Net Loss

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

And so Jago slogged through the '96 season, watching his team post a 16-12 record and lose to Monterrey in the semifinals. Young players never lived up to their potential, while the veterans struggled with aching bodies and legs no longer as agile as they once were. In four post-season games, Tatu scored a meager four goals--far down from the numbers he posted during better days.

"I'm not as strong as I used to be," Tatu says, a hint of resignation and confusion creeping into his voice. "I was a miserable individual to be around when things didn't go right. Right now, I've mellowed too much, and I don't like that. You can ask any of the players who have been around me in the past. You love me or you hate me, because when we're winning and working hard and playing well, man, I am one of the best guys to be around. But if we're not doing the right things and not winning, I'm miserable to be around. Right now, I'm just...I don't know the word...complacent?" He pronounces it comb-plah-cent. "And I don't like that. I don't like that at all."

Like his star player, the coach also began to wonder if he had lost his taste for the game. He began to feel as though he had become too loyal to his veterans, paying them so much he could barely afford to bring in younger players. His wife's illness, coupled with his father's death years earlier, had made him rethink his priorities.

"One night, we had played a game, and it so happened we had lost, and I wasn't very happy about things," Jago says. "We had gone to the hospital--June was having an examination--and I was sitting in the waiting room reading the newspaper. I got up to get a cup of coffee in the waiting room at Baylor, and I walked through all these people, and they were young and old, boys and girls, women and men, and every single one of them had a baseball hat on. They were all having chemotherapy, and they had all lost their hair.

"And as I sat down with my cup of coffee, it hit me: What is up with you? You're an idiot. You're worrying about losing a soccer game, and all these folks are sitting here literally fighting for their lives. And that moment put everything in correct perspective. Losing a game is important, but it's nowhere near as important as you thought it was."

For now, June's doctors believe the cancer has gone into remission. They'll have a better prognosis in six months.

With the season over, Jago will tend to his paperwork and clear his desk so that when the next coach takes over--and no one yet knows who will inherit the title--he'll have a clean slate. Jago will remain with the team, bearing the cumbersome title of vice president-general manager, but he will be less involved than ever before. He will vacation, attend CISL owners' meetings, spend time with his wife, attend youth camps and tournaments, perhaps write that book about his years as the Sidekicks' coach.

He envies the next coach a little bit: His successor will have no loyalties to the veterans, and he will be able to begin again with new blood, fresh legs.

But on the final night of his final season, Jago gets every last drop out of his veterans. Against Monterrey, Tatu plays with a reinjured groin, Smith and Doyle score crucial goals and make key assists, and the others leave bits and pieces of themselves scattered all over the artificial turf. Smith calls the game a "horrible way to finish" in the paper the next morning.

But Jago is not so tormented by it. He speaks with graciousness of his players' efforts, of the unlucky breaks on both sides of the ball, of how he almost left with a fairy-tale ending in his hip pocket. "But fairy tales don't happen very often, do they?" he says, smiling like a man for whom they often do.

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