Every four years or so, everybody starts talking about soccer.
Casual sports fans, who otherwise watch baseball and football, become patriotic and tune in to see the World Cup, the largest sporting event on Earth. The month-long tournament in South Africa begins Friday.
But if you visit just about any town in southern New Jersey on a Saturday morning in the spring or fall, you might think soccer was the national pastime.
In Lower Township, every spare patch of grass has a set of soccer nets. On Bayshore Road in North Cape May, games are played on a field nestled next to Turdo Vineyards. The sidelines are packed with parents watching their shinguard-wearing children trying to score goals while visitors to the nearby winery sip chardonnay and merlot.
“Soccer’s even more popular in the fall,” said Zachary Zelwak, Lower Township’s supervisor of parks and recreation. “That’s when we put up nets in the outfields of our Little League (baseball) complex.”
Soccer will replace baseball in the forefront of the national landscape for the next month. Americans who normally reserve their patriotism for Memorial Day, Veterans Day and the Fourth of July will be waving flags and chanting “USA, USA” in sports bars.
But once the World Cup ends, that fervor will most likely disappear. Local fans often revert to following the sports they grew up watching. Their attention will be focused on seeing whether the Phillies can make it to a third straight World Series while waiting for the Eagles’ season to start.
“Soccer has been around England and a lot of other countries for hundreds of years compared to 10 years here in the United States,” said English native Neil Holloway, who is the coach and general manager for the Ocean City Nor’Easters of the Premier Development League. “It’s more like a religion than a sport in some countries. People are raised on it.”
The lack of passion in the U.S. may be a bit surprising, considering so many children now grow up playing soccer.
The South Jersey Soccer League, which has teams based in all southern New Jersey counties from Burlington to Cape May, features about 5,100 boys on 390 traveling teams this spring, and had 6,200 players on 477 traveling teams last fall.
The sport is also incredibly popular on the recreational level. For example, Lower Township’s rec leagues have nearly 400 players in kindergarten through sixth grade on 28 coed teams in both the fall and spring.
Nationwide, soccer is the most popular and fastest-growing team sport among young athletes ages 5 to 19. In 1974, when soccer was still an oddity on the country’s sports landscape, U.S. Youth Soccer had 103,432 boys and girls registered. Last year, the organization had 3,094,868.
“Soccer is one of the few organized sports that you can get into at an early age, and it’s also pretty inexpensive at the lower levels,” said Linwood resident Jerry Meister, whose sons Brad, 12, and Luke, 7, are soccer players in the Mainland United Soccer Association. “All you need is a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, shinguards and maybe some cleats and you’re in. Plus, soccer provides the opportunity for interaction among kids, which I think helps build character and sportsmanship.”
Soccer is just a part of Brad’s sports schedule. He plays it in the fall and spring, but also participates in basketball, street hockey, baseball, surfing and, his favorite sport, lacrosse.
But when it comes time to watch sports on TV, soccer is well down on his list.
“I’ll watch soccer if there’s a championship game on or something, but mostly I like to watch the Phillies and the Yankees in baseball and the Eagles in football,” Brad Meister said. “But the one I really like to play and watch is lacrosse. It’s like soccer, hockey and football rolled into one.”
The chances of Jerry Meister’s sons sticking with soccer through their high school years are not great. The popularity of the sport seems to decrease with age.
Some give up soccer because they are not good enough to play for their high school team. Those who join travel programs at a young age sometimes get burned out from the constant travel and pressure. Others simply give it up because they don’t think it’s as fun as some other sports.
“When’s the last time you heard of a high school holding a pep rally for their soccer team?” said Meister, a former high school and college basketball referee who teaches in the Egg Harbor Township school district. “Football and basketball are the popular sports to play at that level, particularly in this area. And I understand why. I go to Mainland (Regional High School) football games on Friday nights and it’s exciting and pretty awesome.”
In other countries, it’s a totally different story. Soccer is king.
Holloway was raised about 40 miles outside of London in Reading, England. Like every other boy in town, he grew up with soccer. He played for the Reading Football Club from ages 9 to 18. He also was a big fan of Chelsea in the English Premier League.
In Europe and South America, kids dream of becoming the next David Beckham or Lionel Messi, a 22-year-old Argentine who is described in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated as the best player in the world. Landon Donovan is considered the top American player, but is overshadowed by LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter.
“Here in the United States, it’s all about American football and baseball with kids,” said Antonio Cortes, a Pleasantville resident who grew up in Mexico. “There are a lot of different sports to choose from. In Mexico, it’s all about (soccer). Everyone plays, whether you live in a small town or big city. I’m 43 now, but I still play. And I’m always watching soccer on TV on Univision, ESPN Desportes and Telemundo.
“I’m also doing my best to teach my kids and keep them interested in soccer. My son Emilio (12) plays for the Ocean City Nor’Easters (developmental team) and even my daughter Daniella (3) kicks the ball around. Right now, I’m getting them ready for the World Cup. We have books with all the players and we’re taking stickers and putting them in the books. I’m hoping they’ll stick with it. Soccer is a great game.”
Victor Figueroa, a Linwood resident who grew up in Mexico City, has the same approach.
Like Cortes, Figueroa started playing and following soccer as a child and never stopped being a fan. When he’s not watching games at home, he turns games on while working at Walt’s Original Primo Pizza in Somers Point. His daughter, Jessica, plays soccer for Mainland Regional High School.
“We played whenever we could, usually in the streets,” Victor Figueroa said with a laugh. “Kids have it easy over here with grass fields and cleats. We played in bare feet on concrete or in dirt. And I still watch whenever I get a chance. I have two TVs in the shop and I watch it there, too.”
The key to increasing the popularity of soccer in the U.S. may be to get younger generations to watch more games.
Locally, the Phillies and Eagles will always dominate. But if more people begin to follow the Philadelphia Union, a first-year franchise in the MLS, maybe those kids who are running around on weekends will stick with soccer even after they hang up their shinguards.
The Union have drawn well in their first two home games at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles play. The season opener, the team’s debut in Philadelphia, drew 34,870 fans, while their second game, on May 15, drew 25,038. The team is moving into a new soccer-specific stadium in Chester, Pa., on June 27.
“Sports are 100 percent a cultural thing,” Holloway said. “And you can only grow a culture through time. You can’t inject it. We just have to wait for the next generation of soccer players to grow up. When today’s youth players become parents, maybe their kids will become soccer players and soccer fans rather than focusing just on football and baseball.”
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