Everybody Gets To Play
In early September a handpicked team of youthful California soccer players, none of them over 18, toured Lower Saxony in West Germany, playing seven teams of like age in three weeks. The Californians surprised everybody by beating opponents from Braunschweig, Goslar, Hanover, Barsinghausen, Oldenburg and Wilhelmshaven before losing to a statewide all-star team.
The match in Hanover's World Cup stadium was an exhibition before the main professional event—Hanover vs. Hamburg—and therefore was played in front of 64,000 German soccer fans. The goalie for the California team, Scott Mosher, a 17-year-old from Portola Valley, made three point-blank saves with his face and body in the first five minutes of the game, and the German spectators began to chant "Torwart, Torwart" ("Goalie, Goalie") and the German players kicked the ground in disgust.
Scott Mosher would certainly never have been savoring cheers in Hanover and might never have played soccer at all if it had not been for the emergence in the mid-'60s of AYSO, the American Youth Soccer Organization, the first body to attempt a grass-roots approach to the Americanization of the game. AYSO is an after-school-and-Saturdays soccer league based in Torrance, an incorporated part of Los Angeles, with 3,959 teams in California and 153 more in Hawaii, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, Kansas, Michigan and Connecticut. It is operated along the lines of Little League baseball and Pop Warner football, but with a different and refreshing approach.
In AYSO "Everybody Plays." Those two words are the organization's motto, its philosophy, its cardinal rule and its bumper sticker. Every child on every team plays a full half of every game. "Everybody Plays" is the main reason AYSO has grown from nine teams in 1964 to 4,112 teams this year. It has attracted children who would not have dared to try out for Little League because they were shy or clumsy, and it has attracted the parents of shy and clumsy children. It has appealed to girls who were excluded from other after-school sports, and it has drawn adults who saw soccer as a superior sort of exercise for their offspring.
For every three children enrolled in AYSO, there is also a volunteer adult involved. They form a small army of referees, coaches, assistants, team mothers and administrators. They see themselves as pioneers, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Charlotte Ethington is coach of a team of little girls called the Torrance Teddy Bears, which won the state championship in its division last April. "It's hard to talk about the kids without getting emotional," she says. "Some of them would never make it in any other sport, and they're playing. Candee Heard over there wouldn't even play at recess before. She couldn't even run. Now she plays." Candee's father, who has been listening, chimes in. "It's helped her coordination," he says. "It's helped in everything."
The Teddy Bears' best player last season was 10-year-old Inside Left Judy Fick. She was 4'5", weighed 65 pounds and scored 54 goals. Judy Fick is the kind of player who gets "redistributed" in AYSO soccer. At the end of each season the coaches rate their most experienced players on a scale of 1 to 5, and the top two or three from each team of 15 are shifted to other teams in their immediate area to keep the competition balanced.
Dynasty building is frowned upon in AYSO, and so far, obstreperous parents are not a significant problem. "We may acquire a few more lemons as we grow," says Hans Stierle, the president and founder of AYSO, "but I'm positive the percentage won't increase. The lemon hazard is not very bad. Adults in our organization know enough to allow a child to go out and have a good time and kick a soccer ball and not care whether he scores a goal or not."
Like everyone else in AYSO except for four secretaries and a recently hired executive director, Stierle is a volunteer. The day is now past when he prepared AYSO's mailings with one hand and with the other drove the Harbor Freeway from his graphic-design business in Torrance to clients' offices in downtown Los Angeles. Still, he and an eight-man board of volunteer directors administer a program involving 60,000 people and $1 million. And the program continues to grow.
Stierle looks forward to the day when youth soccer will be organized on a national level and groups with principles closely allied to AYSO's will compete for national titles. With a gleam in his eye he says, "Can you imagine what will happen in the next 10 years when the 60,000 AYSO players become parents and encourage their offspring to play soccer? We'd better start looking for stadiums large enough to accommodate the fans."