BOOM OR BUST? : ‘Sport of the ‘80s’ Is Catching On--but Mostly With Youngsters

Times Staff Writer

So this is the great American soccer boom.

There is no nationwide outdoor pro league. The indoor league, despite an average attendance of more than 10,000 in three cities last season and 8,000 in an arena in Wichita, Kan., that seats 9,681, has come up empty twice in attempts to have a franchise stick in New York, and has only minor followings in Los Angeles and Chicago.

A game Sunday between the Mexican national team and a club team from Brazil drew an estimated 12,000, although international games at the Coliseum usually draw 20,000 to 28,000. But 80% of those are foreign-born fans.

Said promoter Hugo Bandi: “We haven’t turned our backs on the Anglo fans, but we realize that if we spend $1 in the Latino community we get $3 back and if we spend $1 on the Anglo market we might get 15 cents back.”


It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Fifteen years ago, back when the Cosmos were the high-profile North American Soccer League team and light years away from being Carl Sagan’s domain, the predictions were that soccer would be the next big sport in the United States, after an evolution that would bring it to baseball-like status.

You didn’t need much equipment or planning, remember, just a ball, an open field and people who wanted to run a lot.

In that regard, soccer in the United States has struck out.

As Bandi, the Argentine-born secretary of the Inter America Soccer Club, said: “I wish one day that the American people will wake up and see that this is the No. 1 sport in the rest of the world. So far, I’ve been in this country for 27 years and I hear the same thing every once in a while: In the next 10 years. It’s always ‘in the next 10 years.’ I haven’t seen it materialize yet.”

But the situation has changed since the ultimate depths of American soccer ignorance were realized in Waxahatchie, Tex., one afternoon in the mid-1970s, the heyday of the NASL and Dallas Tornado hero Kyle Rote Jr. Rote and a few of his teammates gave a clinic at a local school, after which the principal thanked the players.

“And,” the principal added, “how you’re able to do those things on skates I’ll never know.”

That’s what soccer was up against then. Now, the sport’s biggest enemy may be those old predictions of the impending boom. They haven’t come true on a money-making level--the NASL died in 1984--so there goes the credibility for future attempts at a nationwide outdoor league.


Apparently, the only thing that has developed as expected is youth participation and awareness, the latter of which is more important when it comes to filling arenas of the Major Indoor Soccer League and bringing the World Cup to this country, a movement now under consideration.

Having an American, Paul Caligiuri, a former UCLA star, playing in Europe--the true big leagues, even in the days of the NASL--is another big step.

“I think it’s quite an accomplishment for America to finally break through to international play,” Caligiuri said the other day. “I hope I’ve opened the door for others to come over and play.”

It is a role Caligiuri, from Diamond Bar, has grown into, even relished. When a reporter from the West German publication Morgenpost commented during a January interview that “perhaps you know that American soccer players in Germany aren’t taken very seriously,” Caligiuri responded with a spirited, yet honest answer.

“Of course,” he said. “But there really are a large number of good soccer players back home. At the youth level, soccer is actually the No. 1 sport. It could help American soccer if I make it in the Bundesliga (Germany’s top league). Perhaps one could call it pioneer work.”

In Europe, maybe, but the pioneer work of youth soccer in the United States has been completed. This is the gravy time. This is the one boom prediction that came true.

The American Youth Soccer Organization, which started with 135 members and nine teams in 1964, is up to 300,000 youngsters (ages 5-18) and 21,500 teams. The number of players represents an increase of 60,000 in four years, and the number of volunteers--coaches, referees, administrators--has risen by approximately 100,000.

Of the 300,000 current members, 85% are under 13, which means they could be in the program for years to come.

Moreover, the U.S. Youth Soccer Assn. reports an increase from 100,000 players in 1974-75 to 800,000 in 1980-81 to 1.25 million in 1986-87. The last six-year jump represents an increase of 56%.

This is the great American soccer boom.

And there are other important signs, primarily financial support. Coca-Cola USA helped out in Bakersfield, becoming the first corporation to donate a field, at a cost of $22,000, for the Kern County Soccer Federation’s $2-million, 15-field complex. The AFL-CIO donated $250,000 in labor and fuel to the project.

