Despite some of the most successful recreation and youth leagues in the metro area, Virginia soccer at the high school level is a sport in trouble.
Since being introduced as a varsity sport there 10 years ago, soccer has grown quickly with excellent results. Several Virginia players have been selected for all-America teams, and select teams made up of the best high school players have dominated national competitions. But, over the past five years, Virginia high school soccer has declined in both popularity and participation, according to school officials.
"Kids are playing so much at an early age, that by the time they get to high school they want to try something else," said W.T. Woodson Athletic Director Bill Caudell. "They're soccer-logged. We get 90 kids trying out for junior varsity baseball, and yet only 35 come out for soccer."
Those numbers are not unique to W.T. Woodson. Although Stuart and Oakton have gotten almost 90 tryouts the last few seasons, most schools are lucky to get half that number. Fort Hunt, Madison, T.C. Williams, Lee, Robinson and Herndon all report between 40 and 50 hopefuls, with most teams keeping approximately 40 players after the final cuts.
Unlike Maryland and District schools, which play soccer in the fall, those in Virginia were unable to make soccer compete with a strong football program and soccer was shifted to the spring. As a result, due to a Virginia rule prohibiting players from competing for their schools and select teams at the same time, some of the better players sit out the spring high school season to retain their club eligibility.
"It was sort of problem for me to choose a sport when I got to high school," said Robinson forward David Koury. "Spring is when most of the sports are, and I'd like to go out for other sports. I used to play both baseball and soccer, but when I got to high school, I had to give baseball up. It was a hard decision, but I knew I'd have to pick one."
The pressure and competitive edge of soccer also have taken their toll on the players. "If the kids have been playing the sport for fun, and they haven't had the coaching pressure, then they're usually okay," said Oakton Coach James Conklin.
"But it is hard to get some of these kids up for games anymore. The coaches have to work very hard to get them hyped up, and they won't believe the usual pregame speeches anymore. Most of the kids I find are uninterested, and have to have something personal at stake before they will really get into the game."
Soccer also is suffering from poor attendance. Due to the need to create revenue and help the sport pay for itself, high school games are held on football fields. Since the fields are shorter in both length and width than regulation soccer fields, the style of play suffers.
"Playing on football fields really hurts us," said Lake Braddock Coach Jac Cicala. "You don't have the width, and you have to resort to an air game. So all you end up with is 22 guys chasing the ball up and down the field."
"I have a 12,000-seat stadium, and I turn on the lights and play the national anthem just like for any football game," Caudell said. "But all I sell is 110 tickets. And we have one of the best soccer programs in Northern Virginia.
"Most of our games are in March and April, when the weather is still cold, and that's a deterrent. But by the time the weather gets warm, the season is almost over."
Along with the dropoff in both participation and attendance, skills have declined in recent years, according to several high school coaches.
"Virginia has quite a superiority complex," said Robinson Coach Steve Baumann. "The players don't work enough individually on the technical aspects of the game; all they do is the required work with their coach and the team. I bet there aren't 10 players in the county who can strike (kick) the ball properly."
"The overall problem is that the kids are playing the game too fast," said Cicala. "These kids are playing at 90 miles per hour. You don't find the accomplished players you used to have. The individuals don't stick out and there are more team players."
"The players are not always as prepared as they might be technically," said George Mason University Coach Dick Broad, whose only recruit this year from Virginia attended a private academy. The other two are from Maryland. "We look mainly for players who are technically sound. I think too much pressure is put on these kids in soccer when they're very young, and as a result, they burn out. When they get to the college level, they can't handle the pressure."
Annandale Coach Donald Henretty disagrees. The Atoms had 106 players try out for soccer this season; Annandale leads the Class AAA Potomac District. He also draws many of his players from the highly successful Annandale Boys Club program.
"We have a lot of players at Annandale who read the game very well," said Henretty, who also believes playing in the spring gives Virginia soccer more exposure. "But that is something that comes and goes. Our players are able to overlap and anticipate, two very important aspects of the game.
"But you can get tired of soccer," admitted Henretty. "Although we haven't had too many conflicts with other sports, it does happen. A lot of our kids run indoor track, and we lose some. But we mainly look for kids as ninth graders. We look ahead a few years for skills."