SOMERSET, N.J. -- At the end of practice, after the small-sided scrimmages and shooting drills had ceased, Sky Blue FC midfielder Kendall Fletcher gathered a bunch of balls and started lofting shots toward the empty goal some 30 yards away. After seven or eight had arced and dipped to her satisfaction, she jogged to retrieve them.
"I still love to come to training every day," Fletcher said as she was bagging up the balls that had settled in the netting. "At the end of a long season, I guess that's a good thing."
After spending a day at practice with the defending Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) champions earlier this month, I second that sentiment. More than a decade and a half removed from the formality and intensity of team sports structure, it was really nice to be back.
When SI.com soccer editor Jen Chang first mentioned that he had the opportunity to train with Sky Blue, he seemed hesitant. Jen previously had spent several days training with the Charleston Battery of the men's second-division United Soccer League and wasn't sure what would be different or better about spending a day with a women's team, even one from the best women's league in the world. My initial thought was that SI.com's readers would be interested to see how former collegiate-level players almost two decades removed from their soccer peaks could fare against elite female professionals, and I quickly offered to join him as a goalkeeper for the day.
WPS is in its second season as the replacement for the Women's United Soccer Association, which launched with some fanfare in 2001 in the aftermath of the U.S.' title at the 1999 Women's World Cup but blew through $100 million in three seasons and folded. The more budget-conscious WPS still employs many of the world's best women's players; Sky Blue FC alone has half a dozen U.S. national teamers and several other internationals. We knew the level of play, especially technically, would be good.
For those who do care about the men-vs.-women angle to the story, Jen and I didn't embarrass ourselves. U.S. national team standout and Sky Blue midfielder Heather O'Reilly noted afterward that she saw "some glimpses of some skill and cutting-back" in Jen's wing midfield play and that I "showed well, [especially] for a couple [shots] that I thought were definite side-netting and he got some fingertips on them."
That said, we certainly didn't dominate (not that anyone, least of all ourselves, expected us to), either. Jen had it tougher, as the skill and in-season fitness of the Sky Blue field players created a level and tempo of play that would be difficult for any just-turned-40-year-old to step into, let alone a nonprofessional.
I wasn't quite at such a physical disadvantage, although a chuckling O'Reilly correctly noted that "[Glockner] needs to work on his general conditioning and agility." I'm more or less the same height as the Sky Blue keepers, and while a lot of the field players showed excellent technique and placement with their shots, the pace of the strikes wasn't much different from the men's weekend league in which I still play. This wasn't totally surprising. Before the practice, O'Reilly noted that a men's side older than an U-16 team starts to put the women at a physical disadvantage.
What stood out equally, though, was how quickly this training session became low-key. Jen and I were mixed in regularly into all facets of the practice and no one really made a big deal of our presence. It wasn't about guys or girls; it was just soccer. Sure, there was an occasional hoot of glee and/or derision when one of the Sky Bluers laced a shot past me or stripped Jen of possession, but that happens every day in any single-sex practice, too.
The two-hour session was, for lack of a better word, professional, which is a large part of what made it so much fun. Anyone who's played sports at a decently high level knows how difficult it can be to have it end. Game days get most of the focus, but athletes mostly miss the camaraderie and closeness that develop over the course of a season through the daily drudgery of practice, or the memories that rekindle just with the smell of the grass (or, in this case, the FieldTurf and rubber pellets at Rutgers Preparatory School).
On this day two weeks ago, Sky Blue was prepping for its season finale in which it was playing for its playoff life (the club ended up drawing 0-0 with Boston and was eliminated), and there was a seriousness and crispness to the session that has been missing from my life since my college athletics career ended in 1994.
Back rushed memories of spirited in-team competition as the blue-shirted side in the 7 v 7s wanted to end the practice unbeaten and made that loud and clear. There was goalkeeper Meghann Burke, still working on penalty-kick reads at the end of practice, rightly shooing me and my 6-year-old son away from the 18-yard box because she wasn't quite finished to her satisfaction. And afterward, there was Fletcher, getting just a little more work in. Refinement, craftsmanship, caring about the details -- it's what defines professionalism in any field, and it was in abundance here.
More notably, it was a day free of inhibitions and full of the best kind of pain and soreness and sweat. It was sports in its purest form, and it happily brought me back to when sports did matter more than anything else in my life. It was fun.
Now where's the Advil?