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It was a fierce battle, played Sunday under searing blue skies in front of scores of proud parents from Woodbury, Edina, Minnetrista and Blaine. But what started as a teen soccer game ended as a kind of morality play in shorts and spikes that has put a coach's job on the line and parents questioning the coach's, and their own, ethical decisions.
The scene: Minnesota Thunder's 12-and-under girls soccer club, playing above their level, fought to a gutsy 1-1 tie through two overtime periods against the favored 13-and-under team from the same club. That set the stage for a dramatic penalty shootout. The winner would go on toward the state cup, and likely, the regional tournament.
The back story: Last year, the team that is now called the Thunder was upset by a younger team that went on to get clobbered in state tournaments.
The coach involved in that game and Sunday's game was the same guy, Mark Abboud. At the time, he vowed not to let it happen again, and even warned parents that in the unlikely event that the 12-year-olds tied the favored team, he'd let the older team move forward. No one objected.
Even the "12s" knew they were supposed to lose. But you know kids. Instead of giving a half-hearted performance, they played like champions for 90 minutes.
That's when what they call a teaching moment happened.
Abboud told his girls that the "classy" thing would be to "roll the ball" nicely to the goalkeeper, virtually ensuring the "better team" moved on. The girls were shocked, but followed orders.
When it was over, they "sobbed so hard they were shaking," according to one parent.
Now, Abboud's actions are being investigated, and some are calling for his job. Others blame themselves for underestimating their kids, teaching them all the wrong lessons and trying to protect them from inevitable, painful tournament losses.
It's Minnesota youth sports' existential moment.
One parent, who requested anonymity, said Abboud is a great coach, "but this was morally wrong. He told them to go against everything they've ever learned about competition and sportsmanship. He might as well have told them to rob a bank."
So who is this heartless coach who denied his feisty team an upset? Probably the most contrite man in Minnesota.
"Within one minute of the game I knew it was a mistake," said Abboud, who played pro soccer in the United States and Europe. "It was an absurdly idiotic decision that at the time I thought was in the best interest of the team. My girls were distraught, my parents were irate."
In his team blog, Abboud wrote that he will never forget watching a star player take a weak kick at the goal and walk off in shame. "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," he said. "I felt sick to my stomach.
"I'm actually excited you are doing a story," Abboud said Tuesday. "I won't try to justify anything. I hope if my girls learned anything, it's that everyone is human, everyone makes a mistake. I hope they do not judge me by one act."
Yet, Abboud said if he is reprimanded by the league or fired, he'll understand completely. "Maybe that's a sign I should try something else after 15 years."
The kids, as you might guess, are fine. An optional training Monday night was attended by 13 of 16 members. They had a ball.
While some parents remain angry, others are questioning themselves.
"I told my daughter [Britney] that Mark Abboud didn't put you in this situation, I did," said Loren Monteon, a parent. Getting clobbered by bigger players at state "is not my idea of a fun tournament experience," he said. "Mark made my daughter the athlete she is. If he's not there, she's not going to be there."
On the way to the game, Scott Barlow discussed the possibility of a loss with his daughter, a team star. "I said 'Anna, go out there and ruin their plans.' "
She scored the lone goal and played ferociously. But still, "I'm not sure what Mark did was wrong," Barlow said. "I know as a coach, you make six thousand right decisions and one wrong one. The kids love Mark."
Sports are about winning, certainly, but also about loss. The best don't always win, and sometimes the underdog comes through; there are lessons in that too.
The great moments in sports, and life, don't usually come from the expected. They are about Ali vs. Foreman, Kirby Puckett and "see you tomorrow night." They are about horses named Mine That Bird coming from last to first against 50-1 odds.
Just maybe, they are also about a bunch of 12-year-olds winning the state cup above their level, but now we'll never know.
"I failed my daughter for not thinking this through," said Colleen Heslin. "I had the option to say, 'Mark, let's rethink this.' His intentions were pure and honest, but misguided. As I sat on the bench and watched them play their hearts out, I thought, 'My God, how did I just let this happen?'"
Since Sunday, Heslin said, "I've been thinking, which message is right: Win at all costs, or work toward the better good of the club, or is it even the better good? I don't know. With all these soccer moms and hockey dads, are we too caught up in it, this competition?
"After all," said Heslin. "This is 12-year-old soccer we are talking about."
Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702