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.

His priorities had changed, and he no longer wanted to get ground up in the day-to-day routine of running a soccer franchise. He had already devoted more than a decade to the team, giving it mouth-to-mouth every couple of years when owners would drop out and the money would disappear. Time to leave this team and its troubles to a younger man with younger legs, a younger heart, younger desires.

In the world of sports--especially Dallas sports, where coaches come and go like summer thunderstorms--Jago is an anomaly. He decided to retire voluntarily. He was not fired or forced from the sidelines by an impetuous owner or irrational sportswriters or foolish fans. He had longevity in a world where job security doesn't exist. He won a title during his team's fourth year of existence, then tacked on another just a few years later. He turned a young Brazilian kid named Tatu into a superstar talent.

And Jago did nothing to embarrass his franchise. He did not point fingers when his team lost. He did not let his players run rampant like children. He never brought a gun into an airport. He got along with the team's ever-changing cast of owners. Gordon Jago is the Anti-Switzer, a man who placed his team before anything else and decided he could do it no more.

"I always put club before me," Jago says. "I've always said to the players that the names on the back of the jersey--including mine--will change, but the one on the front will never, and that's the one that matters. If I go out and do something stupid like [Barry] Switzer did, it would be in the paper; and it would not only say Gordon Jago--it would also say Dallas Sidekicks. And that's the thing that has to be protected."

To do that, Jago leaves the game he's played ever since he was a young man sacrificing his body for Queen and country. He retires, he insists, in the best interests of a franchise that has begun to stagger under too much dead weight. He retires to spend time with his wife. He retires because he is 65 and because he has been playing and coaching for 40 years.

He retires because he can.
"There were no second thoughts; there was no second-guessing," he says emphatically. The omnipresent smile briefly leaves his face. His accent becomes, for a moment, more pronounced. "It was a decision that I knew to be right when I made it, and nothing will change it."

In June 1987, the Sidekicks beat the Tacoma Stars in seven thrilling games to capture the title of the now-defunct Major Indoor Soccer League. To win the series, the Sidekicks became the first team in MISL history to overcome a two-games-to-none deficit en route to a title, and they had to go through MISL all-time scoring champ Steve Zungal to do it.

The stunning moment was captured by Sports Illustrated in a story headlined "The Big D Stands for Destiny"--yes, there was a time when the Sidekicks weren't banished to the last page of the sports section. An astonishing crowd of 10,000 turned out for a victory parade through the streets of downtown Dallas, the likes of which would not be seen again till the Dallas Cowboys captured the Lombardi Trophy years later. The Sidekicks were champions in a sport few in town even knew existed till 1983, when then-Mavericks owner Donald Carter started the franchise and brought the MISL to Dallas--if only to fill up Reunion Arena when the Mavs weren't using it.

"There's the possibility that, as we did in '87, we can come from nowhere and win," Jago says 24 hours before his team will lose the first playoff game to Monterrey by the score of 7-3. He speaks with the weak optimism of someone merely staving off inevitable disaster.

This is not a team of champions, he realizes, but of old men playing below their record-book legends and of young men who do not yet know how to triumph. Jago knows his team will lose. Yet he still hopes. "It's possible it could happen again," he says, trying to convince no one. "I'd love to go all the way and have a dream season with a fairy-tale ending."

Instead, it just has an ending--a period, no exclamation mark. On Sunday, La Raza kicks the Sidekicks out of title contention--in Reunion Arena, no less, once the home of so many Sidekicks victory celebrations. A crowd of 6,081 shows up to watch, one far smaller than the team's season average of 9,000. Those who do witness it see the Sidekicks win the second game of the playoffs with a thrilling 10-5 victory...and then lose in overtime of the third, shorter game held just moments later. Sidekick David Doyle misses his shot, Monterrey's Genoni Martinez makes his, and you realize why they call it sudden death.

Just like that, Gordon Jago's coaching career is over.

Jago wasn't even supposed to have been the coach of the Dallas Sidekicks. Kyle Rote Jr.--son of SMU Mustangs and New York Giants legend Kyle Rote Sr., himself once a high school football star at Highland Park and pride of Lamar Hunt's Dallas Tornado team during the early 1970s--was to have taken the job. But Rote would never commit, having started a sports agency that would become enormously successful. When few candidates were to be found, Carter brought in Jago, who'd been coaching the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the North American Soccer League--which, for a brief moment, had been one of the most competitive sports leagues in the country.

