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Silhouette of a child playing soccer
Daniel Munoz/AFP via Getty Images

My two kids play in a fairly rinkydink local boys-and-girls youth soccer league. This is unmistakably small-time stuff: six teams, once-weekly hour-long practices, hilariously broad age ranges that, at the eldest level, put 11-year-olds out there against high-school freshmen moonlighting away from their J.V. teams (like, uh, my eldest). Half of the games are on artificial-turf football fields; the other half take place on a crabgrassed public park lawn roughly as pockmarked and un-level as the surface of the moon. This is deeply unserious soccer, but of course it doesn't feel that way to them.

They've been working their way up through the age groupings since 2017, when they were Small and Very Small, respectively; one of the first things we did upon moving out to our preposterous woodland hermitage was to sign them up for this low-pressure league, so that they could have fun and make friends and learn teamwork and so forth. We've never been among the parents who monkey with their children's league registration for the purpose of stacking juggernaut rosters, so my guys routinely end up on the sad-sack team making do with the newcomers and the other kids whose parents aren't psychos. They've been on multiple dogmeat teams that never won a game, but they've also lucked into some decent teams that scored goals and won now and again. One spring, my eldest had aged up beyond a threshold, so they couldn't be in the same age-division; he wound up on his age-level's stinker team, and his little brother lucked into the lower level's unstoppable monstrosity. Other than that, they've always been on the same team, and those teams usually have been bad.

A couple of years ago this approach yielded its worst and best results: My guys wound up assigned to a team so bereft it didn't even have a coach until the day of the first practice. By the third week or so a handful of kids had quit (I guess 0-5 losses aren't for everybody), so they had to play the rest of the season without being able to make substitutions, sometimes against teams with two whole lineups' worth of players, virtually all better and more experienced than anybody on our team. Not only did they lose every regular-season game, they never scored a regular-season goal. They may not have even mustered a shot on target through all 10 games, now that I think about it.

I hope never to forget my kids' steady good cheer and humble optimism throughout that lost and frequently humiliating season, and how much I admired and loved them for it. They never asked to quit or whined about having to go to practice or got sour and dejected out on the field during one-sided losses; they even cheerfully attended voluntary extra practices organized by a motivated mom infinitely more capable than their overwhelmed coach. They went into each next game knowing they'd probably lose, but also ready to try their hardest not to. They were heroes.

Watching your kid(s) lose and lose and lose on a hopeless sports team is no serious hardship. All the same, it's a painful thing to bear. Losing and failure happen in life and are fine and even beneficial in measured doses, but nobody wants their children to feel doomed, to be punching bags, to be discouraged, to be cornered into drawing a conclusion about themselves based on the fact that they always, always lose. Moreover nobody wants to sit on a bleacher and watch, unable to help, as their kids feel whatever getting flattened and brushed aside makes them feel. That my kids just kept on having fun through that season, kept competing, kept accepting the smaller victories ("We only lost by three today!") in lieu of the impossible-seeming larger ones, felt like a miracle. All the credit goes to them.

Then came the single-day end-of-season tournament. They went down 0-1 in the first half of their first-round game against a team with a gigantic mustachioed teenage bully on it who looked more like a parent than a player, and that certainly seemed like it would be, well, that—one goal, after all, is one more goal than our team had scored all season. But a weird bounce put one of their teammates on the run toward the opposing goal with a couple of defenders on either side of him, and he toe-balled that sucker with all his might, and it zipped straight into the back of the net. The game went to penalties, and was still tied after each team had attempted five. The opposing team's guy missed, and then one of our team's little guys stepped up and fired his into the top corner, and the scream I let out just then is still echoing through deep space two years later.

No moment in any sporting event has ever made me one one-hundredth as happy as that, watching my guys jump around and hug each other and mob the little goofus who'd scored the winner, seeing all the kids who'd stuck it out through that ridiculous travesty of a season finally, finally get to feel like heroes. I don't remember what happened in the next round, against the league's top team; they lost but I don't remember the score. We all celebrated like they'd conquered the world and levitated through the entire rest of that month.

