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Gaining A Foothold

Times Staff Writer

High School Soccer Kicked Off Slowly in Southern California in 1968, but 18 Years Later It Has Gained Enough Momentum to Become One of the CIF Southern Section’s Most Popular and Promising Sports

Spurred by the 1966 World Cup in England, professional soccer burst onto the Southern California sports scene in 1967 when the Los Angeles Wolves of the United Soccer Assn. and the Los Angeles Toros of the National Professional Soccer League established residence in the Coliseum.

A year later, the new leagues, bolstered by a national television contract, merged to form the North American Soccer League. Organizers promised the excitement of world-class soccer and later imported some of the world’s best players, including Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, to back their claims.

Meanwhile, without the fanfare of the pros, the CIF Southern Section began sanctioning soccer for the 1967-68 season with 39 teams.

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Eighteen years later, the level that began with much optimism--professional soccer--has turned out to be a bust in Southern California, whereas the level with more modest beginnings--high school soccer--has boomed.

Of the eight professional teams that played here, only one remains. The Wolves and the Toros, the NASL’s L.A. Aztecs and California Surf, and the American Soccer League’s L.A. Skyhawks, L.A. Lazers and California Sunshine have folded.

The Major Indoor Soccer League’s L.A. Lazers, who have limped along for four years, are the lone remnants of professional soccer in Southern California.

High school soccer, however, is thriving. There are currently 294 boys teams competing in the Southern Section, a 654% increase from 1968.

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In the Southern Section’s latest participation poll, reflecting figures from the 1983-84 season, boys’ soccer ranked fifth (with 10,242 players), behind football, track and field, basketball and baseball.

Girls’ soccer, which was first sanctioned in 1980-81, also is growing rapidly. There were 48 teams playing in 1980-81, but that figure has increased 256% in five years to 171 today.

“The most positive thing about the sport is that it thrives despite the lack of professional teams,” said John Coppage, Esperanza High School boys’ coach.

Soccer always has been the sport of the future in the United States. When professional teams first appeared in the sixties, soccer was promoted as the “Sport of the Seventies.” Later, it was called the “Sport of the Eighties.”

There still is optimism among those who coach, play and follow the game that it will become as popular as football, basketball and baseball.

It hasn’t on the professional level--the MISL is the only pro league left in the United States and Canada--but that doesn’t detract from the strides the sport has made in two decades.

“In terms of numbers, soccer has triumphed,” said Augusto Alarcon, Dana Hills coach. “It hasn’t had success in the pros, but the sport has still made its mark in the U.S. because we have all these kids playing it.”

When Alarcon began coaching at Dana Hills eight years ago, he had about 60 players try out for teams on three levels, just enough to fill the rosters. This year, he had 120 try out and had to turn 65 away.

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Only one Orange County high school, Savanna, did not field a boys’ team this season; nine schools didn’t have girls’ teams.

It is no surprise that high school soccer’s success has paralleled the growth of youth soccer. The American Youth Soccer Assn. began in 1964 in Torrance with nine teams. Today, there are 130,000 boys and girls, ages 5 through 18, playing AYSO soccer throughout Southern California, and more than 300,000 playing nationwide.

AYSO’s formula for success is simple. Its slogan is “Everyone Plays,” and parents obviously like the fact that their kids will play at least one half in each AYSO game. Such exercise beats standing in right field for six innings or warming the bench for a football or basketball team.

Soccer appeals to parents on other fronts, as well. The sport has minimal injury risks, it is relatively inexpensive, and it doesn’t require the specialized skills of football, basketball or baseball. Kids can have fun regardless of their skill level.

There also are psychological benefits that carry over to high school soccer.

“There isn’t as much peer pressure,” Coppage said. “There are no three-and-two counts or bases-loaded situations. The average soccer player can make 15 mistakes in a game and no one will notice.”

An even bigger benefit for high school soccer is the seasoned, skilled players schools have been receiving from the youth levels.

“When I began coaching, I had to teach the fundamentals,” said Roger Bryant, South Torrance coach for the past 19 years and current head of the Southern California High School Soccer Coaches Assn. “It would be like a baseball coach not explaining to a player how to bunt, but what a bunt is. But now, all the kids know how to play.”

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Added Alarcon, who grew up playing soccer in Ecuador: “The American soccer player used to be a good athlete who was fast and aggressive but didn’t have the finesse of the imports. Now, I see American kids with the same kinds of moves and finesse. Kids learn a lot on their own and coaching has improved. The younger ones who were just learning to be coaches years ago are becoming good coaches.”

High school soccer is well-entrenched in Southern California, but it is not without its problems. About half of the coaches are walk-ons, making it difficult for some schools to maintain continuity in their programs. There still is a lack of quality game officials at all levels.

The sport was placed on probation by the Southern Section for the 1984-85 season after 117 reports of ejections, fights, threats, profanity, suspended games and offended officials were reported to the Southern Section office during the 1983-84 season. The probation was lifted at the end of last season when 31 such incidents were reported.

Some coaches think the probation was the best thing that could have happened. They say it caused administrators to take a closer look at soccer and to invest more time and care in selecting coaches.

Stiffer penalties, such as one that states that a player ejected from a game must be withheld from his team’s next game, were imposed to instill more discipline.

Another problem, although not threatening to most high school players, is the absence of a healthy professional league.

Soccer is much like women’s basketball in this respect.

Opportunities for college scholarships are improving and the quality of play in college is excellent, but there isn’t much to shoot for after that. There are a few openings in the MISL but no professional outdoor leagues in the United States or Canada.

“I had a kid quit the other day because he wants to be a professional football player,” Bryant said.

Reaching the pros in any sport is an unrealistic goal for most high school athletes, but a good professional soccer league in America would help advance the sport on all levels. And the chances of a pro league surviving today may be better than they were 20 years ago.

One of the reasons professional soccer failed during the ‘70s and early ‘80s was that people knew little about the sport and almost nothing about the players. There was no soccer tradition here. Americans weren’t ready for the sport.

But with so many kids playing youth and high school soccer today, there is a better base for support for a pro league. It should be interesting to see how the sport develops over the next 20 years.

“Later on, it might be big,” Alarcon said.

Possibly, the Sport of the Nineties?


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