Field Days | Page 4 of 6

Field Days

When your daughter dreams of playing in the Women’s World Cup, life as a soccer dad can get intense

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Jenna Cantor and her dad, Mark, in front of the well-worn plywood goal in their Potomac backyard. Mark constructed the goal for his daughter when she was 12. Photo courtesy of Paul Tukey.

On the way to practices and games four or five days a week, Angie and Katelin are silly fifth graders who sit in the back seat and gossip about their classmates and teachers. I often jokingly plug my ears when they belt out, at the top of their lungs, the theme songs to more television commercials than little girls ought to know by heart. During an evening drive this spring, while they were singing, I interrupted them to share a new rumor.

“Bethesda is starting an elite U12 girls team next year,” I said. “Would you want to try out?” The response was total silence. “You know that Andi Sullivan played at Bethesda, right?” Not a peep. “And Bethesda is the only club in this area that places teams in the ECNL, which stands for Elite Clubs National League. It’s where the most colleges are likely to be scouting. It could be good for you.”

I glanced into the rearview mirror and saw fear in their faces. “It would be totally up to you.”

“Wait, what?” Katelin asked. “Would coach Jason come with us?” Angie wondered.

“Would they take both of us?” Katelin asked.

“You’d have to see,” I said. Later that evening, long after I had tucked Angie into bed, she came into our room and nestled between me and my wife. “I want to get better, but I just really love playing with Katelin, so it’s a hard decision,” she said softly. “Can I stay at Potomac for now?”

“Are you kidding?” I asked, trying to lighten the moment. “Coach Jason would kill me if I take you off his team.”

Jenna Cantor says she was so nervous at her first big club tryout that she could barely breathe. Thirteen years ago, the Bethesda Soccer Club’s “A” squad, known as the Freedom, was the only elite travel soccer team in Montgomery County for girls, and more than 100 candidates were vying for two open spots. The more the preteens passed, dribbled and shot, the more Jenna doubted her ability to keep up with the girls who’d been playing together for years. After a water break, Mark Cantor silently put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder, then nudged her onto the field. “You got this,” he said.

A few days later, Jenna received the phone call she’d been dreading, but the result wasn’t what she expected. She’d made the team. But she spent the next two seasons mostly on the bench during games. The sting of those memories is still vivid now.

“A lot of these girls at Bethesda were taught these crazy skills at age 5, 6 or 7, and I was definitely intimidated by them because I knew I wasn’t as good,” she says. “I was skinny and scrawny, with no skills. But the thing is, my dad was chill about it. He always stayed positive. …He had more confidence in me than I had in myself.”

As a father who has emailed the Potomac Soccer Association’s administrators to discuss everything from what team my daughter should play for to why a certain coach wasn’t trying harder to win, Jenna’s last point struck me. Chill? Not me, if I’m being honest. The day I was kicked off a soccer field by a referee in McLean, Virginia, for arguing about why he wasn’t calling pushing fouls on 8-year-olds flashed before my eyes.

I called Laurie Lane, executive director of the Potomac Soccer Association, in February to set up a face-to-face interview for this story. Knowing that she spends much of her day fielding calls and emails from people like me, I figured I might get an earful.

“I do think parents can take the joy out of it,” she says bluntly, but with a smile, as I squirm in my chair. “I think if you are standing on the sidelines screaming at the ref, screaming at the coach, emailing the club constantly, always bitching about something, you are going to take the joy out of it. That is just the fact. And if every single time your kid gets in the car you are bitching at them about what they did or didn’t do, you should only be saying, ‘Hey, I really enjoyed watching you play today.’ Your kids want you to love them unconditionally,
that’s it.”

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