Youth soccer in the United States is booming. The appeal of the game is basic: boys and girls of any size can play.Equipment is minimal: a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, sneakers and a ball. Nets are nice too. But that is it. And parents like the game because it is less violent than football.
Still, as Coach Gordon Bradley of the Washington Diplomats pointed out, more youngsters are playing soccer but they aren't necessarily playing better.
"The problem is simple one," Bradley said. "We don't have enough coaches to go around. Getting the kids interested in the game is only step one. Teaching it to them right is step two but it's just as important. If they don't get good coaching, how are they ever going to become good players?"
Like almost everyone else in the NASL, Bradley believes a large infusion of American players into the league in the next few years is critical.
The league has acknowledged that necessity by ruling this year that three North Americans must be on the field all the time. Next year, the number will be four and, tentatively, six by the 1983 season.
"North Americans" means Canadians, too, and soccer in Canada also has grown rapidly. As a result many teams, the Diplomats included, use Canadians to fill the three-man requirement.
Each year though, several young Americans earn starting spots: Tony Bellinger and Steve Pecher in Dallas; Ricky Davis and Jeff Durgan in New York; Don Droege and Sonny Askew in Washington; Jim McAlister in Toronto, Perry Van der Beck in Tampa Bay, Gary Etherington in Los Angeles. And others.
Still, the league's stars are Europeans: Giorgio Chinaglia, Johan Gruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Oscar Fabbiani. Al Miller, in Dallas, and Dan Wood, in Atlanta, are the only native American coaches in the league.
"There are two things this league must do in the next five years," said Clive Toye, president of the Toronto Blizzard and one of the league pioneers. "We must develop the outstanding young American players and we must develop good referees. But the Americans are absolute must."
After Pele played his last NASL game in Soccer Bowl '77, he presented his shirt to McAlister. McAlister had just completed his rookie season with the Seattle Sounders and Pele's gesture seemed appropriate. He was passing the torch to McAlister.
McAlister dropped it. His play deteriorated and last he was benched. After being traded to Toronto, he is playing well again in blessed obscurity.
"It was all too much," McAlister said. "Everyone made such a big thing out of the Pele shirt. I was young (20) and not ready to handle it all."
Last year, the American flash was the Cosmos' Ricky Davis. "Ricky Davis will be the first American super-star," the team's president, Ahmet Ertegun, declared.
This year, Davis' play had fallen off before he went out injured recently.
"I've felt tired at times, kind of out of it," Davis admitted. "All of a sudden a lot of people wanted to talk to me.I went from no one to someone overnight.
"But I'm ajusting. I'm learning to deal with it all. And, more and more people look on me as just a good player, not some kind of sideshow freak -- an American soccer player."
Walt Chyzowych, the U.S. National soccer coach, said the American players today are much more skilled and further along in their development than the players of four years ago.
"Our national team this year is much stronger than the team of '76," Chyzowych said. "The coaching has made great strides, but there are still not many good coaches around. We now have more than two million youths playing the game and not nearly enough coaches.
"We have some quality players but we still lack numbers. There is just no great depth at the positions," he said.
Chyzowch, whose national team recently returned from a European tour with a 5-4-1 record, said the U.S. "should field a competitive World Cup team in '86 and definetely in '90."
"It's going to take some time but we're going to get there," Chyzowych said. "Look at the players around the country and the good Americans going into the NASL. The league can't panic and throw all Americans on the field just to satisfy some people. Maybe if the league came up with some sort of minor league system, like baseball, these kids could develop faster. Right now, they can't. To be good in any sport, you have got to play it."
Dallas' Miller thinks the problem goes deeper than a lack of coaches.
"We have a serious problem in this country," he said. "We're too caught up in being organized and in competition for young players. We're too caught up in winning. Kids are being overcoached at a young age. We're trying to give them too much too soon.
"Then, from ages 12-18 we don't have the structed type of program we need to produce NASL-caliber talent. For one thing the college and high school seasons are too abreviated. If we don't change a few things soon, we'll never develop our program to where we want it to be."
In fact, more and more young American players, at the urging of the NASL, are passing up college to go directly into the pros.
"I thought about going to college but changed my mind," said Tony Bellinger, who at 22 is a four-year veteran with Dallas. "I decided if I wanted to be a good pro, I should sign right away and begin training with seasoned players the way they do in Europe.
"I learned more my first two years here than I ever imagined possible. I would never have learned as much in college. It just doesn't prepare you for the NASL. Once is a while, a college player can break in and play right away. Otherwise, he has to sit and learn. Then he's 24 or 25 before he begins playing regularly."
Bellinger's teammate, Steve Pecher, also talked about the lack of top-flight amateur coaching. "I can remember when the football or basketball coaches were the soccer coaches because there was no one else," he said. "There wasn't a qualified coach around. Soccer was a self-taught sport.
"That's changing. Our national team has improved dramatically because the coaching is so much better now. But it still has a long way to go."
Jeff Durgan, 18-year-old defender who went straight from high school to the Cosmos' starting lineup, said: "If I can play for the Cosmos, why should I go to college and play against second or third rate talent? When I'm 23, I'll be a four-year pro, not just some kid coming out of school hoping to get a chance."
Maryland soccer Coach Jim Dietsch disagrees.
"Maybe for a handful of the superstars coming out of high school, skipping college is okay," he said. "But for the vast majority of kids, they'd be making a mistake thinking they can play with the pros.
"And college teams keep getting better every year. Our programs are running just about year-round. We play our season from August to November. My kids play indoor soccer two or three days a week during the winter, and we've got a six-week season in the spring. We had eight scrimmages last spring and our kids are playing all the time.
"We can help a lot of kids in the college programs. Maybe not the real superstars, but I'd still recommend for 99 percent of them to come to school. Get the education, and if you tear up a knee, you've got something to fall back on."
Adds American University Coach Pete Mehlert, "If the NASL was run like the English or West German League, with a youth program, an apprentice program and a reserve team where they always had competition, I would say yes, go to the pros at an early age. But they don't, and most young kids would not improve that much. I also think that American college coaching is improving more every year, the programs are getting better, we're doing a much better job."
Overseas, if a youngster has the talent to make it as a professional soccer player, he doesn't even consider college. Bradely has insisted for years that teams should draft players as young as 14 to 15 and begin developing them while they're still going to school.
Dominick Flora, a Cosmos vice president, agreed with Bradley's premise.
"Our theory is to get the good young kids at an early age and work with them to become a seasoned pro," he said. "Maybe in a few years, our colleges will turn out the good players and we can utilize our draft system more. Right now, the college draft has not helped us much. We just don't have the type of system that can produce the good player in droves."
The trend toward encouraging players away from the college ranks creates a vicious cycle. The colleges are potentially the best developing ground for the NASL.
The reason: Jeff Durgans are rare. Most high school players who try to come into the NASL are not capable of starting or even making their team's traveling squad. So they sit. They are unhappy and they don't improve because they aren't playing. In college they can play regularly and improve, if they get the coaching.
"If will get better eventually," Bradley said. "We're training more coaches every year. And, as the young Americans playing now get older and retire, they'll become coaches. What's more, each year more and more players who come over here to play stay, and they become coaches, too.
"It's a slow process. The U.S. isn't going to be in the World Cup final anytime in the near future. But some day it will. I just hope I live to see it."