Scoring a Field Is Soccer's Biggest Goal


If all goes well, the young members of Framingham United Soccer Club who have honed their skills on dusty school playgrounds and in backyards will soon have a field of their own.

But it took more than mowing down a cornfield, as Kevin Costner did in "Field of Dreams." In fact, the process took 10 years, bogged down by paperwork, environmental studies, and neighborhood opposition.

Across the country, parents have found that getting their kids interested in soccer is easy; finding fields of play is hard. Spurred on by the wildly successful 1994 World Cup championship here in the United States, youth soccer has quickly grown from the sport of barrios and prep schools into the No. 1 weekend pastime for American families. This year, there are more kids enrolled in youth soccer than in Little League baseball.

But the supply of full-time soccer fields has not kept pace with the demand, and this has parents scrambling.

In Framingham, Mass., a leafy middle-class community outside of Boston, the search has had its share of disappointments. One land deal stalled when neighbors complained about parking. Another prospective property was turned into a shopping center. Even the current property has some drawbacks; it's a wetland area and requires $500,000 in drainage work and landscaping. Now, Framingham United parents are putting the final touches on a 10-year lease from the city for an eight-field soccer complex, paid for by membership fees and corporate donations.

Why would any parent bother?

"In the end, children will have a nice field to play on," explains Nancy Purpura, a leader of Framingham's soccer club and yes, a soccer mom. "The soccer boom is happening everywhere, and the development of fields is our No. 1 problem."

To solve that problem, parents are turning to every sugar daddy in the land, writing bond petitions, and knocking on every donor's door.

The US Soccer Federation Foundation in Washington gives out $2 million a year to develop the sport. Last year, half of that grant money went to building soccer fields. This year, field projects made up 70 percent of all grants.

"There are some $40 million in soccer projects around the country," says Robert Beck, executive director of the foundation. "Our $2 million doesn't go too far."

Late to the dinner table

Unlike the turn of the century, when football, baseball, and basketball were taking hold, soccer is booming at a time when land is at a premium. Creating a soccer field in the 1990s often means replacing something that's already there, whether it's an inner-city playground, a stand of old-growth pines, or a garbage dump. And that often means reams of paperwork.

"Soccer is the Johnny-come-lately sport," says Bill Burton, a Tampa Bay, Fla., businessman and founder of the Black Watch Soccer Club for youths. "It's like coming late to the dinner table; you've arrived after all the food is gone."

Like many cities across the country, Tampa is considering a $2 million bond issue this year to build a six-field soccer complex. The field shortage is most acute in South Tampa, where there are 39 baseball fields but not one soccer field. During the annual Tampa Bay Sun Bowl soccer tournament each December, organizers bus the competing teams out to three nearby counties to find enough fields to play on.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., a local soccer league spent years looking for playing fields and ended up settling for a garbage dump.

"We had old pieces of car parts, garbage, and whatever - and you can imagine what the whatever was," says Howard Rubinstein, treasurer of the 112,000-member Eastern New York State Amateur Soccer Association. "Now we've got two fields being used from dawn to dusk. The only problem is keeping the grass growing."

Soccer has even made its way into the kingdom of Michael Jordan. Twice a week, youths from Chicago's housing projects ride buses out to nearby city parks to learn the beautiful game, as soccer legend Pele called it. In its first year, there were enough kids for eight teams; next year, organizers expect to have 32.

Housing authority officials hand out same-color T-shirts to divide the groups into teams, but one day organizer Gus Bender noticed a whole rainbow of T-shirts on one team.

"I asked the guy at the housing authority about it," recalls the soccer organizer and businessman from Arlington Heights, "and he said, 'There's extra kids today, and I couldn't tell them no.' "

The beauty of simplicity

The reasons for soccer's phenomenal rise range from the game's simplicity to the growing complexity of today's parental work schedules.

"It's just running and kicking something; you can start it and develop a proficiency at an early age," says John DeStefano, editor of Goalposts Scripts, a magazine of the Colorado Youth Soccer Organization in Denver. It is also egalitarian by design. "In soccer, every kid gets to be the quarterback, every kid gets a chance to score."

For families where both parents work, soccer is also a sport that can fit into a busy schedule.

"In baseball, the start time may be 5 o'clock, but the end time is indeterminate. In soccer, the game is an hour long," says Daniel Jones, a recruiter in the financial industry and father of three soccer fanatics in Framingham. "It also puts a very diverse community onto one playing field. It really bonds a neighborhood."

Ten-year-old Danny Jones of Framingham tried baseball, but eventually switched to soccer because that's what all his friends were playing. His favorite position is right defense, because "that's where the action is."

His younger sister, Megan, prefers playing forward, where she can score. This year, she learned how to punt the ball.

"Before, I thought I would hit my hand when I kicked," she says, "but now when I do it, I can kick it pretty far, maybe half the field."

Kevin, a kindergartner, is said to be passionate about soccer as well, although he declined to discuss it with a reporter.

Mr. Jones can only marvel at his kids' enthusiasm.

"When I grew up, no one knew what soccer was. Now, in Framingham, you play football if you don't make the soccer team. That's a big change of culture."

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