Soccer / Sports

Age is no obstacle for these over-50 national soccer champs

Reaching into his athletic bag, Scott Thompson grabbed a well-worn soccer shoe.

"I guess it's time for a new pair," the 56-year-old said, estimating that the shoes are 10 or 12 years old. "I didn't think I'd play this long."

Thompson already had taken a wrap out of the bag, offering it to 58-year-old Jerry Osborne to support his recovering hamstring.

"Look at that bag -- there's not an injury that couldn't be taken care of," Osborne said.

Is he a doctor? No, Thompson said, he's in software. He's also part of a national-championship team. Last month, the Radnor United Soccer Club traveled to Virginia Beach, Va., and won the over-50 United States Adult Soccer Association Veterans Cup title.

It's a clue, by the way, that you have passed a certain threshold in your athletic career when they start listing your age category by over instead of under. During a recent evening workout at Radnor High, Thompson looked around at his teammates: "We've been playing either with or against each other for 20-something years, maybe 30 years."

They play around with their veteran status. Their player-coach, Dick Fenimore, likes to tell them, "You start slow -- and then you ease off."

What hurts the most? "Ego," one guy said as he laced up his shoes.

The roster includes plenty of reserves. For their next tournament, everyone was asking who could make it.

"It's really who can get passes from their wives," said Howard Greenberg, an elder statesman, an over-60, who is on the extended disabled list. "I got my hip replaced eight weeks ago. ... I went to two doctors, and they said: 'You're bone on bone. What do you expect?' "

Just about all these guys played college ball, many were local high school stars, and several played professionally. This night, they were shaking off the rust for the tournament by scrimmaging a younger group -- mostly fortysomethings.

"The difference between 45 and 54 -- it's not linear, it's exponential," Osborne said.

The offensive threat for the younger team, Bobby Ouaqerrouch, once played for Morocco's under-18 national team.

"He will get his goal," one of the Radnor guys said.

He got three.

"Oh, to be young again," Thompson said when the 45-year-old's third goal found the net.

Playing the fortysomethings, who seemed to get younger as the scrimmage wore on ("a bunch of 30-year-olds out there," a Radnor player said during the second half), helps the fiftysomethings when they meet their peers. The difference on the field as they age, they said, is time and space. They have more of both now. This really works to their advantage, since they have all sorts of technical skill and know-how they are able to use when defenders don't have as much closing speed.

At the national tournament, they played six games, won them all, and took the championship in a penalty-kick shootout, converting four of five.

"This isn't just run and kick," Greenberg said. "Everyone knows where they're supposed to be."

Playing under the Radnor United banner, they are from all over the area, not bound by ethnicity or ties outside the field. What Thompson meant by playing with or against each other is that most played in the Delco or United or Inter-County League, high-level adult leagues. This is the group that just hasn't stopped. They won over-40 national titles in 2002 and '05. This was their first at over-50.

Dan Wasco, a 55-year-old, said occasionally players haven't been the right fit.

"A good player, but maybe they have some ego and it gets in the way," Wasco said.

Injury talk aside, these guys move. Jens Knudsen shot over the net and followed his shot, scaling a six-foot fence to retrieve the ball. ("He's a stud," a teammate said of Knud sen, who got a goal of his own late in the scrimmage.)

At halftime, with the score 1-0, the Radnor guys talked about turning over the ball too much and sending passes that needed to be shorter -- 5 or fewer yards. "There's no reason we should hit a long ball. ... Everybody is just standing there."

The competitive juices still can overflow. In the second half, the referee told a player from each team to take a little break. He wasn't kicking them out, just directing them to the sideline, where they chatted.

"You hit me. Why you hit me?"

"You hit me first. It's a natural reaction."

When the scrimmage ended, there wasn't much postgame analysis, more talk about where to grab a beer.

Why play? "Because I can," said 53-year-old defender Paul Botto.

"When I play soccer, I'm playing -- it doesn't feel like I'm working out," said Andy Yatsko, 56, a defender who also fills in at goalkeeper.

How long will they go? For these guys, that's mostly a medical question. There is over-70 competition, with a shortened field.

"Those guys are heroes to us," Osborne said.

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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