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Games Have Ended, but Memories Linger On for Soccer Team Hosts

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With cities across the nation having hosted World Cup soccer games, there are nine U.S. communities that can now boast of offering up their municipal stadiums to the planet’s biggest sporting event.

Mission Viejo isn’t one of them. Who needs the games and glitz anyway? “We had the U.S. soccer team for 18 months,” said Bill Irvine of the Mission Viejo Soccer Foundation. “For a year and a half, we lived and breathed soccer with those guys, and we’ll never forget the experience.”

As U.S. soccer officials prepare to move out of their team training center in Mission Viejo, residents of this soccer-crazy suburb are reflecting on the months of World Cup memories they gained in hosting the squad.

Left behind will be tangible signs of the team’s presence: a $3.5-million, world-class soccer facility, millions of dollars pumped into the South County economy, and more than $100,000 invested in area youth soccer leagues.

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Perhaps more important, “this was a chance for thousands of kids in our soccer leagues to watch their soccer heroes up close, in person,” said Jack Minter of Mission Viejo, who runs the country’s second-largest league in the American Youth Soccer Organization. “No other city in the nation was able to give their children that kind of opportunity.”

And for a few golden months surrounding the World Cup tournament, the world passed through Mission Viejo’s door.

“We had hundreds of journalists from dozens of countries in this city,” Irvine said. “There was one paper in England that had a Mission Viejo dateline, and the first line (of the story) asked, ‘Where’s Mission Viejo?’ Then it had a little story about us.”

Soccer is a way of life in Mission Viejo and most of South County, where more than 13,000 children play organized soccer, American Youth Soccer officials say.

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“For many people, the family vacation is planned according to the location of our soccer tournaments,” said Alan Gallup, founder of the Mission Viejo Soccer Foundation, a nonprofit group formed to bring the U.S. team to Mission Viejo. “For example, Thanksgiving means the Las Vegas tournament. Our social lives basically revolve around soccer.”

This soccer-hungry city embraced the team when U.S. officials chose Mission Viejo in 1992 as a training site over such major metropolises as Dallas, Washington, Los Angeles and Orlando.

Soccer officials wanted a clean, family-oriented atmosphere for the players. They found what they were looking for in Mission Viejo.

Host families helped team members settle into South County. Players bought homes in Mission Viejo and frequented local stores, theaters and restaurants.

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The city built the team a beautiful practice facility to help it prepare for the World Cup, an emerald gem set in the golden hills near the Saddleback Mountains.

Every day, adults and children would sit on the grassy slopes above the soccer fields and watch players who would soon become known across the country--Alexi Lalas, Tony Meola, Marcelo Balboa and others.

It was the stuff of memories, and Mission Viejo residents have plenty to remember.

Last Wednesday, 13-year-old Tiffany Smith was at a UCLA soccer clinic where U.S. team member Cobi Jones was scheduled to appear. Smith had gotten to know Jones at the Mission Viejo practice field, and the dreadlocked soccer player even showed up at one of her games.

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A crowd of admiring teen-age girls was gathered around Jones at UCLA when the former Bruin spotted Smith. Jones walked up to Smith and gave her a big hug as the other girls watched with wide eyes and open mouths. Then a crowd gathered around Smith.

“They came up to me and said, ‘Oh my God, you know him?’ ” she said. “He just wanted to know how I was and what I was doing.”

Irvine’s lasting memory is the day that soccer legend Pele came to town to film a commercial.

“It was phenomenal,” he said. “He was so great with the kids, and even as old as he is, Pele can still do amazing things with a soccer ball.”

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Gallup saw soccer gain new heights in popularity in a city already fanatical about the sport.

“I vividly remember the first game the U.S. team played at Trabuco Hills High School stadium against F.C. Zurich,” a top-ranked club team from Switzerland, he said. “I walked into the stadium and there were thousands of people in the stands, all cheering for U.S. soccer.

“There was so much emotion that night,” Gallup said. “Those people were thrilled to see the national team in Mission Viejo.”

As for the U.S. team, “I can put our feelings (about Mission Viejo) into three words,” said Dean Linke, the team spokesman who met his fiancee while working in South County. “I’ll miss it, and I believe I speak for a lot of the team. I think Mission Viejo had a great effect on us, not only as a soccer team, but as people.”

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Left behind will be the training center, which youth club teams are planning to use. American Youth Soccer officials say sign-ups for league play have jumped 15% for this fall’s soccer season.

“Anytime you go through an amazing event like this, there’s got to be a letdown,” Irvine said. “But I’m already planning out schedules for teams to start play in September. Soccer life goes on.”


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