When your daughter dreams of playing in the Women’s World Cup, life as a soccer dad can get intense
Eager to give his daughter every edge to match her work ethic, Mark Cantor eventually found his way to the late Rolly Magallanes of Silver Spring, whom Cantor would recommend to me years later for private lessons for Angie. A drill sergeant of a coach who barked out commands—“A little harder on that shot!…We need more concentration!”—Magallanes loathed a modern soccer culture in which everyone who can afford to pay can play. He required players to try out in order to prove they were worthy of his semiprivate $50-an-hour lessons, and Jenna, who was transforming physically by her midteens, made the cut.
“That changed everything for Jenna,” Cantor says. “Puberty is a big equalizer, especially for girls. A lot of the 11-year-old superstars begin to slow down because puberty affects every girl differently. Then you had Rolly, who just whipped her into shape, and she became rocket fast. Her friends started calling her ‘JJ,’ for ‘Jenna Jet.’ ”
Cantor’s advice to be patient and not read too much into my 10-year-old’s success or failure is echoed by others who have clawed their way to college soccer, or even the pros. Purce, who now plays for the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, recalls “too many low points to possibly pinpoint one” on her way to a four-year career as a starter at Harvard. Joanna Lohman says that “being the player who starts every game and plays every minute is valuable, but so is being the player who never sees the field. You can gain something from any experience; it just depends on how you look at it.”
What matters most, top players say, is not which club a girl plays for in this county—Bethesda, Potomac, Damascus, Maryland Rush or so many others—it’s who she plays for: her coach, her teammates and herself. Family support helps, but no amount of enticements, candy bars or otherwise, will eventually matter. Coaches and players say enjoying the practices, games and tournaments is still the most important outcome. But, as Andi Sullivan says, “If you want to make it in soccer, you better think running is fun.”
For my daughter and her teammates on her Potomac travel team, Thursdays test that theory. By 6:55 p.m. on an April evening, they’ve already been practicing for nearly 90 minutes. “Line up in 15 seconds,” says coach Jason Travis, a retired Army sergeant. Some of the girls groan because they know what’s coming: wind-sprint drills Travis calls “Uniteds”—named for a famous men’s team in Britain—that require the girls to run to the center of the field and back to the 18-yard line in 15 seconds or less.
Each girl finishes in the allotted time for the first four sprints. On the fifth, Travis counts the time in ascending volume—“13…14…15”—and two players miss the mark. “We need another one,” he says. More girls groan, this time hanging their heads. The sixth time, several other players are unable to finish in 15 seconds, and two of the girls begin to cry. When certain parents edge closer to the sideline, the coach seems to get the message.
“Who can tell me why we run?” Travis asks as he walks off the field with his red-faced players.
“Because when we’re tired against Arlington, we’ll make bad decisions,” Katelin says.
“That’s right!” the coach says. “Great job tonight, ladies. Now get some rest.”
After Driving about 1,000 hours each year for practices, private lessons and tournaments across the U.S. and even Europe, Jenna and her dad had developed a private language of hand signals that allowed him to convey information from the sidelines to the field. They had one signal for running faster, another for moving to the middle of the field. The two-fingered victory sign meant that a college scout was in attendance. During his daughter’s junior season at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Cantor says he began to feel more like a sports agent than a father.
“College recruiting is kind of like dating,” he says. “Sometimes things are hot, and sometimes it’s cold. Coaches can be hot on you for a while, and the next thing you know you don’t hear from them again.”
In the end, Jenna spurned dozens of Division I scholarship offers and signed with Cornell University—which as an Ivy League school doesn’t offer athletic scholarships—only to soon find out that the coach who recruited her had taken a job elsewhere. After more than 10 years with soccer as the main focus of her life, freshman year taught her an unexpected lesson: College soccer felt like a job she didn’t love. That May, a growing pit in her stomach stuck with her for the six-hour drive south from Ithaca, New York, to her family’s driveway. Instead of kicking thousands of shots into the well-worn plywood goal in her Potomac backyard that summer, she agonized day after day about her future. Conversations with her parents were often tearful. “It was a massive, massive decision to quit,” she says. “It’s not easy. You really feel like you’re losing this core part of you, but I wasn’t even thinking about myself, honestly. I was thinking about my dad and my mom. I felt like I was letting them down in such a big way that it crushed me.”
Were there any regrets? I impulsively needed to ask this of Jenna as a knot formed in my stomach. Angie is my last athlete, and I really adore watching her play. Except for the injuries, I love all of it: the goals, wins and smiles, and even the long drives, the losses and the occasional tears. It will be profoundly sad whenever, and at whatever level, she decides to stop.
“Regrets? No. Not really,” Jenna says without hesitation. “In some ways my life began the day I quit soccer, but soccer gave me everything I have in life—my grit, my determination, my competitive spirit. Soccer is what got me into Cornell University. Cornell! And soccer gave me my best friend…my dad. I thrived because my dad was with me every step of the way. I just loved having him there. Because of soccer, we have a bond that will never be broken.”
I can only hope for so much.
Paul Tukey is a longtime journalist and photographer who serves as the chief sustainability officer at the Glenstone Museum in Potomac.