If Jago's name meant little to those in Dallas, it carried prestige among those who knew soccer. Jago--who, as a young boy during World War II, had grown up watching as London crumbled beneath Germany's bombs--began playing professionally in 1950 with First Division Charlton of the English Federation, which is the equivalent of the National Football League. He was a defensive player known for his finesse game, a scrawny and tall young man whose job it was to keep the ball away from his team's goal.

He began coaching in 1956, while still a player; he received the honor of managing England's under-19 squad, a distinction bestowed upon few men his age. In his mid-20s, he was the youngest coach in the English league, and he would remain so for several years. A kick to his left eye would force him to retire from playing at 28, but by 1960, he was on the coaching staff of the British Olympic team.

He would coach the English all-star teams during the off-season, taking them overseas for exhibition games. In 1968 and '69, he signed on as a member of the coaching staffs of the U.S. World Cup teams. During the early 1970s, he became a head coach in the First Division, leading such franchises as the Queens Park Rangers and Eastbourne United. In England, Jago was the equivalent of a Tom Landry or a Mike Ditka, a player-turned-coach who was revered in his homeland.

"The greatest time in my life had to be in the First Division of the English league," Jago says, smiling even now as he remembers the rush. "It had to be by virtue of that standard. It's like, say, when you take a young coach in the NFL and take him into Texas Stadium for the very first time to play the Cowboys. It's a marvelous feeling. And I had that, and for me to go to the greatest clubs in England as the head coach, well, I've never had an ego problem, because I had a good upbringing, but you've got that pride deep down."

In the late 1970s, Jago left England to take a job coaching the NASL's Baltimore Bays and then the Tampa Bay Rowdies. His peers in England thought he'd gone mad, but at the time, the move made a certain amount of sense. After all, the NASL, which formed in 1967 from the leftovers of two other failed U.S. soccer leagues (the National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association), once had a bright enough future. In 1973, a crowd of almost 19,000 turned out at Fair Park to witness the Tornado lose the title game to the Philadelphia Atoms, and Kyle Rote Jr. and the Atoms' Bob Rigby were, briefly, sports-page superstars. Four years later, Pele led the New York Cosmos to the NASL title in the Soccer Bowl, and record crowds began showing up--some measuring almost 75,000, even for the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Yet in the early '80s, with Pele and Rote long gone from the sport and owners strapped for cash after overspending on aging players, the NASL fell into trouble. The league had expanded to 24 teams, and it couldn't support them all. Then the newly formed Major Indoor Soccer League, which took the sport inside, began cutting into the shrinking NASL crowds. American fans raised on football and basketball found indoor soccer far more exciting than the outdoor game.

On a 200-foot-long field, one far smaller than the outdoor playing field, the ball never stopped moving; it careened off the walls, off players, at blurring speeds. The players never stood still as they battled for position on the smaller surface; it was like hockey without the pads or helmets to obscure players' faces. You could see the sweat and blood; you could feel every grunt. To indoor-soccer fans, the low-scoring outdoor game was like watching a game of Tic-Tac-Toe. The NASL finally died in 1984, and no one noticed.

Not that the MISL offered any great hope: It was always a shaky prospect since its formation in 1977. Teams, which once included the New York Express and the San Diego Sockers, were always in danger of folding--and with them, the league itself. When the 1987-'88 season began featuring every single team that ended the previous season, it marked a first in the MISL's paltry history.

Yet Jago still came to Dallas instead of returning to England. He loved the States and was swayed by the promise of defining a new franchise, of creating a team in his own image. Don Carter promised Jago, who originally signed a two-year deal, that he could take all the time he needed to turn the Sidekicks into a winner, and Jago was thrilled at the prospect of coaching a young team from beyond the spotlight's reach. He had seen too many of his friends in England burn out early, forced from the game in their mid-50s because of stress-related illnesses. Jago would have no urgency to win here--not in a town where high school football receives more media attention than professional soccer.

