Area soccer isn't a corner kick anymore

June 13, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

The simplest game has gotten awfully complicated.

Leon Mach got turned on to soccer in the early 1960s. He wasn't formally introduced to the game until he was 9, and then didn't play more than 20 games a year, but he touched the ball seven times a week in the pickup games that were a daily ritual on the east side of Baltimore.

It wasn't fancy, but it was fertile, since a club or college coach could drive Eastern Avenue from Patterson Park to Sparrows Point -- with a detour down Dundalk Avenue -- and put together several national-class teams.

Mach shakes his head when he considers soccer's huge growth in the United States during the past two decades.

His son is a member of the Rosedale Soccer Club side that reached the finals of the Maryland Cup under-11 competition this month. Leon Mach III, 10, has four pairs of soccer shoes, one retailing for $95, and played approximately 70 games this past year.

He is a typical participant on the soccer fast track, where the year-round schedule can mean 100 games for a pre-teen, not to mention camps. Girls in Anne Arundel County are recruited by teams in Virginia. Rosedale's competition, the Van Eron/Wittman Club, is raising $68,000 to play in a tournament this summer -- in Denmark. Elite teams in Bethesda charge $800 per player, and that funds coaching salaries that exceed $5,000.

Fifty years after D-Day, the United States is being invaded by the World Cup, and visitors will discover a youth soccer situation as organized -- and nearly as expensive -- as a military operation. The World Cup players from Africa, Europe and South America who didn't step on a full field until they were teen-agers are one argument that the American system is too structured, that it inhibits the spontaneity and freedom that are the core of the game's global appeal.

Some in the American system agree.

"I don't fear specialization, because it's needed if this country is going to make the next step and become competitive at the next [international] level," said George Barry, who played with Leon Mach and coaches his son. "I do wonder if this is the way to go, though. When we played soccer as kids, there wasn't a parent hollering 'Kick it, Joey!' We're with our kids all the time, and they're never allowed to be kids.

"There's no fear of failure, like you see in inner-city kids playing basketball. If Michael Jordan had grown up playing basketball the way American kids played soccer, he never would have developed the skills and thought up the moves he had."

Once neighborhood game

The East Baltimore neighborhood where Barry and Mach were (( raised was one of the larger planets of the American soccer solar system in the 1960s and 1970s. In Highlandtown and Greektown and Dundalk, soccer was central in the baby boomers' athletic experience. Dad might have played in Italy or Greece, or you were inspired by Larry Surock or Joe Speca.

Mach played for the St. Elizabeth's under-19 team that won the McGuire Cup in 1973, the fifth straight year that Baltimore provided one of the finalists in that national tournament. Two years later, he helped the University of Baltimore win the NCAA Division II championship. Its successor as NCAA champion was Loyola College, and both schools were driven by players who prepped in the Maryland Scholastic Association or Baltimore County.

hTC Part of the ethnic, street-corner society already was moving to more open spaces, however, and by the end of the 1970s the old-world ways would be rendered obsolete by a community that hadn't even existed a decade earlier.

"In the stone ages, we played organized soccer in the fall, and that was it," said Mike Schaeffer, a native of Dundalk who coaches the Baltimore Stars, an under-14 team that has dueled the Pasadena Top Guns for state honors the past four years. "In order to keep up with the Joneses, you have to have a program that operates year-round."

Columbia rises to top

In the Baltimore metropolitan area, the Joneses would be Columbia. Soccer wasn't part of James Rouse's blueprint, but a salt-and-pepper ball is as much a part of the planned community as underground utilities and silly street names. The high schools and clubs there have had an inordinate impact in a game that attracts more than 12 million American boys and girls.

It's significant that when a 7-year-old registers to play with the Soccer Association of Columbia, the $80 registration fee covers both the fall and spring seasons.

Baltimore's old-timers resent the notion among some Columbians that soccer was invented there, but they also know a good thing when they see it. By immersing their children in the game with the same fervor and organization, groups such as the Baltimore Soccer Club, the Football Club of Baltimore and the Van Eron/Wittman Club cut into the gap that Howard and Montgomery counties built between themselves and the traditional hot spots.

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