Wednesday, February 18, 2009
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Any Given Sunday
Kicking Around with the Weston Masters Soccer Team

It’s a foggy Sunday morning in Weston, Massachusetts, and the early October air is filled with the damp chill of colder days to come. Many residents are no doubt still tucked tightly in their beds, while others make their way to church or nurse their first cup of coffee.

Bob Walmsley, 46, and his teammates, by contrast, are wide awake and discussing tactics. “Everyone stay aggressive,” he instructs, with a thick English accent. “No silly free kicks and remember to stay with your marks. Let’s get that all important early goal.”

Surrounding him are the men—many with balding heads and graying temples—who comprise the Weston Masters soccer team. There is not a bleary eye in the bunch despite the 9:00 a.m. kickoff, and each player nods affirmatively as the team captain speaks, united in their desire to take three points from their longtime rival, Wayland Wahoo.

The two sides have met repeatedly over the past four years as each squad claws its way up from the lower divisions of the New England Over-the-Hill Soccer League, which, despite its tongue-in-cheek name, offers a level of competition befitting its position as the nation’s second-largest amateur soccer league.

Every player is over 40 years old and some are over 50, but through squinted eyes on this autumn morning one could still mistake them for their high school counterparts. Players on both sides exchange chippy remarks and dole out slide tackles with regular severity. With every corner, kick players jockey for position using shoulders and elbows. Soon Weston defender Al Hellinger comes off the field with a nasty gash above his left eye, the result of a fair, but hard-fought, aerial battle.

But Weston gets what it needs: two goals within the first 20 minutes of the match. The first coming off a beautiful header by Weston’s Didier Lorence and the second from a carefully placed penalty shot by teammate Orlando Bedoya.

The Weston players use the early lead to dominate the remainder of the match and produce enough precision passing to offset Wayland’s physical play en route to preserving the 2-0 win. It’s the third victory in five games for Weston during their inaugural season in the league’s fourth division, a promotion the team earned for winning the fifth division the previous spring.

The running joke is that it’s a good week for the “old lunatics” when no one gets seriously injured. But the self-deprecation proves only so effective.

Type-A for Effort
One look up and down the sideline and it’s clear that no Weston player approaches their weekly fixtures with the nonchalance of a pickup game. No one wants to move down a division—the penalty for finishing in the bottom two of their six-team grouping—and everyone has their eyes on a third consecutive division championship and the promotion that comes with it.

Most of all, nobody wants to let down their teammates.

“The games are physical enough that you have a sense of camaraderie, a sense of going into battle with your teammates. You know they’re going to work as hard for you as you are for them,” says assistant captain Tom Bator, whose team plays home games at Weston Middle School.

It’s why Hellinger returned to the Wayland match after patching up the cut on his forehead. And why Walmsley (in all likelihood against the wishes of both his doctor and his wife) played in two matches later in the season with the flu. In between applications of eucalyptus balm, however, he still managed to shout encouragement like a British field marshal to his troops.

Walmsley grew up in Liverpool rooting for the tough and talented Reds teams of the 1970s. He took over the Weston captaincy approximately two years ago from team founder Ned Pendergast, who placed the squad on its current path to success and who now serves on the board of directors of the New England Over-the-Hill Soccer League.

Not surprisingly, the team’s recent run can be attributed to a style of soccer that’s more English than continental. “Rather than letting the opposing side play around with the ball, we try to press people quickly and force them into mistakes, which then gives us opportunities to counter attack,” says Walmsley.

This direct style of play, punctuated by quick, accurate passes and the natural rhythm that develops from their use, can wear down and eventually overpower finesse teams, according to Mark Williamson, another transplanted Brit who plays for the Weston squad.

Many feel that the team’s style of play and its competitive edge comes from the type-A personalities on the squad. The team certainly has its fair share of lawyer-CEO-managing partner types, those who know a thing or two about getting ahead in the boardroom and on the pitch. “Let’s face it,” says Williamson. “Weston is an affluent town, so some opposing teams might think we’re soft. But, really, we’re just the opposite. We’re a pretty tough, physical bunch.”

 

Starting from Scratch
The six players who’ve been with the team since its inception, however, remember a time when Weston wasn’t so tough—or at least wasn’t so good.

Weston won only one game during its inaugural season in the spring of 2005. Like all newcomers, the squad entered the league in the lowest division and promotion seemed a long, long way off.

“It was interesting to say the least,” says Charlie Freeman, 50, who left a first division team that spring to play for his hometown side. “Most players on the team weren’t in shape. I remember when I started playing soccer again in my early 40s and my legs were shaking. So I could see that we had a bunch of really good guys who were trying hard, but we weren’t playing at a level where we could advance.”