"We were 0-10 before we won one game," Jago recalls of the first season. "But it was incredible, because I never felt any pressure." Such, perhaps, were the rewards of being a hobby instead of a serious pursuit. Don Carter had his Mavericks to worry about. They were his pros, his millionaires, his status symbol. Carter could afford to let the Sidekicks stumble for a while--Jago estimates Carter lost $5.2 million during the team's first two years--and he let them do just that. Had he not, Jago says, he probably would have left at the end of his two-year deal.

"Mr. Carter"--Jago never refers to him as Don--"once said to me, 'I've been through difficult times with the Mavericks, so I know what it's all about. All I ask is that if we lose, the players crawl up the corridor with blood on their knees, and that'd be fine by me. But if we lose and they run up the corridor and go out dancin', get rid of 'em.'"

The only high point of the first couple of years came in the form of a young Brazilian named Antonio Carlos Pecorari--or Tatu, which is Brazilian for armadillo, a name bestowed upon the 5-foot-6 forward by his father, a retired railroad worker. Of the Sidekicks' 194 goals scored during the first season, Tatu accounted for 59--and he celebrated each one by ripping off his jersey and sending it into the seats. Such antics would, over time, make him a beloved figure in Dallas sports--so much so that by the late '80s, you could walk into any Baskin-Robbins and order Tatu Toffee.

Jago was responsible for bringing Tatu to the States. He spotted the 19-year-old player during a scouting trip to Brazil, where Tatu was a burgeoning star on Sao Paolo's first-division team. Though he spoke no English and was on the verge of becoming a national hero, Tatu agreed to come to the States and join Jago's Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Like Jago, he was enamored of the idea of legitimizing soccer to an American audience that actually found golf more interesting than the razzle-dazzle of soccer. And he became, quite literally, the poster boy for soccer in the United States--or, as Sports Illustrated referred to him in 1987, "The Shirtless Wonder." He was so important to the sport that opponents didn't even mind his post-goal shirt-throwing. They realized it brought people to the games and helped keep their struggling sport alive.

Tatu remains the lone Sidekick to have been with Jago through the worst and best of times. (Current Sidekicks midfielder Kevin Smith was on the inaugural team, but he played in Monterrey during the 1993 and '94 seasons before being reacquired in a trade in 1995.) Their relationship was once one of student and teacher; now, they are close friends. Tatu came to the United States as a young man. Now he has a wife and two children, with a third on the way.

"To be honest with you, my relationship with Gordon is like a marriage," Tatu says after practice. Evan Davi sits by his side, playing with a Batman doll. "You have good times and bad times, and that's how it goes. Up and down. Definitely there's a respect there, a tremendous respect, but as the years go along, you don't treat him as a coach. It's more as a friend, and that you cannot avoid, because the relationship for the many years you stay together...it's just amazing.

"It's almost like at home. When your wife is happy with you, she calls you darling--Tony or something like that--but when she's mad, it's Tatu. So that's how it goes, my relationship with the coach. When the relationship is good, it's Gordon; when the relationship is kinda sarcastic, it's Mr. Jago; and when it's real bad, when you have a little argument, it's Coach. So that's how it goes."

He smiles, something he doesn't often do as he begins pondering a professional life without his longtime coach and friend on the sidelines. "It's a family relationship there. But it has its ups and downs, its good days and bad days."

Tatu shrugs and says he will wait and see whether he likes the new coach and whether he feels good enough to play one more year. This season, he's been sidelined with all manner of hamstring problems and muscle pulls, and most recently, he was hospitalized for four days because of a viral infection.

It hurts Tatu to think that Jago and maybe even he will leave on a losing note: "The 13-15 [record] is still up in my throat," he says, choking on the words. "We're better than that." But he is resigned to the fact that he, too, is near the end of his career.

"I understand Gordon's situation, because I'm probably in the same boat as Gordon," Tatu says, his face expressionless and still that of a young man. "You love the game, you've been involved for so long, you've been with the franchise since the beginning, so it's your baby. You really wanna go on and see the thing grow stronger, and it's very difficult to let it go. It's like your kid is going to college. It's difficult to let it go, but you know it has to happen sometime."

