Youth soccer coach recalls decision to throw gameCOTTAGE GROVE, Minn. - If Mark Abboud had a time machine, he said he’d go back and do it all differently.
By: Patrick Johnson, South Washington County (Minn.) Bulletin, Worthington Daily Globe
COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. - If Mark Abboud had a time machine, he said he’d go back and do it all differently.
Back in mid-May, Abboud — the East Ridge High School girls head soccer coach and a coach in the Minnesota Thunder Academy youth soccer program — directed his 12-year-old girls soccer team to intentionally lose a game to another Minnesota Thunder Academy team.
Since then, Abboud has been relieved of his duties as Technical Director of the Thunder Youth Academy, fined $600, sanctioned by the USYSA State Cup and compared to Will Ferrell's character in the movie “Kicking & Screaming” on national Web sites.
However, through it all, his youth team’s parents and players and the administration at East Ridge continue to support their coach. The Minnesota Youth Soccer Association has yet to decide if it will allow Abboud to remain as coach of his Thunder girls team. However, East Ridge has already chosen to stick with him.
"The situation is noted, it's been reviewed and Mark has our full support going forward," East Ridge Activities Director Trent Hanson said. "Behavior of its kind would not be condoned or supported here at East Ridge. I think Mark understands that and we’re clear on that."
Hanson said Abboud, who was hired in December of 2008, participated in an incredibly thorough interview process before joining the East Ridge staff.
"To be offered a head coaching position at East Ridge meant really communicating and standing up for, not only his vision for girls soccer, but also for our East Ridge community and our soccer community," Hanson said. "The East Ridge community and staff believed that Mark’s philosophy and vision matched with ours. He was hired for good reasons."
Decision was 'mistake'
In a shootout in the championship game of the Minnesota State Cup — a United States Youth Soccer Association tournament designed to send its winners to a regional tournament where they could compete for a trip to the national tournament — Abboud instructed his U12 girls to pass the ball to the opposing goalie, instead of shooting, and intentionally concede victory, allowing the Minnesota Thunder Academy U13 girls team a berth in the regional tournament.
Abboud's rationale was borne out of a desire to send the older Thunder team to represent the program at regionals, something that didn’t happen the year before.
Last year, the Thunder 12-year-old team beat the Thunder 13-year-olds in a shootout in the State Cup final to advance to regionals, only to be beaten badly in all three of its regional games.
Abboud said he did not want to put his team through what he felt would be a similar regional experience.
In fact, when the season began, Abboud told every one of his team's parents during a team meeting that if the team were ever in that position he would find a way to allow the older team to advance.
At the time, none of the parents had a problem with the idea.
"We didn’t realize it would actually come down to that situation," said JoJo Goulding — a team parent and the team manager. "I guess we knew it could happen, but we thought the likelihood was so slim that we just didn’t think it would happen.
"Looking back on the situation it would have been smarter to step up and ask, 'Wait, what are we going to do if this happens?'"
However, Abboud still believes the decision was a mistake.
In his blog, Abboud recalled the moment after the first shooter rolled the ball toward the goalie: "The silence was deafening. I felt the sun on my face, brushed a tick off my lower leg, and listened to the highway traffic on I-94. I don’t think I’ll forget that moment for a long time. I knew I had spent the last year talking myself into a huge mistake."
However, Abboud said he made his choice, his players did what they were told and he knew he’d need to deal with the consequences of his actions.
"Hindsight being 20-20 if I'm back in that position there’s no way I would make that decision," Abboud said. "But, with that said and with regret, I can’t change what happened. Since then, I've just focused on trying to move forward in the best possible way."
In the days following the game, Abboud sent a number of explanatory and apologetic emails to a variety of people. He also met with his team to discuss the decision, where he apologized and spoke about the importance of accepting responsibility for one's own actions.
"Everybody makes choices," Abboud said. "Everybody needs to be responsible for the decisions they make and the consequences that happen. There are lessons to be learned about accountability and responsibility, that even adults make mistakes and how you handle those mistakes moving forward. I think those lessons were invaluable to my team."
Parents backing Abboud '100 percent'
Abboud believed five girls from his Thunder team live inside the East Ridge boundaries, but that only two may be going to East Ridge, with three likely heading to private schools.
After the initial disappointment from his team’s parents and players, Abboud said the parent group has since been his biggest advocate with the Minnesota Thunder Academy and the MYSA, not wanting the organizations to pass down sanctions which would effect his coaching relationship with their daughters.
JoJo and Mark Goulding have four daughters, two of whom she hopes will be playing for Abboud next year — Morgan, who will be a sophomore at East Ridge this fall, and Payton, who currently is on Abboud's Thunder team. Both girls will be looking to play soccer for the Raptors.
JoJo Goulding said the incident that happened wasn't a good incident and that the decision that was made wasn't the right decision, but that she is still thrilled about the idea of Abboud continuing to be her daughters' soccer coach through high school.
"I know he has a good heart," Goulding said. "I know he feels bad for what he's done and I know he realizes he made a mistake. Was my daughter upset? Absolutely. Was I angry? Very. Do I forgive him? Yes."
Goulding said her daughter can learn a tremendous amount form Abboud, saying that he is a great coach and that everyone makes mistakes. She also said the parents and players are very distraught with the possibility that he may not be allowed to return as the coach of their Thunder team.
"These girls respect him and really love his coaching technique," Goulding said. "If he left, these girls would be devastated. I don’t believe there's one single parent that doesn't back him at this point. Yes, it took us three, four or five days to gather our thoughts and calm down. But, we all back him 100 percent."
Abboud said the support he has received from his team, the parents and East Ridge has given him strength during a tough time.
"It made me feel good that at a time when a lot of people were slinging stones that there was still some support and belief in me in the soccer community," Abboud said. "I’m hoping that in the eyes of East Ridge and the people I truly feel are my friends, that my actions in that one moment don't eclipse everything I’ve done in the past."
However, Abboud said if he is to a point in youth club management where he puts the organization ahead of the game and his own team that he needs to step back and take a look at how he got to that point.
On top of the decision he made, he said one thing he also felt bad about is how this incident has given concrete ammunition to people who don't like him personally or who don’t like the Minnesota Thunder Academy.
"I think people that believe in me and care about me have already forgiven and forgotten in a sense," Abboud said. "I think people that don’t care for me, or what I stand for, will never forgive or forget it. But, I don't think I'll ever forget it and don't think I should forget it. I think it'll help define my future actions. The game and honoring the game and the spirit of competition is bigger than anything."
To read Abboud’s personal account of the game and what has taken place since, read his blog at http://www.roadtoregionals.com/97-journal/2009/5/18/of-rationale-responsibility-and-regret.html