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On a bright and beautiful Virginia afternoon that mocked Sunday's being Halloween came a bright, sometimes beautiful game of soccer between Duke, at game time rated first among the nation's college teams, and the home side at Charlottesville, the No. 3-ranked University of Virginia. Before the game, the fans of the ACC rivals, a Scott Stadium soccer-record 6,200 of them, shouted cheerily at one another. "We're Number One!" yelled the Duke side. "Not after today!" replied the Virginians. As it turned out, neither got satisfaction. The game ended 2-2 after two overtimes. But overriding the letdown caused by the tie was a sense that something long promised was coming into bud.
Little more than a week earlier, at a meeting in San Jose, Calif., the NASL owners had agonized over the apparent failure of pro soccer in the U.S. They gnawed at a paradox: their dwindling audience on the one hand, and the accelerating success of the game at the youth level on the other. The United States Soccer Federation hopes to register its millionth player in kids' soccer this year, and with an annual growth rate of about 20%, the sport has overtaken both Little League baseball and youth football in popularity.
If you wanted to see that paradox translated into human terms, you needed only to look at three generations of soccer players represented at Scott Stadium on Sunday. Start with the oldest and saddest one, the generation American soccer lost. Virginia Coach Bruce Arena is an example of it. He's 31 now and highly successful in the college game—through Sunday the 1982 Cavaliers' record was 13-0-2. Why lost? "I picked up the game far too late," Arena says. "I was 15, and you can't start at 15 and hope to compete. But I was a good athlete, and I was drafted by the Cosmos. However, I was at Cornell then, a good school, and I was unattracted by the fact that the Cosmos would give me $200 a game for maybe three months of the year. I was born too early for soccer here."
Helping out with the coaching at Virginia is Paul Milone, five years younger than Arena. "I played at Princeton," he says, "and got caught in the business of American players getting the shaft. I was drafted and spent a year with San Diego in the NASL. They had a German coach who ran a revolving door for German players. Americans never had a chance. Then I went to the Pittsburgh Spirit in the MISL. This time it was a Polish coach importing Poles. I came back here, to graduate business school. It's a common story."
But both men are now in a privileged position. They are assisting in the debut at the college level of the first born-with-the-ball Americans, like the freshmen who hung around after Virginia's practice on Saturday discussing international soccer styles. Latin individualism, German slow-build tactics, British hardcore—the jargon fell confidently from their lips. And why not? One of them, 18-year-old Brant Vitek, from Annandale, Va., had gone to Spain last summer to see the World Cup, the trip being a high school graduation present from his father. Another freshman, Jeff Gaffney, a high school All-America from Bethesda, Md. and Virginia's leading scorer with 12 goals, started to play when he was six. "They start 'em even younger now," he said.
"You can move onto these traveling teams when you're about 9 years old," said Cavalier Sweeper Dan Horton, "and we're on a par with anybody our age now. I've traveled to play in England, Sweden and Norway. We were never demolished by anybody, and we managed to beat a lot of teams, too."
"What the clubs do," says Duke Coach John Rennie, "is provide a ladder. It's like schoolyard basketball. You start at a particular corner playground. When you get to be the best player there, you move to the next corner. Or from the five o'clock to the eight o'clock game. So the clubs are more valuable for learning the game than the schools.
"There it's all that rah-rah stuff and playing on football fields with four quarters. It's ping-pong soccer. Watch the same kid play for his high school, then his club. He's a different player."
Ping-pong soccer is the game at its lowest level: long, high balls are belted downfield and chased in hope but not with artistry. The cure for it is the coaching clubs give—that and having the kids play a lot.