A few years ago, Jim Haner was coaching his 9-year-old son’s team in a D.C. area youth-soccer tournament when one of his players collapsed on the field, unable to breathe. Haner rushed to the boy and asked him what was wrong. “I have asthma,” he gasped. As the child struggled for air, an inhaler flew onto the field and landed beside Haner. A father’s voice boomed from the crowd: “Use the inhaler, and keep him in!”

As Haner writes in Soccerhead: An Accidental Journey Into the Heart of the American Game, “A youth-soccer coach is much more than a coach. He’s more like the besieged mayor of a small town.” Part memoir, part history, and part meditation on the Zen of soccer, Soccerhead describes Haner’s experiences coaching his son’s team while tracing American soccer from its vibrant early days to its establishment as what he calls a “secular religion.”

It all began one night in 2000, when Haner, a College Park resident, three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, and investigative reporter for the Baltimore Sun, showed up for his son’s pee-wee-soccer information session and got conscripted into coaching the team. Haner, whose sporting life ended in middle school and whose exposure to soccer consisted solely of snippets of games he caught while serving in the Navy, was given a list of kids, some ratty equipment, and a pat on the back.

His Vince Lombardi–inspired attempt at coaching immediately tanked. His team lost most of its games. “I had no idea what was going on,” Haner says with a chuckle. “I was a pig-ignorant menace who screamed and yelled.” One day, Haner and his son were driving home after yet another loss when his son said, “You know, Dad, all that yelling and screaming doesn’t do us any good. We can’t hear you, and most of the time you’re asking us to do stuff we can’t do.”

Haner devoured soccer books and videos, seeking advice from other coaches and watching as much soccer as he could. Gradually, he understood not only the game but also its culture and the unique community it fosters, one that cuts across gender, race, and socioeconomic lines.

Despite his reportorial instincts, Haner didn’t consider documenting his experience until his third year of coaching. He began by jotting down daily notes, then crisscrossed the country to assess the soccer landscape. He visited the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention and dropped in on former U.S. greats as well as members of current soccer royalty, who, to his surprise, were open and welcoming.

Though Haner’s travels often reminded him of how little he understood the sport, they also offered him a series of epiphanies about just how deep soccer’s roots run in this country. “You come in thinking it’s just a game, but you come out thinking it’s about life,” says Haner. “[Soccer] is about families, communities, what’s right and wrong about us as Americans, what’s beautiful in us and what is not.”

Haner continues to coach both his sons on two soccer teams and two baseball teams, and it’s now difficult for him to imagine life without soccer. “I found out, purely by accident, that when you do this, the world is a greener place,” he says. “It enriches your life. It sounds trite, but it’s every bit as spiritual as going back to church. All the stuff we want out of life, it’s out on these fields.”—Huan Hsu