Games Grownups Play

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

The North Texas area, where 100,000 children are registered with the North Texas State Soccer Association, is the fourth largest in the country in participation. "It's the best sport for kids," says Motie Solimani, a native of Israel with four children playing soccer. "They get to touch the ball, there's less risk of injuries, it builds their coordination from an early age, and kids love it. Soccer players are the best athletes in the world. It's like playing basketball, but with your legs, which is a lot harder. It's getting bigger here every day. And why not? The rest of the world can't be wrong."

In the same way that immensely popular Friday-night football provides towns with a sense of unity and pride, soccer teams have given dislocated suburban families a sense of community. Nowhere is that soccer community more intense and passionate than at the competitive--or select--level of play. Only about 1,000 kids participate in the prestigious, all-consuming world of select soccer, but they--and their parents, coaches, and club officers--are a zealous lot.

While soccer may never eclipse Texas football, select soccer, at least, is acquiring a distinctly Lone Star flavor: allegations of unethical behavior, recruiting violations, retaliation plots, and flagrant displays of empire building. In fact, in select kids' soccer, some of the most bitter battles have happened off the field--between adults.

It all starts innocently enough.
You put your 5-year-old son or daughter in recreational soccer, in leagues run by the city, local Y, or Chamber of Commerce, figuring your child will at least burn off some excess energy, make some friends, and perhaps even develop some skills along the way.

In the early years, the players--seven kids on a side--chase the black-and-white ball down the field in mobs. It's referred to as "herd soccer."

Though the emphasis is on having fun, it doesn't take long before kids and parents get caught up in the frenzy of competition and some kids start to show more promise than others. These youths might be asked by their coaches to compete in special four-on-four tournaments held in between the fall and spring seasons. Their parents will start looking into week-long soccer camps, some run by the members of the Dallas Sidekicks in their off-season.

It was at a soccer camp that Ian Hunter-Reeves' prowess got noticed. "The goalie coach at the camp told me he was good," recalls Ian's dad, Gordon Hunter.

By the time your kid who has excelled at soccer is in the third or fourth grade, you'll start hearing, like Hunter did, about the world of select soccer and the myriad clubs that feed it--a world riven by intense rivalries.

"Select soccer definitely has a mystique," Hunter says.

Over the last 20 years, North Texas has given birth to more than 30 select soccer clubs, with names like the Longhorns, Solar, Comets, Andromeda, Genesis, Inter, and the Dallas Texans. Over time, they have developed unique personalities, set by the coaches or the club presidents. The Comets, for instance, are a strong, competitive club, with many stellar teams overseen by one of the most respected coaches around, Horst Bertl, who played in the German Bundesliga and helped his team there win the equivalent of the Super Bowl in European soccer.

The Longhorns have been around the longest, and started what has become the Dallas Cup, today one of the most prestigious international youth tournaments in the world. It is held right before Easter. The Longhorn coaches are only allowed to coach one team each, the idea being that the players get more individual attention.

When stockbroker Dick Stanford and his wife, Jackie, helped start Inter after their grandson had begun playing competitive soccer, the couple conceived of a club that would be more humane, with coaches who would understand "that this wasn't just about sports, but you were dealing with kids' emotions and self-esteem," says Jackie Stanford. On the other hand, Inter was also one of the first clubs to solicit corporate donations to help keep fees down. Inter also finagled their own practice field, located off the Dallas North Tollway, by getting the field's owner, who was tired of paying high taxes on it, to donate it to the club. Inter, a nonprofit organization, does not have to pay taxes on the field.

"My grandson quit a year ago," says Jackie, whose players all call her "Nanna." "But for Dick and I, letting go of soccer was like trying to let go of flypaper."

Then there's the Dallas Texans, the detested yet admired select-soccer newcomers, who in just three years have created the strongest teams in the league. Many coaches and parents criticize the recruiting methods of the club's founder, Hassan Nazari. Though Nazari admits he set out to build a sort of super race of soccer club, vowing to bring select soccer to a new level of competitiveness, he denies any wrongdoing. His detractors are simply jealous of his success, he says.

In the last decade, the number of select soccer clubs has multiplied to accommodate the increasing quest for more rigorous play. With few soccer teams at the junior-high level, and a lack of knowledgeable high-school soccer coaches, the clubs fill a void. "If you're lucky enough to even have a high-school soccer team, chances are you'll be coached by the football coach in the off-season whose first soccer game of the season is the first soccer game he's ever been to," says Mike Stevens, tournament director for the Arlington Legend Soccer Club. "The first thing he tries to do is call a time-out." (There are no time-outs in soccer.)

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