CHICAGO (AP) — On a perfect September day, Christian Felix trots across a trimmed green soccer field along Chicago’s lakefront. He takes a pass, sees an opening and shoots a goal for his high school varsity team.
It’s a scene familiar to many: The air is getting cooler, schools are back in session and soccer season is under way. On a recent afternoon, dozens of recreational, high school and grade school teams descended on Chicago’s untouched fields for practices, scrimmages and games.
By all accounts, soccer is more popular than ever among U.S. children. In 2006, more than 6.5 million children between the ages of 6 and 17 played the sport regularly, according to the Sporting Good Manufacturing Association, a trade organization.
But many enthusiasts believe the recent recruitment of professional superstars from other countries to U.S. professional teams could bring even more buzz to the sport.
Great Britain’s David Beckham — also famous for the film “Bend It Like Beckham” and his marriage to Victoria Beckham, aka “Posh Spice” — took a $6.5 million contract this year to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The Chicago Fire signed Mexican superstar Cuauhtémoc Blanco in July. And Juan Pablo Angel joined the New York Red Bulls from Colombia in April and is now one of Major League Soccer’s top scorers.
“When you have players like David Beckham who are playing professionally in the U.S., it gives young players something to look up to, something to admire,” said U.S. men’s national soccer team spokesman Michael Kammarman.
Christian, 15, readily ticks off a list of his favorite professional soccer players.
“Cristiano Ronaldo, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Ronaldinho,” said the sophomore at the Chicago charter school Noble Street College Prep.
But whether such star power inspires more youth soccer players — or simply boosts the profile of Major League Soccer — is yet to be determined. Youth soccer has gained steadily in popularity despite soccer’s lightweight status in the clubhouse of American sports.
Rich Costello, who coaches soccer and oversees American Youth Soccer Organization operations on Chicago’s North Side, said he has noticed more interest among his players in professional soccer.
“You’ll see a lot of Ronaldinho shirts, a lot of professional soccer player shirts,” Costello said, referring to the Brazilian soccer star.
The link between professional and youth soccer in the U.S. began almost 40 year ago, said Jack Huckel, director of museum and archives at the Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y.
The North American Soccer League, the first U.S. pro soccer association, was begun in 1968 and ran youth clinics wherever it had teams, Huckel said.
The NASL shuttered in 1984 due to financial problems and lack of interest. But Huckel credits it — and its early soccer stars like Pelé — for sparking interest in soccer in major American cities.
“The NASL was all across the country, from Boston to Seattle, from Miami to Los Angeles and all places in between. ... It was really that NASL group that kicked (youth soccer) into gear,” Huckel said.
The 1990s was the golden age of youth soccer, as pro players again began making headlines. In 1990, the United States men’s national team qualified for the World Cup for the first time in more than 40 years. The next year the U.S. women’s team won the World Cup — a feat they equaled in 1999. And in 1994, the United States hosted the men’s World Cup.
Meanwhile, players whose interest in soccer was sparked in the 1960s and 70s grew up and started coaching kids, passing on their interest.
“I know when I started playing — we’re going back 40 years — my friends looked at me like I was a freak. ‘Why would you want to play that game? No one knows anything about it, nobody plays it,’” said Rick Davis, executive director of the Los Angeles-based AYSO and a former professional player for the now-defunct New York Cosmos. “Now it’s (one of) the largest youth team-participation sports in America.”
AYSO membership has grown as much as 5 percent a year, to 620,000 players across the country in the past 15 years, Davis said. Another major youth soccer group, the United States Youth Soccer Association, has grown from 1.6 million members in 1990 to more than 3 million today, spokesman Todd Roby said.
The proliferation of rigorous youth clubs and travel leagues also has made soccer a more serious sport among than ever.
“These kids are hardcore soccer fans and players. They take the games seriously,” said Jon Bohland, a political science professor at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., who also coaches and has published papers on professional soccer. “Their parents are willing to drive them all over God’s creation. It’s incredible what these parents are willing to do.”
Christian is about as serious of a soccer player as one can get at age 15. He started playing with his friends when he was 4, then joined local recreational leagues. When he was 10, his coach signed him up for a travel team.
In high school, he joined the varsity soccer team. Now when he is not playing for school, he is on the road with his travel team. Soccer has taken him to Atlanta, Ga., Nashville, Tenn. — even to Mexico to play in tournaments.
He studies professional players and their techniques on TV.
“I don’t just watch soccer for fun. I play, I see how they rotate,” Christian said.
In Chicago, top-tier clubs like the Magic and the Eclipse sometimes charge thousands of dollars to join and put candidates through rigorous tryouts. Players often feed directly into college or professional teams.
U.S. Soccer, which oversees the national men’s and women’s soccer teams, recently unveiled a project to shore up training at elite clubs around the country, with the goal of creating more and better professional soccer players.
"(Players) are thinking about not only playing in college, but it’s not uncommon to hear the higher-quality players talking about professional careers. That’s not something you would hear 10 years ago,” Bohland said.
Christian says he’s setting his sights on professional soccer: “After college, then I’ll see if I can try out for a professional team.”
Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.