Tatu speaks of returning not only because he doesn't want to end on a bad season, but because he needs to find out if he still has what it takes to win--the drive, the desire, the absolute need to be better than anyone else. And perhaps there is a part of him that wants to see if he can without Gordon Jago by his side, where he's been for almost two decades.

"Gordon's retirement is very difficult," Tatu says. "I think each one of us has different feelings. To me, it's the end of an era."

The good days of which Tatu speaks came in 1987, when the team captured the MISL title against Tacoma in a series that drew 13,000 for one game at Reunion. The good days came again in 1993, when the MISL became the Continental Indoor Soccer League and the Sidekicks captured the new league's inaugural championship. And they came again just last year, when Tatu passed Steve Zungal to set career records for most goals (740), assists (556), and combined points (1,296) in the history of indoor soccer.

"There's been more joy than sorrow," Jago says now. But for the coach--and for his Sidekicks--the bad days have visited far too often.

Jago has struggled almost from the beginning to keep the Dallas Sidekicks alive. The team, which is worth between $500,000 and $1 million, has changed hands more often than Liz Taylor: Current owners Gretchen and J.L "Sonny" Williams (she's co-chair of the board of directors of Minyard Food Stores, Inc., and he's the president) and Don and Linda Carter are the seventh group of investors to own the team. (That is, if you count the four times Carter has owned or co-owned the team over 13 years.)

Some have owned the team out of love for the sport, because there are rich people out there with kids who love soccer and have the money to burn. Others have owned the team because they believed the Sidekicks, which has a team payroll of $250,000 and little overhead compared to the other pro sports, could actually make money. (Jago figures it breaks even these days.) And others have owned the team simply because they could not bear to see it die.

After the 1986 season, with attendance hovering around 6,600 during home games, Carter tried to unload the team--"and rightly so," Jago says--but found no willing buyers. Jago was informed by the team's general manager that the club was folding. Though the team had managed to put together a winning season, finishing 25-23, Carter was losing millions. The Sidekicks were on the verge of becoming yet another corpse on the American soccer field, and Jago was about to lose his job.

"So I got home, and I'm naturally concerned: Oh, well, it's gone," Jago recalls. "And then, in the early hours of the morning, I got a telephone call to inform me my father was seriously ill in England and had been rushed to hospital. A doctor got on the line and said he felt I should get home as soon as possible. I sat there, and I can remember feeling really sorry for myself: Oh, damn, the soccer team's gone, my father's in deep trouble, and the woes of the world are upon my shoulders. It's wrong, but I suppose sometimes it's a natural reaction.

"Then something said, Hey, your father wouldn't want you to act this way. He'd want you to fight it and at least give it your best. So Mr. Carter was going to announce that morning that the team was closed. So as soon as 8 o'clock came, I called his office and said it was important I spoke to him. Eventually I got to him and said, 'Would you give me the rest of the day to try and put this together before you eventually let it go?'"

Jago knew there was one person who could save his team--a self-proclaimed soccer mom named Jan Rogers, who also happened to be Mary Kay Ash's daughter-in-law. Jago phoned her at home and reached her moments before she was to leave for D/FW Airport. Rogers, with two other key investors and 34 others, hurriedly raised the money and bought the team from Carter. They called themselves Sidekicks I Ltd. and would own the team for two years.

As soon as Jago found the money, he left for England to visit his father. When Jago returned to Dallas 10 days later, his father died.

Gordon Jago resigned as Dallas Sidekicks head coach once before.
At the end of the 1989-'90 season, Billy Phillips, a goaltender with the Sidekicks since the team's first season, assumed the title of coach. Jago left to concentrate on raising money once more to keep the team solvent. He became team president, though it was no promotion: He put his love for the team over his love for coaching and went out literally to beg for money. When he found enough for the short term, he returned to the sidelines as coach only to discover that once more, the Sidekicks were on the verge of collapse if he couldn't raise $350,000 to pay off a letter of credit.

Jago is not explicit when he talks about why the team has been in an almost perpetual state of financial chaos since 1986. He hints that there was embezzlement going on among some of the team's middle managers. "It was never the owners or players," he insists. He mentions schemes involving airline tickets being refunded for cash and other hustles. Yet Jago doesn't mention names. "That's for the book," he says, grinning.

