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AYSO Nears 25 Years Building Youth Soccer

Times Staff Writer

Tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood near a curve in the San Diego Freeway in Hawthorne, you can’t find a better place for the headquarters of a youth sports program.

This is middle America, aging single-story homes, narrow tree-lined streets. It’s unpretentious, like the philosophy of the American Youth Soccer Organization.

“Everyone plays,” affirms Executive Director Tim Thompson. That’s a commandment AYSO purists suggest is reshaping the national consciousness about futbol.

In July AYSO will celebrate its silver anniversary with a party in Long Beach. Founded in Torrance in 1964, AYSO has grown to more than 25,000 teams for boys and girls ages 5-18 in 38 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.

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Nevertheless, this country has never embraced soccer with open arms, but it may be forced to know because it will host the 1994 World Cup.

According to Thompson, AYSO is already at the forefront of a soccer movement in the United States. Four players on the U.S. Olympic team, which raised a few eyebrows in Seoul last week, are former AYSO players. They came from these very neighborhoods, or at least, places like them--the “little pink houses,” referred to by singer John Cougar Mellencamp in a popular Top 40 tune.

AYSO (pronounced A-SO by supporters) has its strength in the suburbs. An office in a shiny steel building with reflective glass windows would be out of character, away from the whine of a lawn mower, chirping birds, the roar of a city street sweeper.

Its headquarters is a closed elementary school near the corner of Rosecrans Avenue and the 405. In keeping with the organization’s low-key attitude, an unimposing, weathered wooden sign at the former Peter Burnett School lends little hint of what goes on here.

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Thompson is one of 17 paid staffers at the facility. Five of those people are accountants who handle the paper work for more than 400,000 participants.

The organization is constantly expanding. AYSO employs one staffer full time just to start new regions.

“In 10 years, with the right kind of affiliations, I can see AYSO with 2 million children,” said Thompson.

Founder Hans Stierle is proud of those numbers. In the early 1960s he detested what he called the “Little League mentality” of youth sports in the United States, an elitist attitude that benched all but the finest players. He wanted to introduce something new to the kids who hung around Garvey Park near his home. He played soccer as a youth in Germany and it seemed like the right time in American history to try something new. A pair of national professional leagues were getting under way at the time.

Stierle formed AYSO with four other men in 1964. It took 15 minutes to decide what to name the organization. Only Stierle stuck with it. He was its driving force for 15 years.

“It’s rather clear that AYSO has done the job that it set out to do,” said Stierle by phone from his current home in Bellevue, Wash., where he runs a marketing business.

An American citizen, Stierle moved to Germany prior to the start of World War II with his family. It was there that he learned about soccer, played it, and fell in love with the European concept of divisional play, which allowed just about everyone to participate.

In this country after the war, Stierle lamented that soccer here was a “purely ethnic” game. No American could identify with it, since only ethnic groups in large urban areas played it. Longstanding political conflicts led to the replay of ancient battles on the soccer field, which, in turn, excluded most native-born Americans from playing.

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In the early 1960s he would walk the parks in Torrance, at the time teeming with youngsters.

“We’d say to the kids, ‘You want to play soccer?’ and then we would put them in groups, divide them up evenly and show them how to play.”

Team balance, not sorting good players from weak ones, is another AYSO tenet.

“We realized we just couldn’t ask Americans to come play soccer because they didn’t have a concept of what it was unless we gave them a reason to play.”

Bridging the ethnic barrier was a key concern of the five founders.

“I wanted to make sure in everyone’s mind that this was to be an American organization and not an ethnic one,” Stierle said.

In 1964 AYSO began with nine teams in Torrance. Stierle insisted that each child play at least half the game. To make it easier on coaches to substitute, he split the game into quarters instead of the traditional halves of play. The founders insisted that every parent get involved. This self-policing policy is a bulkhead today.

“We knew that if every parent was on the sidelines, they would make sure that this philosophy of ‘everyone plays’ would be applied,” Stierle said. “It’s the simplest thing ever created, in hindsight.”

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Still, said Stierle, AYSO was “not well thought out.” That first meeting of its founders was held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, not, as the rumor goes, in Stierle’s Torrance garage. It lasted just “10 or 15 minutes,” he said.

“By accident I guess we did pretty well.”

The ideals of the founders are applied today on more than 125,000 volunteers. Parents are required to be involved.

“We want as many parents (grandparents, aunts and uncles too) to get involved, to share the excitement with us and your children,” said national President Burt Haimes of New York in a publication sent to all AYSO parents this fall. “Get into the thick of it, be a coach, carry a linesman’s flag, line a field or stuff envelopes.”

A volunteer spirit permeates the organization. Players must re-register each spring in person, and each is required to bring at least one parent with him. At the registration center, a site usually donated free of charge by a school, park, church or business establishment, the parent is shuffled through a series of one-on-one presentations, each staffed by volunteer parents. He is encouraged to volunteer his time as an official, coach or sponsor.

Thompson calls that attitude AYSO’s “religious zeal.” Haimes’ position, for example, is a volunteer one.

“No one can hold a candle to us,” said Thompson.

Thompson, a string bean of a man with seemingly endless enthusiasm, came to the organization in 1980, at a time when AYSO was at a crossroads following a period of rapid expansion. Stierle had diversified the group’s funds for maximum investment growth. The organization was ill-equiped to handle them.

“Hans became AYSO and AYSO became Hans,” said Thompson. “It was difficult at the time to separate the two.”

Thompson, who once ran for a school board post in Huntington Beach, has never played soccer, but he has three sons who have. In 10 years at Continental Airlines, he held a variety of administrative roles. Previously, he was a certified public accountant. Today he heads the national office and its $3 million budget.

“At times I think people don’t have a concept of what we do in the national office,” he said. That’s why he points out that AYSO goes through about 20 skids of paper a year and has a $30,000 mailing budget. Only 20% of the budget goes to salaries.

“Communication is our primary goal. If we do one thing here on the national level, it is to communicate with all our regions,” he said.

In a former classroom, now the shipping warehouse, Thompson points out AYSO bumper stickers that read PLAYSOCCER. The group brings in about $300,000 a year through the sale of promotional items.

In a conference room that one time served as a faculty lounge, there is an autographed poster of soccer star Pele.

“To AYSO. All the best,” wrote the Brazilian star on a 1982 visit.

Thompson insists soccer can achieve star status in this country, comparing the possibilities with those that are sweeping the nation in slow-pitch softball now.

“Don’t force it where there is no interest,” he said. “We as a country will over time develop our own style.”

The past 25 years of AYSO soccer in this country, he said, is just the beginning of that inevitable evolution.


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