Coed soccer league keeps players' skills sharp



Bobby Maher played varsity soccer for three years at Meade High School. As a midfielder for the Mustangs, he spent a lot of time running around the large field. But he didn't get to play when he moved on to Anne Arundel Community College.

Now the 21-year-old, a landscaper, regularly goes to Soccerdome II in Harmans to play.

He takes the field a couple of nights a week - but usually as a goalie. That's what he did Sunday night, toiling in the warm building and making a number of spectacular saves to help Jogo Bonito rally for a 4-3 victory over SOL in the championship game of Coed Division 2, a 6-on-6 coed league for 18-and-older players.

Maher made a number of tough stops in the closing minutes as Jogo Bonito -Portuguese for "Beautiful Playing" - bounced back from an early two-goal deficit to pull out the win.

Maher made two huge plays in the final 2:30 that saved the game. He leapt and just got his hand on a shot to knock it over the crossbar.

SOL then intercepted a clearing pass with 1:25 left and got a breakaway that Maher foiled with a sliding save.

Maher sat on a bench after the game, dripping with sweat and wearing a satisfied smile.

Maher, who lives in the Anne Arundel part of Laurel, had been away from the game for a little bit before playing again at Soccerdome and moving to goalie.

"I just missed the game," Maher said. "That's why I decided to come back and start playing."

Maher works hard at becoming a good goalie. The natural skills are there, and he's a leader on the field, constantly barking out instructions and pushing his teammates. He also has the personality a good goalie needs - understanding when to laugh and let things go.

He showed that early in Sunday's game when a strange play helped SOL take a quick 1-0 lead. One of the opposing players took a shot from the right side that appeared to be heading wide left. But it somehow hit the left post and deflected past Maher and into the goal for an early lead 53 seconds into the game.

Some of Maher's friends on the sideline and in the stands started gently teasing him about that, and he laughed along with them.

Still, he said, both sides are serious about winning.

"The competition is here, and that's why I like playing," he said.

The women play just as seriously as the men.

League rules call for at least two women to be on the field for each team at all times. The male players don't back off if going after a ball against the women.

In fact, that's fine for someone like Glen Burnie resident Chelsea Elston. The 16-year-old plays for St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel and will be a senior midfielder this fall. This is going to be her third season on the varsity team, and she's using the summer leagues to sharpen her game.

"I get practice and better skills because I'm playing older people," she said. "I get fitness, I get a chance to see what it's like playing against older people."

Chelsea played for Jogo Bonito and made a number of nice plays in the victory. Her good speed, quickness and ball-handling helped on several occasions.

"It helps my touch, on the smaller field," Chelsea said.

Linthicum resident Neal Conlon, the Soccerdome manager, brings a soccer background to the job. He played at Catonsville Community College and Wesley College in Delaware. The 27-year-old does what many do - competes on several teams. He plays four times a week.

"I've been around the game since I was 6 years old myself," he said. "Besides high school, I never stopped playing."

Conlon said playing soccer relaxes him and provides a true release.

"It does help you to get out your frustrations," Conlon said with a smile. "I can get really intense on the field."

Jose Benitez, the vice president of Soccerdome II, was working Sunday night while watching the title game. He said that coed soccer has grown quickly recently, with about 80 teams and 800 people playing in this building and Soccerdome I in Howard County.

Benitez said the coed format lets people form teams in a number of different ways. He said there are husband-and-wife groups, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, all kinds of groups that go out on the field to play.

"This is the most popular league that we have," Benitez said.

Many who play in the league will do anything to get back on the field.

Chelsea was talking to people after the game when a team in the next contest called her onto the field.

Maher also was talking about playing in a game later that night. The more they can play, the better they like it.

"I play soccer four to five [times] a week," he said. "It's always fun."

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