Archive for Thursday, June 15, 2006

Soccer nation

De Soto is at hte heart of a country becoming ever more enamored with soccer

June 15, 2006

Even Wes England used to be like everyone else.

England's son, David came home from school one day 30 years ago with what at first sounded like any of the thousand crazy ideas young children are prone to getting stuck in their head.

"David came home one day and said he wanted to play soccer," said England, whose interest and experience in the world sport at the time met squarely at nonexistent. "I grew up playing football in a little town in Michigan. I had never seen soccer and I said 'What do you want to do that for?' I was naive."

That now seems like so long ago, he said, looking over De Soto's glistening soccer complex moments after the second day of De Soto High School's summer soccer camp came to a close.

The sun setting on another June day, an older group of players -- mostly former Wildcats back from college -- took the field. There wasn't enough for a team let alone a game, but they played and practiced anyway.

How could it not all seem almost surreal?

Wes England listened to his son's request tentatively at first, then grasped the idea wholeheartedly.

"We've gone to a lot of soccer games since he was saying 'I don't want my kid to play that silly sport,'" Gini England, Wes's wife, said.

It launched a quest that first started David playing as a first-grader, and eventually left Wes standing in front of the De Soto school board begging to be allowed to start a high school team.

After several years of trying -- "I just wouldn't go away," England said -- the board eventually caved. De Soto High School fielded its first soccer team in 1985.

More than 20 years later, the fruits of those efforts are apparent across De Soto.

Soccer has never been more popular in the United States than it is today. OK, maybe it was more popular Monday morning before the national team lost its opening game of the 2006 World Cup in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, but this year's World Cup caps what has been an amazing run of growth for a sport the whole of America has never truly bought into.

Some say it's the commercials -- or lack there of -- that have crippled soccer's growth in America. Without commercials, Major League Soccer games are rarely played in prime time to major audiences.

Some say it's the lack of scoring. The first six days of the World Cup averaged just more than six goals per day and right at about two scores per game.

Some say it's the country's already-established fascination with American football, or its love affair with the leisurely game of baseball.

Whatever the reasons for America's trepid approach to what is the world's most popular spot, it's obvious the problems didn't take the students and citizens of De Soto long to overcome.

That first team from 1985 was composed mostly of David England's friends, a group Wes England had coached in club leagues since they were first-graders. Two years of petitioning the board paid off and a high school team coached by Jay O'Neill was created for David's sophomore season.

Things didn't go over incredibly well at first. David said the team was greeted by a fair amount of criticism, mostly from a football program that was none too happy to see some of its fastest and most talented athletes opt to kick the ball rather than catch it or run with it.

"It was totally different than it is now," David, who now serves as a DHS assistant coach, said. "We played on the football field and we weren't welcome. The football coach at the time was very adamant that he didn't like soccer players."

"We had nothing nice, but we had very high caliber players. A group of us played together the whole way. It was the ideal team for a first-year program because we played so well."

Little has changed since then -- the best of teams are those filled with players that have a year-round commitment, and the newly-founded De Soto soccer team was comprised mostly of such kids.

De Soto by no means invented soccer in the region. Programs were already enormously popular in Kansas City and its closest suburbs, and at first, those were the only team's the Wildcats were able to play.

Kansas didn't have enough programs to warrant individual state tournaments for every class, and until 1991 6A through 1A all competed against one another. The state's current format -- which has three separate end-of-the-season tournaments, one each for 6A, 5A and 4A through 1A -- wasn't adopted until 2000.

"When it started here, it was as strong 20 years ago as it is now. We had to play all the 6A schools, and we beat them," Wes England said. "We were the first small school to get soccer."

De Soto High's current coach, Darren Erpelding, said it was the early success that may have set the program on its path to power.

Other programs have now sprung up in towns all over the area, and they vary in quality. Just seven miles down Kansas Highway 10, Eudora's soccer program will begin it's fourth season in August and the Cardinals have picked up just three wins in their existence.

Further south, Baldwin fielded a team for the first time last season, but stocked with experienced club players and funded by ambitious parents, those Wildcats beat De Soto's Wildcats 2-0 in a game last fall.

But De Soto no doubt has one of the strongest programs outside of Johnson County proper.

The Cats finished as runners up in the Class 4A-1A state tournament in 2003, losing to Andover 2-1 in double overtime. De Soto qualified for state in 2001, 2003 and 2004, and Erpelding said the team should bounce back from what was a disappointing 9-9 season in 2005.

Nearly 40 players showed up for this week's team camp, and he said that's a sign of just how strong the program is and how deep soccer's roots have been embedded.

"They've had winning teams and that made the difference," Erpelding said. "Since it started, De Soto soccer has been a winning tradition and that makes kids want to go out for it."

Opinions are mixed as to what it could all mean in the area and across the nation. Erpelding unabashedly argues that soccer is bound to be the United States' largest sport, but even other soccer enthusiasts aren't so sure.

Wes England said he's come a long way from at first dismissing his son's desire to play soccer. He coached for 25 years and he now traverses the country following his adopted love. He watches the MLS and the local Kansas City Wizards whenever he can and he was a season ticket holder for the Kansas City Comets, a Kansas City-area indoor team that initially folded in 1991 before the name was reprised for a different area indoor team in 2001.

Now retired, he said he has even more time to enjoy it all. He's taped and watched every World Cup game so far this year, and even if the Americans are ousted -- a fate that could be decided when the team next takes the field Saturday against Italy -- he'll tune in for the rest of the tournament.

That doesn't mean he envisions soccer taking over America's more traditional sports.

"The recognition is up a lot, but it still has a long way to go," Wes England said. "The U.S. team has a lot of respect and I think in a few years, the U.S. will be almost as good as any team in the world.

"The American culture is going to buy into it, except for those of us who really like it. But, we're getting bigger."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.