Woog’s World: The beautiful game in Westport

In the mid-1960s, most Americans thought of soccer as a foreign sport. Who kicked a ball, rather than ran with it or threw it? Englishmen, Germans, Brazilians — not Americans. If young boys were playing the game anywhere, it was in city parks, with their fathers and grandfathers.

And in Westport, Connecticut.

Albie Loeffler knew the game. A basketball and baseball coach for nearly a decade at Staples High School, in 1958 he was approached by a few students, who had played in junior high gym class. They asked him to start a soccer team.

Fortuitously that year, a Norwegian exchange student named Per Haarr was at Staples. A gifted athlete, he helped Loeffler field a squad. Over the next few years, thanks to Loeffler’s talents as a coach, they thrived.

To ensure a pipeline of players, Loeffler asked some University of Bridgeport players to coach in two new recreation leagues, for boys in grades five through nine. At the time, UB was one of the few college soccer powerhouses in the nation. That’s how Westport formed perhaps the first suburban youth soccer leagues in the country — and how I began my career in the game.

I was in fifth grade. I was not particularly talented. But I loved the free-flowing, creative nature of the sport. I kept playing, through junior high (in Westport’s pioneering interscholastic sports league) and then at Staples.

It was a magical era. I was in at the beginning of a run of five consecutive state championships — still a state record. I was not a starter, though in retrospect there’s no shame in that. Ten of the 11 starting players not only went on to play in college, they became captains.

That’s just one of the astonishing aspects of the Staples High School soccer program. There’s enough to fill a book. In fact, I wrote it: “Goals and Glory.” My history of Wreckers soccer was published in the 1990s. By that time I was an assistant coach under Loeffler’s successor, Jeff Lea.

I’d started coaching the year I graduated from Brown University. I had not expected to return to my hometown, but a job offer brought me back. I asked Loeffler how I could stay involved in the game. He suggested coaching a youth team. Soccer was just beginning to take off in the rest of the state, and Westport needed an Under-16 club team. Within a year, that squad led to the founding of the Westport Soccer Association. I was joined in that endeavor by a committed group of men and women — some with experience in the game, others with none (but a ton of enthusiasm).

The rest, as they say is history. In 2003, I was privileged to take over as Staples boys head coach when Lea retired. I was only the third permanent head coach in the Wrecker program’s history. And that’s what I was until last Friday, when after 19 years I retired from that cherished position.

It’s been a remarkable run. The opportunity to lead what Loeffler and Lea created was alluring — and intimidating. It’s one thing to try to build a program. Maintaining one is a whole other ballgame.

For nearly 20 years, I’ve had a ball. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in so many memorable matches — on both the winning and losing side. I’ve made countless friends, including parents of players and coaching competitors on the sidelines.

Most of all, I’ve shared intense experiences with a phenomenal group of teenagers. The intense highs and lows of a season — the joys and pains, the laughter and tears, the exhilaration and exhaustion — are only part of it.

A high school coach gets an intimate look at the life of a young person. It’s so much harder being a kid today than it was back in my day. My goal was to make the time we had together — training, matches, bus rides, video sessions, pasta dinners, summer bonding trips, and everything else — something special. I wanted them to set high goals, and try to reach them, sure. I wanted them to get out of their comfort zones, and exceed expectations. But I wanted them to have a ton of fun along the way.

I also wanted them to feel part of something bigger than themselves. I wanted them to realize they were members of an astonishing soccer community; a link in a chain stretching back decades, and one that — with their help — will continue for years to come.

Now it’s time for someone else to take over, and build that program even more. With a full heart, a smile on my face and tremendous appreciation, I’m handing the reins to a new generation of coaches. If they have half the fun I’ve had in this beautiful game, they may consider themselves — as I do — one of the luckiest men on earth.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.