The moment was intense. A 0-0 tie in regulation had sent the game into overtime. Now, the Dallas Texans and the Dallas Comets, two first-division rivals in the Classic League, were fighting for control of the ball in the quarter final match of the biggest and most important youth soccer tournament in America: The Dallas Cup. Hundreds of spectators and parents were alternately praying and screaming on the sideline, imploring their players to attack and keep attacking. The fate of which team would advance to the semi-finals hinged on who would score the golden goal in sudden death. The soccer gods, as it turned out, favored the underdogs. A Comet striker, while falling on his back, got just enough toe on the ball to cross it to a teammate burning a path toward the goal. The run distracted the Texans keeper, who had come charging out to thwart the attack. The ball squiggled under his outstretched hands into the left corner of the net. The Comets went crazy. The players and even their coach, Horst Bertl, sprinted across the field and were swept up by a wave of Comets parents and supporters rushing toward them. They hoisted the coach on their shoulders and carried him around the field as if his U-12 team had just won the World Cup. It was a storybook ending for a Comets team that wasnt even scheduled to play in the Cup, let alone defeat a nationally ranked team thats won 33 of their last 34 games in the Classic League.
It was one of those rare moments that doesnt happen very often, says Coach Bertl. Competition at the Dallas Cup is getting tougher and tougher each year. And with so many international powerhouses playing in the Cup, its awfully hard for a local team to even make it out of their bracket. For our 90s to have gotten into the semi-finals is a huge achievement. I told the boys to cherish it.
Indeed, out of all the American teams in the U-12 division, only the Comets and the Houstonians made it into the Cups semi-finals. The Comets lost 4-2 to Costa Ricas preeminent youth team, LD Alajuelense; the Houstonians lost 3-0 to CF Monterrey, one of Mexicos mightiest clubs.
But as much as Coach Bertl appreciates the teams success, he contends the most meaningful and lasting value of playing in the Dallas Cup is simply to relish and enjoy the extraordinary privilege of being there. To participate in the Dallas Cup, he says, is to enter the absolutely magical world of soccer - a world filled with international flavor, diversity, national pride and a fiery passion for the game itself. Anyone who plays in the Dallas Cup, he says, experiences the very best that soccer has to offer.
Youre hope is that the kids taste it, enjoy it and want to taste it again, says Coach Bertl. If they do, it will fuel their passion for the game and motivate them to be juggling the ball in their backyards long after the Cup is over. Sure, championships are nice. But if you can endear them to the game of soccer, then youve truly accomplished something.
Judging by the U-12s spirited practice sessions following the international soccer festival, Coach Bertls hopes have been realized. The players are scrimmaging with fire in their bellies right now as one parent put it. Strikers and midfielders seem to be attacking harder and defenders are begrudgingly giving up ground, thumping and bumping anyone in their path.
As one sweaty player explained after a particularly spunky scrimmage, It was like the whole excitement of the tournament got into my blood. I was pumped up from the moment we played our first game to our last. Added another: Im still pumped up. It was so much fun I wish it could have gone on forever.
Of course, ever since he sprinted across the field, nearly pulling a hamstring, the Comets usually taciturn leader has been pumped up, too. Ya, I was swept up in the emotion of the whole thing, just like the boys, concedes Coach Bertl, a bit sheepish to discuss his exuberant display of emotion. Comets parents, however, found it inspiring. To see a 55-year-old man jump up and down and sprint across the field with his 12-year olds says a lot about the mans passion, says Mark Miller, parent of a Comets midfielder. And the beauty of it is that it shows the boys in dramatic fashion his deep love and devotion for the game. You can be sure they wont ever forget that.
According to Coach Bertls book of wisdom, whatever it takes to impart passion in players is worth the effort, including a pulled hamstring. Ever since he assembled the team a year and a half ago, his mantra has been the same: the most important thing any coach or parent can do for a player is instill in them a deep-seated love for soccer. In his book, nothing is more important. Passion is a strong force, which channeled correctly can propel someone to great achievements, he recently wrote in a missive to Comets parents. I know, because I experienced it. (His experience encompassed a long and distinguished professional career as a striker and midfielder in the world-renowned German Bundesliga, and the North American Soccer League, the precursor to MLS).
The lessons Horst Bertl says he learned as a player went far beyond simply knowing how to play the game. I learned to respect the opponent, your teammates, the referee, your coach and the game itself. Its called sportsmanship and it was a high priority with me. Of course, Im a competitor and I dont like losing. I wouldnt have had a 16-year career as a professional soccer player without being competitive. However, it was important that I learned the discipline, the respect and the passion when I was young because it enabled me to deal appropriately with the intense and unforgiving environment I experienced at the professional level. It helped to keep tough competition and its outcome in perspective.
Coach Bertls philosophy may help explain why he was so low-keyed before the start of such a critical game against a mighty opponent. While the Texans spent an hour sweating through intense drills and other pre-game preparations, Horst arrived 20 minutes before the game with his Lazy-Boy foldout chair wrapped under his arm. And while his lads casually warmed up on their own, Coach Bertl clowned around with the Comets parents - playing kickball and cracking jokes.
He makes every game - big or small - just another fun time for the boys, says Bruce Witter, a Comets parent who participated in the pre-game frolic. If you want to learn something about sports psychology, study Horst.
This may help explain why one of Coach Bertls proudest moments in the Dallas Cup was watching Comets players and parents roundly applaud the Texans as they walked dejectedly off the field after the game. The Texans are a great team and they played hard, very hard. The boys simply showed them the respect they deserve. That makes me happy because thats what good sportsmanship is all about and thats what good soccer is all about. Lets hope they keep learning.
By George Getschow, Author and Proud Parent.
Originally printed in the May 2002 issue of North Texas Soccer PITCH.
Reprinted on the Dallas Cup website with the permission of George Getschow