Net Loss

After 13 years of survival and success, Dallas Sidekicks coach Gordon Jago leaves behind the team he kept alive

C'mon, this is bullshit!" goalkeeper Hank Henry is screaming, his voice resounding through the empty arena. "There need to be two guys against the wall."

He steps out of the goal and literally grabs two young players, shoving them in their proper positions. "Like this! Here!" These young acquisitions seem lost, unsure where to put their feet. Then again, many of the soccer players on the field this morning are practice-squad fodder; they've been moved up to fill in for injured players.

It is the day before the Dallas Sidekicks are to hop on a plane to Monterrey to face La Raza in the first game of the playoffs. La Raza has owned the Sidekicks in post-season play and handed them five straight losses this year. Yet the home team still practices as though it has a chance, shooting the ball up and down the field at the Inwood Soccer Center in Addison, a dilapidated former tennis facility. They go through the motions.

The veterans do not give it their all. They move at half-speed, as though someone had slowed down the instant replay. Most, including stars Kevin Smith and David Doyle, are injured. They are old. They are tired.

The man who was once this team's main attraction--and once among the biggest stars in all of Dallas--lags behind all of them. Every now and then, Tatu--who somehow looks older at a distance than he does up close--will shoot a ball to a teammate, but he doesn't attack the goal, not like he used to. He's been ill of late, in the hospital with a viral infection.

He looks as though he'd rather be playing soccer with his 5-year-old son, Evan Davi, who kicks the ball around in a tiny enclosed field off to the side. "Don't get so close to the ball," Tatu tells the boy during a break, leaning on the partition that separates the two fields. "That's it."

The team's coach has been watching all of this from the sideline with a sort of muted intensity. Wearing a knit shirt and slacks--"I don't usually wear civvies," he'll later say in apology--Gordon Jago stands with his hands on his chin, his hands in his pockets, his hands on his hips. He fidgets with his belt, and when a ball flies toward him, he barely flinches. It's like he's not there at all.

Jago has been on the phone all morning arguing with the league office over travel plans. The Sidekicks were to get a week between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs; they needed every spare second to nurse wounds and prepare.

But at the last minute, Jago was informed his team was to fly to Mexico and begin the playoffs immediately--against a team that had knocked the Sidekicks from contention the previous two years. "Dealing with Monterrey is something else," Jago snarls during a break. Then he disappears to take another phone call. Last-minute travel preparations need to be made. He leaves practice in the charge of an assistant.

This is no way to begin the playoffs.
Or to end a career.
The next day, the Dallas Sidekicks will lose. And they will lose again four days later, and that will be that. Their season once more will end just as the playoffs begin.

Such is the fate of a soccer team that literally stumbled into post-season play injured and outnumbered. They made it into the playoffs in late September by winning the very last game of the season against the Houston Hotshots. Some would say the Sidekicks were lucky to make it that far--lucky to make it to the post-season, where it once seemed they would forever reign.

Then again, in the 11-team Continental Indoor Soccer League, where teams have names so silly that high schools wouldn't claim them (the Washington Warthogs?), it's not hard making the playoffs with a 13-15 record. Just show up for 28 games, and you're likely to get to the first round.

Gordon Jago didn't want to go out this way--not with petty squabbles over travel arrangements. Not with a losing record. Certainly not with first-round elimination from the playoffs.

After a lifetime spent in soccer, Jago thought maybe, just maybe, he would leave the field as a champion. He hoped, if nothing else, that he'd say farewell to his team--and it will always be Jago's team, one he saved from demise time and again--as it celebrated its third title in 13 trying years. Maybe Jago even figured he deserved as much, having sacrificed so much to a sport most people in the United States don't know exists.

But if he believes he deserves it, the Englishman would never say so out loud. The man has too much pride and the sort of class one doesn't normally associate with the words Dallas professional sports.

Jago decided almost 17 months ago to step aside, to leave behind the sport he's played forever. Jago chose to retire almost as soon as he discovered, shortly before the beginning of the 1996 season, that his wife of 37 years, June, had breast cancer.

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