Games Grownups Play

Recruiting violations. Cutthroat competion. Big money. Larger egos. It isn't NCAA football. It's kids' soccer, Dallas style.

The boys should have been having a ball.
It was a sunny autumn day, and on the greensward that is Garland's Winters Park, the culmination of everything for which the Genesis '85 boys soccer team had worked so hard all season lay before them. They were at the annual Celtic Tournament, where elite young soccer players from the Dallas area get the chance to see how they stack up against the best teams from other Texas cities.

It was the end of the first season in the prestigious world of "select" or "competitive" soccer in which the 10-year-old boys of Genesis '85 were able to play. No more kid's stuff. No more easygoing recreational leagues, with their reasonable fees, egalitarian rules (everyone makes the team, everyone plays half the game), and parent-coaches who often know next to nothing about soccer.

The boys on Genesis '85 (the teams are named for the players' birth year) had survived grueling, ego-bruising tryouts for club teams put together by paid professional coaches, who offer yearlong contracts, then require kids to practice two, three, sometimes four times a week. For the privilege of having a child on a select team, parents fork over an average of $1,000 a year, which doesn't include shoes, uniforms, travel expenses, and other extras.

Under the tutelage of their coach, Diego Castro, a former pro soccer player from Chile, the 16 boys selected from the dozens who tried out for Genesis '85 slowly learned the intricacies of the game, the subtle strategies of how to bring the ball up from the back, and developed into a cohesive, scrappy unit. They managed to win a respectable third of their season games in the Metroplex's most prestigious and competitive league, the Coca Cola Classic, sponsored by the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce.

Now, the week before Thanksgiving, they were in their first tournament in the big time. But instead of being psyched up, the boys of Genesis '85 looked like they had lost their best friend--and, in a way, they had. As they took the field in their first match of the day to face Rolling Thunder from Arlington , the Genesis '85 athletes were without their beloved coach Castro, who had worked so patiently to get them there. Instead, one of the players' dads filled in as coach.

Genesis club president, Butch Stokes, had fired coach Castro two weeks earlier--with a dozen practices, a league game, and two tournaments left in the season. The president's decision--resulting from a complaint lodged by a parent, who also happened to be a club officer, that his son wasn't getting enough playing time--split the club into warring factions. The overwhelming majority of parents sided with the coach; after all, it was the parents who were paying Castro's $700-a-month salary.

But it was the kids who were caught in the middle.
"The question my son had was, 'Why?'" says Gordon Hunter, a Texas Lawyer reporter whose son, Ian, played goalkeeper for Genesis '85. "I didn't have an answer. There is no logical answer, nothing a kid would understand. At the peak of the season, their coach, who was the impetus for a lot of them being with the club, was fired from underneath them."

Though the team brought to the tournament as much heart and skill as they could muster, they failed miserably. In their first game, they were creamed by Rolling Thunder 6-0. Genesis '85 didn't fare much better in their next match, against a team from Rockwall.

The parents sat in the bleachers, offering what support they could as their sons "got their brains beat in," in the words of one parent. The parents were fuming not only about the decision of the club president to fire Castro, but also because the Carrollton-based North Texas State Soccer Association (NTSSA), the local governing body for youth soccer, had forbid Genesis '85 from leaving the club in order to continue being coached by Castro.

Throughout the tournament, several frustrated parents protested by wearing T-shirts with a line through the word Genesis and by hoisting a large sign that read: "Genesis Held Hostage, Day 14." For such actions, deemed "not in the best interest of soccer," the NTSSA youth commissioner later would threaten the parents with sanctions.

"It was a pretty bizarre introduction to competitive soccer," says Gordon Hunter. For the hapless 10-year-olds on the field, it was a vivid introduction to the pettiness, politics, and power trips that often have come to define sports.

After three decades, soccer is beginning to catch on in the United States, thanks in part to the 1994 World Cup being shared by several American cities, including Dallas. This year, for the first time in a decade, Major League Soccer, the premier-level outdoor professional league--in which the renowned Pele played before the league's collapse in 1985--is set to debut again.

On the youth level, soccer began its phenomenal growth 20 years ago and now registers 2.4 million players annually, according to the Richardson-based U.S. Youth Soccer Association. As a team sport for players younger than 12, it is second only to basketball in participants; for those younger than 18, it is third behind basketball and volleyball, according to the Soccer Industry Council of America.

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