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Friday, August 01, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 7/12/2014

COMMENTARY

Soccer is new field of dreams in American youth sports

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST
Johanek Johanek
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Quick, somebody get Ann Coulter a plate of ribs with a side of chili cheese fries. The Fox News pundit looks like an emaciated Skeletor.

She turns sideways and disappears. Clearly, the sister is starving. That’s why the poor dear lashes out at the world. She’s compensating for hunger pains.

Recently, during World Cup soccer play, with millions of Americans glued to the action, she slammed the sport as “fruity.”

She called soccer “a game for girls” — like that’s a bad thing — “a game for beret-wearers,” and “un-American.” Nobody in his or her right mind, except maybe former Blade editor Thomas Walton, would dismiss soccer thusly.

Mr. Walton described it as something that “excites the rest of the world but elicits yawns most of the time in America.” My former boss, a super guy, is a huge fan of baseball.

That’s a game you can leave for extended periods of time to find a rest room, buy another beer, stop for peanuts, write a book, and return to your seat to find that nothing has changed.

In baseball, a score of one-zip is a scintillating pitching feat. Please. Take me out to the ball game, where 14 innings take five hours to play.

Major league players work so hard they need protracted commercial breaks between innings. In Cleveland, there’s enough time for a hot dog race that gets bigger cheers than what’s happening on the field.

Give me soccer any day. I’ve been a van-driving soccer mom for 10 years. My loyal mutt and I have been to more games than a dog should have to endure, but I’m hooked.

My kids started playing soccer when the sport was just recreational fun on Saturday mornings. It was kiddie entertainment, with dads coaching games from a how-to book.

Today, because of organized parent carpooling, soccer has evolved from rec play to travel teams, to premier or club teams that attract college recruiters. To the dismay of high school football and baseball coaches, soccer gradually is becoming the sport of choice in fall and spring.

High-quality athletes are opting for shin guards instead of shoulder pads. They’re learning foot skills and passing drills during the summer, instead of warming up with bats and gloves.

Soccer isn’t eclipsing American football, especially in northwest Ohio. But the sport has progressed to the point of competing in interest.

I’ve watched it develop from pastime to passion. Massive weekend tournaments draw hundreds of teams from all across Ohio and surrounding states.

Thousands of young players, tying their cleats or tugging at socks, trudge across fields to nonstop matches that culminate in championship rounds. The skill level of young soccer players blows me away.

This sport requires incredible finesse, tactical smarts, and most of all, physical endurance. Players who possess all three qualities play in the World Cup.

Their U.S. high school and college understudies are now playing in Ohio and in every big city and small town in America. In four years, the American soccer team should make it to the quarterfinals of the international event.

Toledo has talented travel and club teams drawn from growing rec systems. What may have started out as kids’ play has morphed into serious business.

The naysayers, such as Ms. Coulter and to a lesser degree Mr. Walton, cling to an old field of dreams. But soccer field are shaping new dreams. It’s calling a new generation of American athletes with the drive to run roughly six miles every soccer game and the dexterity to dazzle with strategy.

These aren’t imports from places such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, who come here to play major league baseball. These are the kids next door who played soccer for fun as first graders and stayed with it for the challenge.

They don’t care about winning a pennant race or starting a sandwich fund for a famished Fox News know-it-all. They’ve got their eye on another goal.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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