The fastest-growing college sport in America is soccer, which is also the world's favorite team game, and the best U.S. college soccer team is St. Louis University. St. Louis proved it last weekend on the Brooklyn (N.Y.) College field by winning the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship with a deft-footed show of speed and virtuosity against a hustling University of Maryland eleven. The score: 3-2, a margin that just about rated the teams.
The St. Louis Billikens, winners of 13 straight after an opening loss to Fairleigh-Dickinson, excelled at short passing. The Maryland Terrapins excelled in a most unreptilian dash and drive. The contrast in styles resulted in a game so engrossing that some spectators loudly resented the distracting comments of an enthusiastic announcer, who was restrained from hailing the beauty of the play only by a breakdown in the public address system.
To get into the finals, St. Louis had, on the previous day, defeated the unbeaten West Chester (Pa.) State team 2-1, and Maryland had knocked out the University of Connecticut 4-0. As might have been expected in a game which is the sport of so many nations, two foreign-born players were among the outstanding men on the field. Gerry Balassi, Italian-born and season's high scorer for St. Louis, starred at outside right and scored one of his team's goals. Juan Carlos Martin, a native of Argentina, dominated play from the Maryland center-forward position and opened the scoring early in the first quarter. But there was also some very superior work by St. Louis's swift Don Range and Bob Malone in the forward line, with Range accounting for two of his team's goals. Cliff Krug, the inside right who had made three of Maryland's four goals against Connecticut, scored another against St. Louis.
Maryland scored first on a superb shot by the dexterous Martin who seemed to have four feet to apply to the ball whenever it came near him. Martin was flat on his back in front of the St. Louis goal when a defending halfback miskicked the ball within range of his flailing feet. Still supine, Martin back-kicked past Mike Quinn, the St. Louis substitute goalie. (Quinn replaced the regular goal tender, Bill Mueller, who was injured in the semifinals. Only a sophomore, he proved himself with a total of 14 saves in the game, some of them made with the low sun squarely in his eyes.) Another St. Louis casualty of the semifinals was their fine outside left, Tom McDonnell.
Minutes after Martin's goal, Range tied the score on a penalty kick—Maryland had been caught handing the ball—and the Terrapins never could get ahead again, though they were frequently in front of the St. Louis goal.
St. Louis closed the quarter leading by one point after Balassi drove a 37-yard shot past Goalie Ronnie Williamson.
Midway through the second quarter a screaming hot pass from Co-Captain John Klein, St. Louis right halfback, found Range speeding in to a point directly in front of the Maryland net and, though he did not even seem to pause, Range's foot deflected the ball past Williamson.
The score 3-1 against them, the Marylanders opened the second half with the élan of an oldtime cavalry charge. St. Louis met it with a firm defense. The quarter was all but over, however, before the Terrapins had a chance to score. Given a corner kick, a mass of Maryland players attacked, but Goalie Quinn slapped the ball into the air. He fell immediately, and with the goalie grounded, Maryland's Krug leaped high, took the ball on his head and bunted it in.
That was the last score by either side though it did seem to a tense, nail-biting crowd that there were times in the fourth quarter when Maryland would certainly tie. It was in this quarter that Quinn, admittedly with fine support from teammates, made save after save.
There was, for instance, a frantic scramble late in the period when the Marylanders and St. Louisans, grouped in front of the Billikens' net, kept the ball flying back and forth with a succession of finely played head shots, at least a dozen of them in rapid, continuous fire. And there was a corner kick opportunity in the closing moments that came to nothing when the whistle blew.
In winning the title, St. Louis declared its supremacy for the second successive year over the more than 300 college soccer teams in the U.S., a number that testifies to the fact that college soccer is rising like bread dough in a hot kitchen. That 300 is about triple the number of college teams in the U.S. soon after World War II.
Recently the almost exclusive property of ethnic clubs in the U.S., and known in other countries by such names as football, futbol and calcio, it was the original sport from which our special brand of football evolved.
No premium on size
High and prep schools also have taken up soccer at a proportionate rate, some of them at the expense of regular football. Many schools have dropped football because it is so costly to outfit a squad, and because the frequency of injury to the skeletally undeveloped teen-age stripling appalls much more than the quality of the high school game appeals. Besides, there is a special attraction in the fact that soccer is a team sport at which the physically average in weight and stature can excel, provided they develop the requisite stamina and skills. Body checking is strictly regulated. There is no particular premium on beef or height, factors that dull the rest of the world's appreciation for our football and basketball.
Today more and more physical education schools around the country are urging that future coaches be competent to teach soccer as well as other sports. It is possible to predict that more and more of these coaches will seek an outlet for their soccer education in the secondary schools, and that graduates of these schools and teams will seek out colleges that give them a chance to win a letter—even a minor letter—at their sport. Some colleges that now field soccer teams on a club basis, unrecognized by the athletic departments, appear to be on the verge of giving in and recognizing the game as a letter sport.
It is no presumption, therefore, to hold that more and more soccer will be seen in American colleges during the next few years. There is even ground for hope that it may some day be a major sport, though by no means soon. A major sport must have a major following in the stands and there were only 1,000 spectators at the NCAA finals. True, it was the afternoon of the Army-Navy football game, available on television. And the finals were held in Brooklyn College, which is in Flatbush, which is out where the subway ends.
Soccer isn't nearly that far out any more.