Jago was so fed up with the financial disasters that in the summer of 1991, he was about to take a coaching job outside of Dallas. He wanted to get back to the sport of soccer, not the sport of money-raising. But his wife convinced him to stick it out. He was forced to ask the staff and players to work for nothing, save the few dollars that came in from the Christmas and summer youth soccer camps.

"All the time this is going on, I'm talking to people," Jago recalls. "You would not believe some of the stories." He tells of one man who was about to invest till his pacemaker failed on him. He recounts another story about an investor who wanted to come in for $100,000, which thrilled Jago, who had four others investors--all previous Sidekicks owners--ready to contribute $25,000 each. "I was in seventh heaven," Jago says.

But Jago had discovered that the group of four investors was suing the man with the $100,000 over a business investment. Jago was torn between keeping the money, hoping the four would understand the dire straits, and returning the checks, which he desperately needed to keep the Sidekicks in business. He gave the man back his $100,000. "I not only have to return the checks, I have to think of what I'm going to say to the fellow," Jago says. "I can't tell him, can I, of what I found out? So I made up some real weird story and gave him his checks back."

Then another savior appeared at the last minute in the form of a man from Arlington--"a real Texan," Jago says respectfully--whose grandson played soccer. He phoned Jago and offered his help, but only if he could contribute at least 51 percent--if not 100 percent--of the money needed to keep the Sidekicks alive. The man asked to speak with Earl Foreman, the MISL's commissioner, and Jago was only too happy to arrange a meeting. But on the very morning Foreman arrived in Dallas from Philadelphia for the meeting, Jago received a phone call: The would-be owner had suffered a heart attack and was in intensive care in an Irving hospital.

Jago called Foreman at his downtown Dallas hotel and told him there was a slight problem, but to wait for another phone call. He then rushed to the hospital and found himself in the ICU. Jago, against his better judgment, explained his situation to the man's wife. "I felt terrible," Jago recalls. "I felt ghoulish."

The wife wasn't impressed, telling Jago her husband wouldn't be making any business deals from his death bed.

"It got to become a joke that anybody that spoke to me was going to have a heart attack," Jago says, laughing. "Between the guy whose pacemaker went wrong and this man who had a heart attack...Oh, God."

The Sidekicks were themselves moments away from a death bed--and if the Sidekicks folded, the MISL likely would have joined them, because that would have left a meager six teams. Despite his efforts, Jago hadn't raised enough money to save the team. Yet the very morning he was to inform the league office of his team's--and the league's--fate, Jago received a phone call from Don Carter, who was in North Carolina on a business trip and had read in USA Today that the Sidekicks were to fold in the morning.

"He said, 'Coach, is it true what I just read?'" Jago recalls. "I said, 'That's right, I've only got 85 percent [of the money], and if we don't go, the league doesn't go.'"

Carter wanted to know how much Jago needed and what he got for his money, which was 51 percent of the team, since Arlington businessman John Aleckner was in for 49 percent. Later that afternoon, after Carter had stopped in Virginia and New York and St. Louis, he cut a deal and, once again, became an owner of the Dallas Sidekicks.

"When he got back," Jago says, "Mr. Carter said to me that he got up in North Carolina and read the papers and saw the story and then went back up to his room and prayed. He said it was a decision not from the head, but a decision made from the heart. He said the reason he did it was because he had seen all the efforts of Tatu and Kevin Smith and [goalkeeper Joe] Papaleo and the efforts of Coach Jago to try and keep this franchise alive, and he then decided it wasn't right it should die."

Don Carter was among the first people Gordon Jago called in March of last year, when June discovered she had breast cancer. Just as he was preparing for the 1996 season, Jago had decided to retire. His wife needed him to be there through the surgeries and chemotherapy.

But on May 7, just months after Don Carter had sold his majority share in the Dallas Mavericks to Ross Perot Jr., Carter unloaded his controlling interest in the Sidekicks to J.L. and Gretchen Williams. Now, Jago no longer felt like he could retire: People might get the wrong idea if he stepped down now, just as the Minyard family was taking control of the soccer team. It might look bad. So Jago stayed--and asked Tatu if he'd also remain a Sidekick one more season. There had been rumors circulating that he, too, was about to leave the sport, which had been punishing on his now-mid-30s legs.

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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