It’s pretty hard for any athlete to point to a specific date to explain how and when they fell in love with the sport that at some point in their life defined them as a person. And to be honest, I’m no different.
But there are those ‘Flashback Moments’ that have certainly had a huge impact on how you remember yourself and more importantly, the game.
My initial memories of playing soccer go back to the 11th Street AYSO fields in Upland, California.
See, I had never played organized soccer before my mom got remarried in 1983. It was my new Stepdad Roger who first came up with the idea that I should be signed up to play on a team based on me kicking the ball back and forth with him in the front yard. At six years old I was marched up to the registration tables, told I’d be placed on a team called the Upland Lightning Bolts and was handed a Yellow / White jersey with Yellow shorts and White Socks.
I can vividly remember looking down at my cleats a few hours later, right before the Referee blew his whistle. With the White boots on my feet, I felt a tinge of nervousness. All of the parents were over to our left and were staring at all of us little kids between those white lines, not really knowing what was about to happen. And on top of that, you could feel a weirdly competitive vibe coming from the sidelines amongst the adults to see who’s kid was about to shine. But the whistle blew and the havoc ensued. I don’t remember a single thing about the rest of the year outside of brief memories of camaraderie with the other kids on my team as we sat around, getting ready to warm up for the game.
After two years of playing AYSO, my parents were told I was ‘good enough’ to play competitive travel soccer and was invited to try out for a team started by a gruff Scotsman that very few people could understand, named the Upland Celtic (based on the legendary Glasgow Celtic side). And this where my second significant soccer memory happens. The sight of a beat up VW Bus pulling up outside the metal fences of Pioneer Junior High and a Dutch / American Golden God getting out with business in the front and a party in the back haircut comes swaggering up to us group of kids.
His name was Cle Kooiman he would tell us. And he had the mothers swooning….
At the time, Cujo was a vagabond defender who had grown up in Southern California and was constantly looking for a game anywhere within driving distance. Whether it was indoor or outdoor, it didn’t matter. Cle was a student of the game, with the heart and brut force of a lion who would go on to start the first match of the 1994 World Cup in Detroit for the US Mens National Team at right back against Switzerland.
But this was 1985ish and there would be trips to Europe in our futures over the next four years together as a team as well as winning multiple State Cup Championships under the tutelage of our coach. Our time as a team would come to an end, but the memories and influence would last forever.
And those foundations laid in the early years of the game would pave the way for some incredible opportunities throughout the course of my soccer playing career, including actually playing against Cle in Major League Soccer when he played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and I was playing for the New England Revolution.
Fast forward to present day, every chance that I have now to get out and knock the ball around with my kids, the smell of the freshly cut grass and the sound of the ball being passed around takes me back instantly to where it all started. Hell, I even walk around the house with a ball at my feet while driving my wife crazy because I need the feeling of the ball at my feet as often as possible.
Some things never change, including the memories of where I first fell in love with the game over at the AYSO Fields in Upland, California.