A 22-acre, 9-field facility was completed in Benbrook, Tex., when the Optimists’ club got a 25-year lease on the land from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for $1 a year. Seabees from the Dallas Naval Air Station graded the land practically for nothing.

The Optimists spent about $175,000 on the complex, the biggest outlay $92,000 for an air-conditioned building that includes a meeting room used by the Fort Worth Soccer Assn. and other community organizations.

In St. Louis, Anheuser-Busch took over a deteriorating 34-acre complex and in two years has added AstroTurf, additional concession stands and restrooms, a press box with an upper deck for filming, digital scoreboards, and new training equipment.

In Los Angeles, Procter and Gamble was giving away tickets to promote last Sunday’s game at the Coliseum.

Therefore, a paradox. The American soccer craze was a fizzle from a money-making standpoint--by most accounts, the NASL failed because it spent too much trying to grow without a solid base--but participation is unprecedented. In other words, it’s been a success and a failure, both dramatically.

“I’m shocked that the game has made strides as quickly as it has,” Rote said. “More people in the NCAA play soccer than football. There are more than 300 women’s programs.

“Millions and millions of kids play, as well as men and women, and at a place like (the University of) Texas, where most people thought making it a varsity sport would take to the year 2000, it’s been going for five years. The momentum today is not carried by marketing or P.R. people. The momentum is carried by the game itself.

“I kind of dismiss all the hype. Soccer has its own momentum--it’s great fun for the kids to play. . . . We don’t need to hype it anymore. Let it takes its normal growth.”

Added Thom Meredith, the director of communications for the U.S. Soccer Federation and former public relations director for the NASL’s Tornado: “If you view it by the success of the professional outdoor league, yes, I’m disappointed. But if you view it by the number of people who are playing, shoot, we must have done something right.”

And from UCLA Coach Sigi Schmid, whose Bruins won the NCAA title in 1985: “Soccer is where it ought to be from the standpoint of participation and interest. The very poor prognosticators predicted the time it would take to make it big and they really didn’t judge where the fan base comes from.

“To them, it wasn’t ‘when are we going to produce the players?’ but ‘when are we going to produce the sufficient number of spectators?’ Ten or 15 years is enough to bring people like Paul Caligiuri to the forefront, but it’s not long enough to form a sufficient base of support for fans.”

That’s where the regional semi-pro leagues and colleges come in.

Fresno State drew 25,000 for three playoff games last season. Some of the Atlantic Coast Conference schools have soccer-only stadiums with big scoreboards, and the University of Connecticut has a prominent Soccer Friends Club to support the Huskies.

“It’s already become a solid spectator sport at many universities and a revenue sport at many universities,” said Schmid, one of those 135 players in the first year of AYSO. “On the West Coast, take Fresno State or the University of San Francisco or Nevada Las Vegas. On the East Coast, there’s Duke and Clemson and a few others. We play this year at the University of Connecticut and they’ll have 8,000 people there, guaranteed.”

Granted, many of those are college towns without pro teams, but, as Schmid said: “Those people are choosing to support soccer over track or baseball or basketball, and that’s what is most important.”

The six-team Western Soccer Alliance is one of several post-college leagues around the country. With average crowds of 1,400, it’s a distant cry from the big-time stadium life of the NASL. But no one seems to mind.

“People didn’t reject soccer as much as they rejected NASL-style soccer, the instant-major-sport approach,” said Donn Risolo, the director of public relations for the league. “One day, a city’s without a team and the next day, boom, they had a team with a big budget that was renting stadiums for 50 or 60,000 people. Everyone was still blinking their eyes when they walked through the stadium gates for the first games.

“The NASL is rarely mentioned,” Risolo said of the Western Soccer Alliance. “We have in mind the things the NASL had trouble with, like coast-to-coast travel and the complaints that there were too many foreigners on the field. I’d say the NASL is definitely on our minds, although we don’t consciously make decisions depending on what they did.”

But Caligiuri isn’t worried about making comparisons. For him, it shows the true state of American soccer better than anything.

“Of course I hoped we would be in a better situation, especially on the professional level,” he said. “There have to be steps taken if we want to compete consistently on an international level. I can’t say I’m pleased, but I can’t say I’m disappointed.

“But I look back to what it was like when I was first getting into soccer and I can say that the youth players today have much more going for them than I ever had.”