The popularity of soccer has grown considerably in the United States in recent decades, and North Texas seems to be one of the hotbeds.
According to Street & Smith’s Sports Business Daily, in 2008, in terms of team sport participation in America, soccer ranked third overall, behind basketball and baseball, with nearly 14 million participants nationwide.
Now, many programs, even at the high school soccer level, are hiring coaches from different, more traditionally football-savvy countries, and with good results.
One such local school is Marcus, whose soccer coaches, John Gall and Kevin Albury, have three state championships between them over the last five years.
While both coaches acknowledge that the sport has grown in popularity and prowess in the United States, they also both agree that it still has a ways to go before it attains the same level of respect as such distinctively American sports as baseball, football and basketball.
Gall, a native of Wales, led the Marauders boys team to back to back state titles in 2007 and 2008, including an almost unheard of undefeated season (32-0-0) three years ago.
The Marcus coach said he believes that soccer in the United States is headed in the right direction.
“I began high school coaching in 2001/02,” Gall said. “The game has made tremendous strides in terms of the coaching and ability of the players. Also, the recognition our sport is receiving is growing all the time.
“Everything about the game has improved. From the grass roots to the national team. The financial support and commercial aspect has very much allowed the game to flourish.”
The U.S. Men’s National team finished atop the CONCACAF standings in 2009, and will be joined by fellow North American teams Mexico and Honduras in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup in June.
Gall was a member of the Luton Town FC youth club in England from 1986-1991 and played for the Wales U18 National Team in 1993.
Gall said there are differences between the U.S. game and the game in the UK.
“For me, it’s the passion, and what the game really means to the players,” Gall said. “Back home, it’s very much part of our culture and means an awful lot to us.”
Gall also played for the Texas Toros, and said he came to coach soccer in the United States originally as a player himself.
“I was fortunate to receive a full soccer scholarship to play here in the U.S.,” Gall said. “I began coaching youth teams while I was a collegiate player. I always knew I wanted to coach and opportunities came, and I took them.”
Albury, who has coached both the boys and girls teams at Marcus with a combined 275 wins in his 16 years at the school, said he sees some differences as well, especially in the approach to the girls game.
“It is a middle class sport here and costs money,” Albury said. “Throughout most of world, it is a working class sport…there are also other distractions in the U.S. where the emphasis is on baseball, football, and basketball. Soccer is not prime time.
“As for girls soccer, it is much better here. [In the UK], they are only just beginning to play, and there are not many 11 on 11 games. Girls can go on to play at the college level here. It is limited in England, plus girls soccer is not supported as much and is ridiculed in Great Britain.”
By contrast, the U.S. Women’s National team won World Cup Championships in 1991 and 1999, and has won a Gold Medal in three of the last four Summer Olympics.
Albury played semi-professionally in Yeovil, Fareham, and Waterlooville in England between 1972 and 1980, and was a member of Portsmouth FC’s youth team.
Albury’s 2005 Marcus girls team won a state championship, and while he said the sport has come a long way in his nearly three decades of coaching, he still does not believe it has gained the level of acceptance as some other sports.
“I started coaching high school in 1982 in private school,” Albury said. “Public schools had so many problems, such as lack of discipline. Club players also had to choose club or high school. If they played club, they could only play JV at high school.
“When I finally came to public school after World Cup in 1994, there were some quality coaches coming over from club, and UIL ended their restrictions. It [soccer] has come on in leaps and bounds, but I feel that it still has not gained respect in high schools by administrators and other coaches. What other sports would you be given an assistant coach that does not know the sport?”
Like Gall, Albury has coached club soccer as well, and while he said the sport’s progress in the U.S. at the high school level is due in no small part to duel participation in club, the two have an interesting, if not always harmonious relationship.
“I feel UIL and club need to get together and stop competing against each other,” Albury said. “The kids are getting hurt, tired, and stressed with being pulled between club and high school.”
Over at Flower Mound, David Doyle took over the Jaguars boys program last year, and the former Dallas Sidekicks and Kansas City Comets player said he had the unique opportunity to play both in his native Ireland and the United States as a youngster, and came here at an exciting time in the U.S. sport’s history.
“Right when I got here was when select soccer really started to take off and people were really getting into it,” Doyle said. “From 16 on, I was here. Three years in high school, and four years of college.”
One of the things he did see in Ireland that he did not encounter in the United States is pick up games among neighborhood kids.
“I think a lot of the kids in Ireland play it on their own outside of school,” Doyle said. “Just out in the street. Growing up, we would come home from school, and just throw the bag in the house and go and play out in the street.
“You don’t see much of that going on over here. The kids don’t live on the street. The kids were all over the city. You didn’t have 10 or 12 kids on one street to get a game going.”
Perhaps one day American youngsters will play pick up soccer matches at the same rate as sandlot baseball or games of 21 to help foster a love of what Brazilian soccer legend Didi once referred to as “the beautiful game.”
For right now, soccer coaches face the same pressure to win as coaches in most other sports, and it is something that they take seriously.
“My biggest challenge is continually keeping my program at the top,” Gall said. “I have some very talented players and when they graduate my goal is to have those players know that they were challenged, pushed and forced to be better, both on and off the field.”