn’t demonstrate the real-game skills he’d shown her during their alternate weekends together, just the two of them practicing at the park near his apartment. He’d been the second-leading scorer on his high school team, a team that was once ranked twelfth in the state. You didn’t get that kind of experience from YouTube.

A blonde on Katie’s team scored, blasting the ball into the upper right corner of the net. A terrific shot, Jim had to admit. But nothing Katie couldn’t have done. She’d made that kind of shot dozens of times.

The coach marked something on her clipboard. Blondie must have won herself a spot. Only twenty-three left.

Had there been times when Katie didn’t feel like practicing with him? When she complained? When she drew unfavorable comparisons between soccer drills with her dad and whatever activities her friends were doing at that very moment somewhere else without her? Sure. She was eight. Eight-year-old girls say mean things sometimes. Sometimes they even text their friends about how totally bored they are, followed by a sad emoji, not realizing that their father knows their password and can break into their account whenever he wants. But Jim never let her quit. Because it wasn’t just about soccer. It was bigger than that. It was about putting in the effort. What was the point of reaching a goal if it didn’t come with effort? She’d see he was right when she made the travel club. She’d see it had all been worth it.

Katie lined up for the kickoff. She handled the opening pass, dribbled to her left and struck the ball crisply to a teammate. For once, the coach was paying attention.

That would be a nice bonus about Katie making the club—the smoking hot coach. They didn’t make them like that for the house teams, that’s for sure. She was younger, upper-twenties maybe, but not too young to notice a guy who got carded at the liquor store just a few months ago. Or maybe it was a year ago now. Whatever. She’d see right away he wasn’t the typical know-nothing dad, but someone who really loved the game. He’d be passing the ball with Katie before practice, and maybe he’d show off some of his skills. He was a pretty fair juggler back in his day.

“Wow, that’s awesome!” she’d say. “Hey, if you’re sticking around for a while, would you mind helping out at practice? I could use an extra hand.”

“Glad to. Good thing I brought my cleats.”

“That was really fun,” she’d say afterwards. “Now I see where Katie gets her talent!”

“Well, I don’t know about that.”

“No, seriously. I mean it.”

“Hey, Katie and I are gonna grab some pizza. If you’re not doing anything—”

“I’d love to! And maybe afterwards, you could drop Katie off at her mom’s, and we could go back to your place and I could bang your brains out?”

“Sounds like a plan,” he’d say.

The coach blew her whistle and began conferring with her considerably less attractive assistant while the girls walked to the sidelines for a short break. Most took a quick sip of water, then resumed running around, chasing each other or passing a ball back and forth. Katie sat on the ground by herself, drinking deeply from her bottle.

Get up, get up, get up! Did she want her coach to see her lounging around? What had he told her about staying focused?

Katie put the bottle down beside her and lay flat on the ground, staring up at the sky, la-dee-da-dee-da. Probably looking at clouds, hoping to find a unicorn. As if she didn’t have a care in the world. As if she had no clue how important today was for her entire athletic future.

Behind him, he heard the metallic clanging of someone walking down the bleacher steps. Stephen Teunis, the orthodontist. Katie’s friend Lauren’s dad. Jim was surprised to see him here. He’d seen Lauren play before, and she wasn’t exactly travel club material. Why get her hopes up?

Teunis paused, shifted his weight forward as if to continue down the steps, then sat down next to him.

“Katie’s looking good out there,” he said.

“So’s Lauren,” Jim answered. “She’s got some wheels.” Which was the most generous thing he could think to say about a girl had no idea what she was doing on the field, no sense of spacing, just sprinting from one spot to the other.

“The way I figure it, I win either way,” Teunis said. “She makes the team, great. She doesn’t make the team, I get to keep my weekends, and save fifteen hundred bucks a year, right?”

Jim had forgotten how freakishly bright Teunis’s teeth were. He nodded in response, lips pressed together. He’d recently switched to a whitening toothpaste, but it didn’t seem to do anything.

“Probably more like two grand when you count the tournaments,” Teunis said. “At least two of those a year.”

The coach blew her whistle and gathered the girls in a huddle while Teunis raised his estimate to twenty-five hundred dollars, once he factored in hotels for the out-of-town games. Jim wished he’d shut his fat mouth. If Teunis needed to make himself feel better when Lauren got cut, fine. But Teunis wasn’t paying for child support. He could afford the travel club fees a lot more easily than Jim could, especially since Tricia insisted that Jim had to pay for all of them. The way she saw it, if Jim wanted to pay all that money just to re-live his own frustrated ambitions through his daughter, that was up to him.

