JUST FOR KICKS. Soccer still hasn't shaken its poor-cousin status in the US - but don't tell these kids that

IN the town of Massapequa, on New York's Long Island, the first attempt to start a youth soccer league in 1963 attracted only eight players until some boys who had been cut from school football teams joined in. Within 15 years the town had more than 2,000 kids 18 and under, both boys and girls, playing soccer - and playing it well. In fact, the girls under-19 team won the national championship in 1986, came in second last year, and just won its state title again to earn a berth in the regional tournament and perhaps a third straight trip to the nationals. Larry Austin remembers how soccer caught on in his hometown of Germantown, Tenn., a suburb of Memphis.

``In the mid-'70s, a group of parents came together to discuss forming a soccer program for children,'' says Mr. Austin, general counsel of the United States Youth Soccer Association. ``We had no idea how many kids would be interested; we had no soccer fields, no plans for uniforms or anything like that. We just figured we'd start by registering the players and go from there.

``The first year there were 500 children, both boys and girls, which immediately presented the problem of fields, goals, coaches, and referees. We located whatever parcels of land we could from the city, schools, and private businesses. We laid out the fields ourselves, cut them, and built goals. We had parents for coaches, and parents for refs. It was difficult. Not only were the kids learning, but the parents were learning, too. But we ran a fall program.

``The next year we had 900 kids, then 1,000, then 1,500. Our league has leveled off there, but now there are other organizations in the town, too, so the total player population has continued to increase.

``Each year now we have referee training, and we have all sorts of teams - everything from under-6 to highly competitive teams in the various age groups.''

Stories like Massapequa's and Germantown's abound throughout the nation.

The tremendous explosion of youth soccer in the United States is clearly one of the major sports phenomena of the 1970s and '80s. From a beginning somewhere near ground zero only 20 or 30 years ago, the sport has mushroomed to the point where literally millions of boys and girls ranging from kindergarten age through high school are playing.

How did this happen in a country where the world's most popular sport still lags far behind as a spectator attraction?

Obviously, there are a lot of reasons, but the one mentioned most frequently is that soccer is a sport that allows for a wide range of sizes and abilities. At high levels it requires great skill, but it is also a game in which smaller athletes can compete more regularly on even terms, and in which those less talented have more chance to be part of the action.

``Children can enjoy soccer with very little training, with minimal athletic ability, and with minimal coaching,'' says Austin. ``If you can run and kick, then you can play. There's no period of frustration, as in other sports, where you have to learn to do something before you can have fun doing it. So a lot of young children who would probably have difficulty perhaps even with tee ball can run, kick the ball, and have fun.

``Another thing is that it takes very little money to begin a program. Essentially, all you need is a relatively level piece of ground. Parents can build goals. I've known of places where parents make the nets. Then just buy a couple of soccer balls and some T-shirts and you're in business.''

Fifteen or 20 years ago, youth soccer was nonexistent in the Boston suburb of Newton, Mass., where the photos on this page were taken this season. All the emphasis was on Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, and the like. Then in the early '70s a group of mothers who weren't too enthusiastic about seeing their boys play football got together and organized the Newton Youth Soccer League.

A few years later, another group founded the Newton Girls Soccer League. Today, the city has more than 3,000 youngsters playing in everything from low-key fall programs to highly competitive traveling teams that compete throughout the state and region each spring.

Today there is a place in soccer for all levels of ability, and more and more outstanding athletes are choosing the sport.

``Our programs range all the way from six-year-olds doing their best not to fall down to very serious older teen-agers who are looking at soccer as perhaps a means of going to college or seeing the country and the world,'' Austin says.

Indeed, more and more college soccer scholarships are becoming available. And with the proliferation of national youth teams and Olympic development teams, thousands of youngsters each year get the opportunity to compete abroad or against teams from other countries visiting the United States. Over the last several years, an ever-growing number of US youth teams have traveled all over the world - dozens of times to some countries.

Meanwhile, those teams that don't travel abroad can find plenty of competition at home.

``Beginning with the Memorial Day weekend and continuing all through the summer, there are a terrific number of tournaments all through the country at all skill levels,'' Austin pointed out. ``Some are just for fun, some are international in scope. This year all told there will be more than 250 tournaments across the country - some of them with 200 or more teams.''

No wonder this sport that offers something for all levels of ability has grown so spectacularly - as the figures clearly demonstrate. The USYSA alone lists 1,168,797 children officially registered in its affiliated programs around the country.

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