Anyway that was a couple of years ago. Everything is a little more fraught and complicated these days: They're both official teens now, with the hormones and individuating zeal that implies. Each strains against the other like the fabric of an undersized sweater. The older one wants his grownupedness acknowledged; the younger wants out from his big brother's imperious shadow. They get along mostly, but only mostly, and there can be days-long stretches of crescendoing chestiness and bickering between them; I get annoyed at them because it's more comfortable than the deeper grief.

This season they once again wound up on the rinkydink league's team of leftovers, but by now my guys have played enough soccer that they themselves could do more to make it competitive. The elder is a freshman J.V. player, after all; he sticks out like a sore thumb in this league even if he's still not bigger than most of the other kids. The younger is a little less glaringly out of place here, but he's a heady defensive midfielder and a ferocious competitor, not least because he has his big brother to live up to. Still, most of the kids on the team had little-to-no experience; when they played the juggernaut teams, the juggernaut teams rolled them.

Yesterday, Saturday, was the end-of-season tournament. Once again, their first game went to penalties, and once again they won it; this time, my guys were their team's first two takers, and both of them coolly delivered. (A fun little coincidence is that the team they beat had the same name and jersey color as two years ago, as if to make me all the more aware of the differences.) Once again, this put them up against the tournament's top seed in the second round. I gave them a fighting chance in this one—they'd played this team close only a few weeks earlier—but we all knew it'd be a shocking upset if they advanced.

My guys were visibly gassed by midway through the second half; the elder hadn't been subbed out once all day, and the younger had only had one short rest in each game, because the team couldn't stay afloat without them. This round was getting away from them; it was all their team could do to clear the ball away from the front of their own goal. At 0-2 they still seemed in it, and then the other team's second-best player drilled an incredible 20-yarder to the absolute top-left corner and we adults, at least, had to acknowledge that one of these teams was just a lot better than the other, and was going to win.

But my guys kept flying around like fanatics, with increasing desperation, even as you could see the pain and exhaustion on their faces. I admired it, mostly, except when one of them gave a kind of excessive hard foul that annoyed some of the other team's parents. At 0-4 and 0-5 and right up to the final horn they were sprinting and fighting like the game could still be won; and at the horn they both reacted with visible devastation, like they'd lost a game they should have won, or had had victory snatched from them at the last second. It was kind of strange, even! This was very different from the good cheer with which they'd accepted defeat two seasons ago. Were they disappointed? Had they expected to win the championship?

Walking across the field to where we waited for them, my eldest had his eyes averted, downward; his chest and shoulders were all folded up. The younger's lips were pursed. They were both on the verge of tears. When I reached to give the elder a hug—he was closer—he muttered, "That was it," in a very small voice and buried his face in my shoulder. And then it occurred to me what I'd forgotten, what I hadn't thought about in weeks but what they'd both remembered all too well all through the second half of that game:

This was the last time they'd ever be able to play together in this rinkydink little league.

The older one will be too old by the time registrations open for the spring season. This was it. If they ever play together again it'll be on the high-school team, vastly different and more pressurized circumstances, more grown-up and not at all guaranteed; the younger will have to try out for the right to play soccer with his big brother, and somebody might tell him he can't. It won't ever be like this again, fun and silly and not truly serious. They won't ever be like the kids they were in this league, ever again.

Most of the milestones are kinda made up. Turning 16, for example, doesn't really mean much of anything beyond the driving privileges it gains you. Here was a real and unmistakable one, a legitimate end of an era, a moment of Growing Up so solidly crystallized that they themselves felt it whooshing by their faces, too fast to grab onto and hold. That's what they'd been sprinting after, out there, past exhaustion and any real hope, for every moment that they could. Another game would have meant, well, one more game.

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