Take the world's most popular game, add 5,000 budding athletes and toss in several hard-driving coaches for good measure. Spread the mixture across sedate suburbs, and let the concoction simmer through the spring.
The result is the highly competitive youth soccer clubs of Northern Virginia, where sometimes the sport ends up too spicy for everyone's tastes. The cause: the uniquely adult practice of recruiting, which has prompted bitter accusations that some coaches violate league rules by raiding rival teams for ace players.
The current season is no exception. A committee of the National Capital Soccer League, which oversees 330 teams in some 40 different clubs around Washington, recently heard and dismissed a complaint by one coach that a rival enticed a skilled 10-year-old player away from his team.
The complaint by Dennis Clague, who coaches an Arlington team, against a coach in McLean produced a two-inch stack of written charges, countercharges and nasty memorandums that was presented to the NCSL's Rules and Discipline Committee earlier this year.
After a March 16 hearing, the committee ruled the McLean coach, Robert Van Hauser, had not violated the league rule against active recruitment of players.
"But Dennis' complaint . . . has inspired us to take another look at the rule," league president Tony Dorrzapf said. The rules committee, which hears all recruiting complaints, is reviewing the rule and may recommend changes when the league's directors meet early next month, Dorrzapf said.
"There's no doubt that recruiting is still a problem in this league," said Walter J. Gruse, who filed a recruiting complaint two years ago while coaching in Arlington. "But we have the fastest-growing sport in the world right here. There are bound to be problems."
Given the immense size of the Washington area league--it includes teams from Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties, Alexandria and several Maryland localities--the number of alleged recruiting violations that occur is quite small, league officials and coaches say. But hardly a season goes by without at least one coach publicly accusing another of stealing a player, officials say.
In the clubby atmosphere of Northern Virginia youth soccer, where players, parents and coaches meet each other several times a season, such complaints can shake the league down to its cleats.
In 1979, for instance, George C. Towner Jr., president of the Arlington Youth Soccer Club, filed a formal complaint against a McLean team and its coach after McLean adults approached an Arlington player "about tryouts with the express purpose of joining that team," Towner said in a letter to the rules committee. The panel never heard Towner's complaint.
Then in 1981, Walt Gruse complained a Fairfax County coach, who also was the NCSL president at the time, broke a league rule by failing to notify Gruse that an Arlington player had tried out with the Fairfax team. The rules committee later placed the coach, Ferdinand Paciolla, on a year's probation.
The infraction, however, did not violate the antirecruiting rule, Paciolla said recently.
Under NCSL rules, coaches are barred from contacting "the player of another team or club for the purpose of enticing him to join their team." But the rule is barely enforceable, some league members argue.
"It's extremely difficult to prove an infraction," said Paciolla, who coached for 10 years. "If an official goes up to the boy or the boy's parents, they always say they made the first contact with the other coach.
"When I coached, I lost a lot of players and I gained a lot of players in transfers," Paciolla said. "My three boys played in that league, and many times another coach would say to them, 'If you ever want to leave your dad's team, you can have a spot on mine.' That was said jokingly, but is it recruiting?"
Some coaches have rented billboards to boost their teams, used direct mail to attract new players and advertised tryouts but never were cited for violating the recruiting rule.
"The idea of the rule," said Clague, who plans to appeal his case to a special league committee, "is that youth soccer is a kid's game played by kids, and that there should be no interference with a kid's own team.
"A kid should not be subjected to pressure, and recruiting is pressure."
Clague and other coaches in Arlington, where the County Board voted a strict ban against recruiting, frequently complain the local rule makes them easy pickings for teams governed by less stringent regulations.
"A coach is going to be concerned when his own ox gets gored," said Towner, now president of the Virginia Youth Soccer Association, which has no antirecruiting rule. "A coach has an obligation to be fair to other teams, but players should also be honest about which team he wants to play for."
Towner said he and other youth soccer leaders around the state want a uniform set of recruiting rules.
"We should have a truth-in-performance rule, one that ensures full disclosure between player and coach," he said. "Kids should be honest with their coach. That's what this game is about."