Area soccer enthusiasts, who include some 35,000 soccer playing Virginia youths and their parents, are looking at the recently completed soccer season and smiling. The reason?More kids than ever are playing the game and a distinctive American style of play is developing.
Soccer's growth locally in the past decade has been phenomenal.
"The game is outgrowing the coaches and facilities in this area," says Dennis Viollet, head coach of the Washington Diplomats professional soccer club which provides numerous clinics for area youth teams. "We (the Diplomats) are thinking about hiring someone fulltime just to conduct clinics for coaches. It would be an enormous job. The person would have to serve something like 6,000 coaches in this area."
The flocking to athletic fields of youthful soccer players, their coaches and fans has become a familiar sight in recent years, Viollet said. What is more encouraging to Viollet and others is the evidence that the players understand the intricacies of the game.
"There has been a tremendous improvment in the level of soccer skills in American youths," says Viollet, a former professional soccer player from England who has been part of the game's growth in this country since the late 60s. "In fact, at about the 12-year-old level, soccer you see around Washington is about as good as anything you'll find in the world."
Viollet believes national soccer styles develop when teams "play to the characteristics of their people." For Americans, he says, a style which combines aggressiveness and individual skill is emerging.
"American kids are starting to show in their games that they worked on their individual skills like juggling and dribbling which is important in keeping creativity in the game," Viollet said. "At the same time, I see kids learning the team concept - looking up before they pass, helping one another out."
While the skills of young American soccer players were in evidence throughout Northern Virginia all spring, perhaps Braddock Road Youth Club's second annual Al Dougherty Memorial Soccer Tournament last month was the best showcase.
The tournament featured two days of soccer matches for 84 "select" teams (which are similar to all-star teams) from the area, the mid-Atlantic state and Canada. They were chosen from among 160 that applied by sending their credentials to tournament director Carl Varblow for evaluation.
From 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday and from noon to 7 p.m. on Sunday five soccer fields at Robinson High School and three at Woodson High School were used non-stop for tournament competition.
Soccer is called the world's most popular sport and, indeed, adults cheered in a wide variety of accents for their favorites in the tournament. But many clearly American voices such as that of a Massapequa, Long Island, woman shouting, "C'mon sweetheart! You get him, baby!" also rang out.
Speed and skill are, of course, essential in soccer and many young American players displayed these talents, but perhaps none as spectacularly as Danny Miller, 12, from Huntington, Long Island. Small and skinny but quick and smooth, Miller demonstrated that in soccer, there's plenty of room for the little person.
Playing forward, the mop-headed Miller dazzled observers with footwork and passing despite the fact that he was guarded closely and physically by a much larger boy in the first half of his game against Massapequa. Miller always moved - with or without the ball - and he passed accurately with his head and the inside and outside of either foot.
But Miller's finest play came with the score 2-2 in the second half. A teammate passed the ball about 25 yards to Miller's right. Miller, hounded closely by his defender, chased the ball down in the right-hand corner of the field with his back to the goal. Quickly settling the ball between his feet, his defender directly behind him, Miller scissor-kicked the ball over his own head and his defender's toward the goal, where a waiting teammate non-chalantly headed the ball into the net to break the game open.
Frank Radics, a Hungarian immigrant who "grew up with soccer," and who was on the Masspequa team, watched Miller's play and smiled. "You see," he said, "that's why these tournaments are very important to the growth of soccer. These teams get exposure and everyone gets to see that there's talent like that boy around."