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World tourney in Brazil pushes U.S. soccer interest to new heights


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L-R Jack Neal and Justin Wilkerson run after a soccer ball during a scrimmage Thursday at the South Central Soccer Academy. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
L-R Jack Neal and Justin Wilkerson run after a soccer ball during a scrimmage Thursday at the South Central Soccer Academy. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal


The next Pele, Landon or Ronaldo could be sinking his foot into a soccer ball   at this very moment somewhere on American soil.

Same is true when it comes to the next Abby, Marta or Mia.

As girls and boys players practice on a recent sun-splashed evening at the South Central Soccer Academy fields in Bargersville, the skill levels these players ultimately achieve is as vague as what role soccer plays in the United States five, 10, even 20 years from now.

 

The grip men’s and women’s World Cup tournaments have had on much of the rest of the world for generations tightens ever so slightly every four years in this country.

The number of children being raised to appreciate soccer’s artistic nature and subtle nuances by parents who weren’t lessens as time passes.

Many of today’s youngsters became engrossed in soccer during the 1990s when the sport began emerging as much more than a last-resort activity for high school physical education teachers.

“About 1994 is when it really started to pick up. I do think there are now a lot more genuine soccer fans, but the parents in that generation hadn’t really been exposed to soccer,” Whiteland High School boys soccer coach Justin VanHorn said.

“It depends where you are. We’re battling that in Whiteland, definitely, but as kids start playing soccer more you’re going to see a huge shift.”

Nationwide growth

According to U.S. Youth Soccer, a non-profit organization promoting the benefits the sport can play in the physical, mental and emotional development of America’s youth, the number of registered players in the United States exceeded 3 million in 2012.

This nearly doubles the number of registered players in 1990.

The gender breakdown is also becoming more balanced nationwide. In 1995, boys players made up 55 percent of the sum compared to 45 percent female. Girls participation has since increased, closing the gap to 52/48.

As a result, World Cup mania is a uniting force for those who follow soccer with their own unique fervor.

“For certain age groups it is a big deal because those players are their role models, and they want to look at them and figure out what they do and how they want to try to be like them. It’s kind of like their idols,” said Bradley Bennett, a senior defender for the Center Grove High School boys soccer team.

“Every four years it’s huge time because you’re sitting there waiting for it to see who’s going to take over the world and be the best international team out there.”

The United States men’s soccer team remains in contention for such a distinction having qualified for the round of 16. The Americans play Belgium at 4 p.m. Tuesday.

A victory and U.S. soccer is officially set on its ear with only the country’s third trip to the quarterfinal round.

The United States’ best finish (third) came in 1930 in Uruguay; it qualified for the Final Eight in 2002 with Japan/South Korea sharing the role as host.

At one point the American men’s teams missed out on a staggering nine consecutive tournaments (1954-86). It has rebounded by qualifying for the past seven.

“To me it seems like stocks. It goes up, it comes down a little bit,” Center Grove High School girls soccer coach Mike Bishop said. “But if you have good stocks you have an upward trend over the long haul, and I think that’s where soccer is in the mindset of people.”

Generation gap

It’s not uncommon for today’s soccer parents to watch their son or daughter’s match with a blank slate of knowledge other than the very basics:

A goal equals a point. Assists are given to the player responsible for the pass leading to the point.

The more the child plays, the more educated 30-, 40- and 50-somethings become. The same applies to individuals who watch their grandchildren play soccer on a relatively regular basis.

“I loved playing soccer when I was 8-, 9-years old. But my mom would come to the games and she goes, ‘Hey, I love to watch you play, but I have no concept of what it is you’re doing.’ Since it’s not in the forefront of sports in a lot of households people don’t know the nuances of the game. They just look at a bunch of people kicking the ball back and forth and are like, ‘What’s the point of this? It’s stupid,’” Bishop said.

“A lot of parents just bypass it for that reason, where if you follow soccer or you play you know the little things that make it more enjoyable.”

Professional soccer franchises help with the educational process.

Case in point the Indy Eleven of the 10-team North American Soccer League. Indianapolis’s latest foray into professional soccer — an indoor franchise, the Indiana Twisters, played two seasons before folding in 1997 — made its debut in April.

However, the World Cup stands alone as the sport’s grandest spectacle.

Red, white and who?

Television has gone out of its way to provide viewers aerial shots of thousands of fans crowded to watch the U.S. team play matches on big screens in cities such as Chicago and Kansas City.

A major portion are adults, some who might not be able to name a single American player, but simply want to wear their nation’s colors and be part of the World Cup phenomenon.

“You see a lot of fans come out of the woodwork,” VanHorn said.

“I think it’s pretty exciting,” Trojans boys soccer coach Todd Sheely said. “They’re still cheering for America.”

Added Bishop of bandwagon soccer fans: “I don’t mind because the bandwagon is fun. It brings a good energy. It’s one of those things where if there is a bandwagon people get excited, and they might pay attention and understand the game a little more. And then they get hooked. I think that’s the slow build over every four-year cycle.”

Those in the United States raised on the sport are qualified to critique every little juke or head fake; every pass and penalty.

Those with less knowledge of the sport find fulfillment wrapping themselves in patriotism.

“At a point I actually am kind of irritated. But at the same time I am excited people are getting into the sport,” said Bennett, perhaps speaking for other players of his generation.

“You have some people who don’t really understand soccer, but then with the World Cup everyone gets together and starts enjoying it.”

On June 16, Center Grove’s girls and boys varsity players and coaches watched together at a local eating establishment the United States’ 2-1 win over Ghana.

It proved the ideal blend of patrons who knew how the sport is played with those still building their knowledge kick-by-kick, header-by-header.

“When World Cup comes around, all these people talk about the U.S. (team) and believing we can do it. People who I didn’t even know cared about soccer,” said Hannah Johnson, a senior midfielder for Center Grove’s girls program.

“The interesting thing to see in little kids during the World Cup is the numbers of how many want to do it. Seeing the World Cup on TV, hearing about it everywhere, they want to be a part of it.”

“Little kids will go around and they’ll start naming players like Ronaldo and they’ll start kicking it,” Bennett added. “They get so into it.”

What’s next

Difficult as it might be to believe, the United States’ highest number of registered youth players came in 2008 with 3,148,114.

The four years that followed each produced a slight drop.

How long the current soccer honeymoon lasts hinges mainly on how long this U.S. team is playing, though avid fans will tune in regardless of which countries are competing.

It remains to be seen whether the World Cup translates into increased attendance figures at professional matches, including those hosted by the Indy Eleven.

The 2016 Women’s World Cup is scheduled to take place in the Middle Eastern nation of Jordan. Russia will be the destination for the next Men’s World Cup in 2018.

No matter how the U.S. fares Tuesday, these past couple of weeks have been invaluable in helping grow the sport of soccer.

“What’s interesting is you’ll have kids ask you if you saw a move (Spain forward Lionel) Messi made or a move (Portugal’s Cristiano) Ronaldo made. What would be interesting to see is your 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds who are registered to play soccer this fall because of (World Cup). I think you’ll see a spike in the numbers,” Sheely said.

“I don’t think soccer will bypass football or basketball in popularity (in the United States), but I think you’ll see it bypass baseball in the next few years.”

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