“I’m not kidding,” the smoking hot coach would say. This would be the next morning, after she stayed over. “I’ve met a lot of soccer dads over the years, but they’re all total losers. You’re different. You really love the game.”

The girls clapped their hands three times in unison, then broke out of the huddle. Katie and Lauren lined up on opposite teams.

The coach blew her whistle. Katie, assigned to fullback, watched the action uselessly. Other girls made one excellent play after another, right under the coach’s nose, earning spots on the club almost faster than she could circle their names, while Katie didn’t even touch the ball. Even Lauren managed not to embarrass herself.

A minute went by. Two minutes … three ...  Finally, an opposing player misfired a pass and Katie hustled to retrieve it near the right corner.

No need to rush. Settle the ball, dribble a couple of times, look for an open—

“Ahh, too bad,” Teunis said.

Jim stifled a groan. It wasn’t Katie’s fault. She shouldn’t have been playing defense in the first place. She was a natural scorer, like him! On offense, passing in front of the goal was exactly what you wanted to do. Could the coach blame her, just because Katie was thinking like the forward she was born to be?

“Girls soccer has really changed since we were kids,” Teunis said. “I’ll bet a few of these girls could have made my high school team.”

Jim ignored him. As if Teunis had ever watched any sports in high school, much less a girls soccer game. No wonder he became a dentist.

Play resumed, and soon the ball popped loose near Katie. She was the closest defender, and she raced toward it, trying to beat the opposing player. Teunis finally stopped blabbing and leaned forward to watch. The opposing player was Lauren. Luckily, Katie had started half a step closer to the ball, so—

Or maybe Lauren had started closer. Jim must have been mistaken. How else could Lauren have gotten there first? But it didn’t matter, because Katie would steal it from her. She was a Bessler, and Besslers didn’t quit until they won the ball.

Lauren dribbled right and Katie attacked, but Lauren made a nimble fake and reversed direction. Completely fooled, Katie kicked nothing but air as Lauren maneuvered around her. Two passes later, Lauren’s team scored, and Lauren raised her hands.

Jim wanted Teunis to say something. One single, sympathetic word. Anything to give him an excuse to grab the back of Teunis’s head with one hand and punch him in the mouth with the other. But nothing. For once the dentist was quiet. Like Jim wasn’t even there. Strange, wasn’t it? Oh, but then Jim remembered: Teunis was an orthodontist! A pillar of the community! With a diploma on the wall in a wooden frame! He was much too important to talk to a mere assistant systems manager like Jim.

He wondered if Teunis still really thought he’d win either way. Or maybe, now that his daughter had just executed one of the most skillful moves of the day, making the club seemed just a teensy bit better than not making the club.

“That’s one of my patients,” Teunis said, gesturing vaguely toward a group of parents. “Might go say hi.”

“Oh yeah, sure.”

“Good talking to you, though. And good luck to Katie.”

“Thanks. Same to you and Lauren.”

One of his patients—likely story. Whatever. Better that Teunis was gone, and Jim could focus on Katie without any distractions. Because he needed to turn something over in his head: How could she have let that little brat beat her to the ball? And during the most important tryout of her life?

No one had beaten Jim to a fifty-fifty ball. Ever. He wasn’t the fastest guy on his team, not by a long shot. On training runs, lots of guys left him in the dust. But put a ball on the turf, halfway between him and another player, and no one got to it quicker. Because winning a fifty-fifty ball wasn’t about speed or natural ability. It was about desire.

He remembered when he tried out for his college team as a walk-on. Every game he’d played up to that point, every practice, every lonely afternoon he’d spent honing his skills, all the way back to when he was a kid, had led to that moment. He knew he didn’t have the skills of the scholarship players. But he had more fire than any of them. And if he hadn’t grabbed a quick beer with some friends the night before the tryout, to calm his nerves, and then another, and two or three more, and gone back to their dorm to watch cable, and stumbled onto an old Clint Eastwood western, and drank a shot every time someone got blown away, and passed out, and woke up a few hours later and vomited, and passed out again, and finally shown up at the tryout fifteen minutes late, there’s no question that his dream would have come true, and maybe a lot of other things in his life would have turned out differently as well.

So that probably wasn’t the best example. But it didn’t matter. Katie would make the club. She had to. She might even end up being better than he was! See, look at that beautiful pass. She put that lousy play with Lauren right out of her head—just like he taught her.

And there were so many other lessons he still had to offer. Headers and corner kicks and how to use your body against bigger players. That was the beauty of soccer: It was something they’d always be able to do together. Something he was good at and actually knew something about. Because let’s face it, there weren’t many activities he could put on that list.

