On a bright and beautiful Virginia afternoon that mocked Sunday's being Halloween came a bright, sometimes beautiful game of soccer between Duke, at game time rated first among the nation's college teams, and the home side at Charlottesville, the No. 3-ranked University of Virginia. Before the game, the fans of the ACC rivals, a Scott Stadium soccer-record 6,200 of them, shouted cheerily at one another. "We're Number One!" yelled the Duke side. "Not after today!" replied the Virginians. As it turned out, neither got satisfaction. The game ended 2-2 after two overtimes. But overriding the letdown caused by the tie was a sense that something long promised was coming into bud.
Little more than a week earlier, at a meeting in San Jose, Calif., the NASL owners had agonized over the apparent failure of pro soccer in the U.S. They gnawed at a paradox: their dwindling audience on the one hand, and the accelerating success of the game at the youth level on the other. The United States Soccer Federation hopes to register its millionth player in kids' soccer this year, and with an annual growth rate of about 20%, the sport has overtaken both Little League baseball and youth football in popularity.
If you wanted to see that paradox translated into human terms, you needed only to look at three generations of soccer players represented at Scott Stadium on Sunday. Start with the oldest and saddest one, the generation American soccer lost. Virginia Coach Bruce Arena is an example of it. He's 31 now and highly successful in the college game—through Sunday the 1982 Cavaliers' record was 13-0-2. Why lost? "I picked up the game far too late," Arena says. "I was 15, and you can't start at 15 and hope to compete. But I was a good athlete, and I was drafted by the Cosmos. However, I was at Cornell then, a good school, and I was unattracted by the fact that the Cosmos would give me $200 a game for maybe three months of the year. I was born too early for soccer here."
Helping out with the coaching at Virginia is Paul Milone, five years younger than Arena. "I played at Princeton," he says, "and got caught in the business of American players getting the shaft. I was drafted and spent a year with San Diego in the NASL. They had a German coach who ran a revolving door for German players. Americans never had a chance. Then I went to the Pittsburgh Spirit in the MISL. This time it was a Polish coach importing Poles. I came back here, to graduate business school. It's a common story."
But both men are now in a privileged position. They are assisting in the debut at the college level of the first born-with-the-ball Americans, like the freshmen who hung around after Virginia's practice on Saturday discussing international soccer styles. Latin individualism, German slow-build tactics, British hardcore—the jargon fell confidently from their lips. And why not? One of them, 18-year-old Brant Vitek, from Annandale, Va., had gone to Spain last summer to see the World Cup, the trip being a high school graduation present from his father. Another freshman, Jeff Gaffney, a high school All-America from Bethesda, Md. and Virginia's leading scorer with 12 goals, started to play when he was six. "They start 'em even younger now," he said.
"You can move onto these traveling teams when you're about 9 years old," said Cavalier Sweeper Dan Horton, "and we're on a par with anybody our age now. I've traveled to play in England, Sweden and Norway. We were never demolished by anybody, and we managed to beat a lot of teams, too."
The traveling teams Horton speaks of are the youth clubs, like his own Annandale Boys' Club, and it is they, rather than the high schools, that are molding the game in the U.S.
"What the clubs do," says Duke Coach John Rennie, "is provide a ladder. It's like schoolyard basketball. You start at a particular corner playground. When you get to be the best player there, you move to the next corner. Or from the five o'clock to the eight o'clock game. So the clubs are more valuable for learning the game than the schools.
"There it's all that rah-rah stuff and playing on football fields with four quarters. It's ping-pong soccer. Watch the same kid play for his high school, then his club. He's a different player."
Ping-pong soccer is the game at its lowest level: long, high balls are belted downfield and chased in hope but not with artistry. The cure for it is the coaching clubs give—that and having the kids play a lot.
"Teams like Annandale and the Potomac Kickers play as many as 60 games a year," says Arena. "They don't play basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring—just year-round soccer. They train every day; it becomes part of their culture. They will be tremendous!"
And that, it seems, is bad news for the younger brothers of the players that some American colleges have imported from Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere. It was a sign of the times that the all-American University of Connecticut team won the NCAA title last year over Alabama A&M's Nigerians and Jamaicans. This year, Alabama A&M was trounced 4-0 by Virginia. Fifth-ranked Clemson, once reliant on imports for its domination of the ACC, now has declared that it will start going native.
But the unassailable facts on Sunday were that two entirely American teams stood first and third in the national rankings, and that the ACC, with three teams in the first five, has become the major power in college soccer. There are, says Arena, two simple reasons. The first is dollars. Virginia, he says, has a well-heeled athletic department, and thus he has a well-funded soccer program.
The ACC also is favored with all-year soccer weather, greatly to the advantage of the growing youth-club structure in the conference's area. Intra-conference rivalry has helped, too. "We all got tired of losing to Clemson so regularly," Rennie says. "I think it was North Carolina that reacted first, then Duke, then Virginia. Now it's Wake Forest as well."
But most of all, it has been the awareness of coaches like Arena and Rennie of the value of this new generation of Americans that has made the difference. "Are they uptight?" Arena was asked at Saturday's practice. "They're too young to be uptight," he replied. He has so much confidence in them that at one point against Alabama A&M he had nine freshmen on the field. Against Duke, though, Arena started only five, but it was one of them, Gaffney, who opened the scoring at 4:13, heading home a perfectly struck cross from Brian Vernon. And then, much to the delight of the big home crowd, Voga Wallace, a junior from Washington D.C. and a cult hero in these parts, entered the game.
Wallace's specialty is a prodigious throw-in from the sideline. It can travel 50 yards, but it's no ordinary over-the-head toss. First, Wallace is handed a towel and wipes his hands. Then he takes the ball, retreats five yards, runs forward and goes into a complete somersault, flinging the ball as he turns into his flip. At the moment this delivery is perfectly legal and sometimes effective: Virginia has scored three goals this season off Wallace throw-ins that he sent booming toward the goalmouth.
It didn't work this time though, and the game degenerated a little. U.S. college soccer is like Eliza Doolittle halfway through her transformation. She can behave beautifully, as in the play from Vernon to Gaffney. But she can also let a "bloody" or two slip out, as when Joe Ulrich, Duke's senior defender, a first-round draft pick of the MISL's New York Arrows, belted the ball upfield to no one in particular; or when Duke Freshman Forward Tom Kain, a member of the national youth team, got an early yellow card for a crude attempt to wrestle the ball from the Virginia goalie.
After that first goal, the Cavaliers made the familiar tactical error of trying to fall back and hold on to an early lead. Duke's Charles Guevara put an end to that by heading in an equalizer at 15:28.
In the second half, Duke, adjusting to the unfamiliar AstroTurf, pushed Virginia back in midfield, started laying serious siege to its goal and at 64:51 went ahead 2-1 when Horton, attempting to deflect a Duke free kick from 30 yards out, headed the ball into his own net.
That, it seemed, would be that. But six minutes later, the polished Eliza came on stage again. Vernon dummied—jumping over a passed ball, and letting it go across to Mark Brcic, who chipped it back to Vernon, who made the score 2-2 with a diving header. It was a perfect play: international class soccer.
The 2-2 tie was unbroken after the two 10-minute overtime periods dictated by NCAA rules, but a verdict was possible. Though the U.S. isn't quite ready for Rio's Maracan√£ stadium, it looks very much as if—now and then—by George, they've got it!