Pendergast had also played in the league’s top division, but founded the squad because he was tired of traveling to his team’s home games and saw an opportunity to create something special in Weston. That first season the majority of the Weston roster had only played soccer in high school—and that more than 20 years ago. Others were drawn from the coaching ranks of the Weston youth soccer league. “It was seen as a way to improve our soccer skills and become better coaches to our children,” says Freeman.

That fall, the Weston players won three games, but finished the season with an even worse goal differential (-11 compared to -7). In total, the squad won only five of their first 30 league games.

“If you’re a good player, you don’t want to tell people that you’re playing in the seventh division,” explains Pendergast. “But we started to slowly get a few more players who liked playing for their town team and as our level of play improved it made it more attractive to join the team.”

In fall 2006, Weston finally reached what Freeman calls a “critical mass,” a set of six to seven players who knew what they were doing tactically on the field, which led to a surprising first place finish and a promotion to the sixth division.

An injury-prone spring season saw them relegated again, but the scales had already tipped in their favor as skilled players who lived in Weston now sought out the squad. Today, 24 of the 29 players on the Weston roster live in town—one of the highest residence rates in the league.

Many newcomers played in college or started on first division sides previously. One, Didier Lorence, had even been on the French under-16 side when he was a teenager.

Elephant in the Room
Of course, the question remains why men over 40 feel the need to test themselves in such a grueling way. The games are a full 90 minutes and the ten-game fall campaign begins in the late summer heat and ends in the autumn chill—with playoff games continuing for an extra two weeks for those teams that continue to win.

“Honestly, I just thought it would be fun to get back in it. And that’s five seasons and two and a half years ago,” says goalie David Ott, 42, who played soccer on the Weston High School team as a teenager.

“In my first game in goal, I was doing the math and it was surreal because I had not played that position in 27 years. I still know how to play goal, but it’s funny: My brain works efficiently, but my body is a lot slower to respond.”

“My wife thought I was nuts,” explains Chris Lemley, 40. “But my kids were getting into soccer and it made me want to play again. It’s not any crazier than the basketball league I’m in.”

There’s a certain something about playing team sports during an era when professional athletes often extend their careers into their early 40s—with the forever young Julio Franco playing in the major leagues until he was 49.

“I heard team sports extend your lifespan by ten years,” says Charlie Freeman. “It gives you a more youthful perspective—even though I find it difficult to play the way I want to. I can’t compete like I did at age 20 and if I don’t work out several times during the week it’s hard to play the way I did at age 45.”

But season after season players return to the Weston squad—mainly because they’re having too good a time to hang up their cleats.

“The games are a nice part of the week that everyone looks forward to,” says Tom Bator. “I keep coming back because it’s fun to compete and the team is comprised of a nice group of people.”

Besides regular Thursday practices, the players gather at the local pub several Friday nights during the season and team captain Bob Walmsley hosts some extracurriculars at his home as well. Then there are the weekly barbeques in the parking lot after the game, usually put on by teammate Dave Connor.

“Depending upon the week, it could be lamb kebobs, marinated shrimp, or lobster tails. It’s quite a spread,” laughs Freeman. “It’s truly a guy’s time. But you’re done by early afternoon and back home with your family.”

Finishing Touch
After Weston lost their first game in the fourth division to Peabody Sporting Club, many players wondered aloud if they had finally reached their “level of incompetence,” the point at which they couldn’t progress to a higher division.

Wins against DC Smithwicks of Melrose and a side from Nashua, New Hampshire, were tempered by a loss to Sudbury in the fourth week of the season.

But the victory against Wayland a week later was the first of four consecutive wins that saw Weston rise to the top of the table. “We make up for any lack of skill with our work rate,” explains Bob Walmsley, who constantly tries to place his team in a position to win against sides with younger players.

The team’s quick counter attacks and constant pressure on opposing sides began to work in their favor as the season progressed. “We know each other very well, because we’ve kept the same team together for a number of seasons,” continues Walmsley. “We get this rhythm going and we know where our teammates are going to be on the field.”

On the sidelines, the team’s success brought back memories of past glory days for Carol Ott, the mother of the team’s goalie, who used to watch a couple of the Weston players as teenagers. “I gasp a little more when they go down after a collision than I did when they were in high school,” she says. “But it’s remarkable that they’re out there. They play with the same intensity, the same desire.”

In the end, it was this dogged commitment—rarely leaving a man unmarked or letting a second half goal slip by—that pushed Weston over the top. Weston tied Sudbury, 2-2, in their return match last November 2nd and then earned a late goal to beat Wayland a second time in the final game of the season.

A collective sigh of relief rippled through the Weston squad after the goal, secure in the knowledge that they would win the division and be promoted for the third time in as many tries.

Says Tom Bator: “We leave it all out there on the field.”

Now it’s just a matter of taking it to the next level.

Fitness First

 

 

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