In the American Youth Soccer Organization's national games, set to get underway in Southern California this week, the Ninja Smurfs of Arab, Ala., feel a lot like the U.S. men's national soccer team.
"They keep comparing themselves to the U.S. because they're underdogs," said coach Jay Ballard. "We're from a small town in Alabama and we're going to play these big teams from California and Michigan. But they're kind of enjoying the role."
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The games will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the AYSO, the soccer program started in 1964 in Torrance. The program now has hundreds of thousands of players a year and millions of alumni — many of whom are fueling unprecedented World Cup popularity in homes, pubs and sports bars across the country. Three of the U.S. players on the World Cup roster got their start in AYSO, according to the organization.
One of those lifelong fans is Joe Bonchonsky, 57, who joined one of the original teams when he was 7.
As he recalls, AYSO founder Hans Stierle walked over to what was then Jefferson Elementary School in Torrance with a soccer ball and said, "Hey, you want to try this game?"
Bonchonsky had tried Little League and Pop Warner football and wasn't convinced. But soccer, he said, "I just loved it."
Fifty years later he still plays soccer on the weekends and fanatically watches the World Cup.
When it gets underway, the youth tournament will be structured a lot like the World Cup — with teams starting off in a series of round-robin qualifying games followed by elimination playoffs that will culminate in finals Sunday. One key difference is that in addition to the number of goals scored, teams can earn points based on good sportsmanship — and the biggest trophy will go to the team with the best sportsmanship.
"It's about bringing all parts of AYSO together," said Mike Hoyer, vice president on the national board of directors.
Still, for many of the young players attending, the excitement and anticipation are just as powerful as anything happening in the Southern Hemisphere.
For the 15 members of the Ninja Smurfs, all between the ages of 12 and 16, it took nearly a year of fundraising just to be able to attend.
They held car washes and dog washes, sold Tupperware, candles and bags, "just about anything," Ballard said. And though they hail from the South, where football is still king, the small town of Arab, with a population of 8,300, rallied to support them.
The tournament isn't quite a national championship, since teams were invited by lottery and did not have to qualify, but "you can't convince my kids of that," Ballard said. "That's the way they're looking at it, that's the way they're approaching it."