Games Grownups Play

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

Even if their high school has a good soccer team, many kids play for both their school and a club team, to increase their chances of getting college scholarships. The club system has become the way to make it into the higher echelons of the sport--the Olympic Development Program, state and regional teams, even the U.S. Olympic team--where college coaches take notice.

Before beginning to negotiate the dizzying array of clubs and their distinct cultures, a player's parents must come to grips with the time and money involved, and the fact that soccer will come to dictate family life. "The first thing we heard is that you can forget about taking vacations in the summer," Hunter says.

The first two weeks of July are reserved for select-team tryouts. Even many of the parents who are committed to select soccer complain that the tryout system is brutal, especially for the fragile psyches of the youngest players, fifth and sixth graders. One mother likens the two-week ordeal to sorority rush.

Some clubs advertise their tryouts in the monthly soccer newspaper The Pitch, or put fliers under windshield wipers at spring tournaments to attract would-be first-year players. Hopefuls scout prospective teams. Often a first-year player will want to play for a certain coach the child may have met during a clinic or at a soccer camp.

Coaches notoriously invite far more kids to tryouts than they can possibly pick. Diego Castro says it's done out of courtesy, not meanness. But parents say it is agonizing if, at the end of two weeks, a child isn't offered a contract by a team for which he or she wants to play.

"Rejection is a lot to handle for an 11-year-old," says one mom. "It was our first year through and it was horrible. The coaches played games. 'Why didn't you come to me first?' Some told my son he was going to make the team--but then a better player came along."

Her son loved recreational soccer, and was encouraged by several club coaches to try out for select. When he didn't make any of the select teams, "he was devastated," says his mom.

"You lose your mind seeing your child hurt," she says. "The coaches stand there and say, 'You're good, you're bad, you're out.' There's no mercy."

Her son eventually got on a team--coached by a player for the Sidekicks.
Mike Stevens, tournament director of Legend, acknowledges that the tryout system is flawed. "The problem is that all these coaches are young guys with no kids. They just don't understand."

"There are definite problems with the system," agrees Castro, "but it's like democracy. It's got its problems, but what's the alternative?"

At the end of the two weeks, coaches offer the players they want a contract to play for them, just like in the pros, except instead of the players being paid, the parents do the paying--anywhere from $700 to $1,200 a year, depending on the team.

Though worldwide soccer, which requires little more than a ball and some players, is considered a sport of the masses, in the select clubs of the United States, it is fast becoming a sport of the well-to-do. It takes a serious commitment of money and immense amounts of time to keep a child on a select team. Even though some teams offer partial or full scholarships to low-income players, middle- and upper-class families can more easily ferry their children to practice--often an hour or longer round-trip--two to three times a week.

Why do parents sign on for this kind of inconvenience and expense, let alone expose their children to the ego-deflating tryouts? "We want our kid to progress, to be the best he can be, to be coached by the best and to play at the highest level of competition," says one mother, "and, hey, if it'll keep our kid off the street, what's bad?"

For some, it's an investment in their kid's future, a chance at a college sports scholarship, maybe even a shot at the Olympics or the pros. Yet most admit these are elusive dreams at best.

"Rec [soccer] people think select people are crazy, spending all this time and money," says one select-club parent. It's like a regular student vs. the talented-and-gifted. They think they get too much attention, but these kids need to excel."

Schellas Hyndman, soccer coach at Southern Methodist University, who ran his own soccer club on a volunteer basis for eight years, calls select soccer a "can of worms." North Texas is the premier hunting ground for college scouts, he says, but that has its downside.

"With coaches today making a living at it, it can become pretty vicious for the kids," Hyndman says. "It can be the best system in the world, but it also teaches a lot of values we don't necessarily want to teach kids."

Many parents agree that as select soccer has grown, it has also changed for the worse. This year, in particular, area select soccer has been plagued by scandal, including some preposterous antics unthinkable in a children's level of sports. "It's the white hats vs. the black hats," says one insider. "The white hats do it for the kids. The black hats have ulterior motives--power, self-interest, money, who knows what?"

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