If she made the team, she’d have two practices a week, sometimes three. And games on the weekends, even during the winter. He’d go to all of them, if Tricia let him. He didn’t mind how far he had to drive her. The farther away, the better. He’d take her to every one.

But if she got cut, fast-forward a few years. She’s thirteen. She looks the way thirteen-year-old girls look. What would they talk about? How excited would she be to stay over at her dad’s crappy one-bedroom apartment on a Saturday night?

The whistle blew, and action stopped. Was it over already? Jim checked his phone. That wasn’t fair! They still had five more—

But no—the coach pointed at two girls on Katie’s team and motioned them toward the goal. Then she waved Katie and the other fullback toward midfield, to take their places.

Jim stood up, too nervous to sit. Katie had one last chance to prove she belonged on the club. So what if, so far, she’d just been average? The end was what mattered, when the game was on the line. This was when the great players rose to the top.

“I knew she’d come through,” the coach would tell him later, in bed. “I just had a feeling.”

Katie’s opportunity came quickly. The pass was right where Jim wanted it, a perfect cross from the left wing. Katie sprinted toward it. There were no defenders between her and the goal. The keeper charged, but not quickly enough. Katie would get to the ball first.

The muscles in Jim’s legs tightened involuntarily; his breathing quickened. His body knew exactly what Katie needed to do. Just a light touch with her left foot—not too much force, or she’d lose control—just enough to sidestep the keeper, and she’d have a wide open net.

Katie reached the ball; the keeper was almost on top of her. Jim’s left foot tensed. In his mind he could feel the instep of his loafer connecting with the ball, and willed Katie to do the same thing.

She planted her right foot and kicked—too hard.

The ball scooted away. She gave chase, but a defender beat her to it easily. Within moments, the ball was across midfield.

Katie slumped her shoulders and pawed at the turf with her cleat. Jim didn’t want to look at her. He focused on the other end of the field, where girls were hustling and using their skills and making their parents proud. Parents who already had more money than he did, better jobs than he did, nicer houses than he did—and now, to top it all off, daughters who were better at soccer.

Katie got the ball again and made a nice run down the sideline, and for a second he thought she might—

Never mind. He didn’t care anymore.

The coach blew her whistle, this time for good, and gathered the girls around her for a final word before she posted the team list online tomorrow morning. She’d be telling them they were all winners for playing their hardest, or some other lie.

Three claps, and the girls broke their huddle and made their way to the sidelines. Most swooped up their backpack, waved goodbye to their friends and collected hugs from their parents. Teunis draped his arm around Lauren’s shoulders, pointing to the spot on the field where she had dribbled around Katie.

Katie hadn’t moved from her backpack. She picked up her water bottle and drank until it was empty, shaking it to get the last few drops. Then she put it in her pack and slowly zipped it up.

She knew, Jim thought.

She tried to sling the backpack over her shoulder, but it slid off. Rather than try again, she dragged it alongside her as she walked toward him.

Jim forced a smile. “Hey.”

She definitely knew. She tried once more to lift the backpack, but he took it from her and slung it over his own shoulder.

“I should have scored that time.”

“You played great.”

“Not really.”

“Listen to me. You were great.”

She hung her head. He put his hand under her chin and lifted it. An eight-year-old version of Tricia looked back at him. The hazel eyes, the delicate nose, the shape of her chin. He tried to find one feature in her face that came from him. Nothing.

He dropped the backpack, put his arms around her waist and lifted her so her head rested on his shoulder. She was heavier than he remembered, and he had to take a step back to balance himself.

“Dad,” she said. “Stop.”

All around him, fathers were walking away with their girls. They’d drive their daughters home, and it would be their home, too. They’d have a family dinner, check their daughters’ homework, kiss them goodnight, tuck them in. They’d be there whenever their daughters needed them, for praise or comfort, throughout the season, and the next year, and the next year. Even if it weren’t an alternate weekend.

But in houses like Katie’s, someone else would fill that role. Because the mothers wouldn’t stay single forever. Mothers like Tricia, who, let’s be honest, were out of Jim’s league to begin with—they’d find someone else.

And where would that leave Jim?

Katie pulled her head away from his shoulder and stretched her legs toward the ground. Her toes didn’t quite touch. “I’m tired,” she said. “Can we go?”

Jim closed his eyes and squeezed her. One more minute. That’s all he wanted. Until he let go, the tryout wasn’t really over. She still had a chance. He still had a chance. Everything could still work out the way he planned. Just one more—

“Dad,” she said. “Dad, please.”

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