Out of Their League

With only a cursory glance at the two teams sparring on the parched field, you could predict the outcome of my 9-year-old daughter's first soccer game this fall. In the first five minutes of play, the opposing team scored five goals. My daughter's Blue Angels scored zip. The other team, the Samba, consisted of a stellar assembly of fourth-grade girls, most of whom, the Blue Angels coach later learned, train five nights a week with a professional soccer tutor. By the game's bloody conclusion, the Samba coach had begun, mercifully, to curb his players. He had them kicking with their left feet. The Blue Angels, a ragtag anyone-who-can-show-up-for-practice-can-join team, lost only 6-0.

"But they could have scored 40 goals on us," Blue Angels coach Sam Simonian concedes.

A few days after the game, a parent of a player on the other team was kind enough to let Simonian in on the secret: Most of the teams playing in the Plano YMCA league this year are of similar caliber to the Samba. Although the YMCA has traditionally been the home to less competitive, more recreational soccer teams, this year the fourth-grade division has been invaded, unbeknownst to the YMCA administrators, by a passel of teams with players hand-picked for their athletic abilities. The coaches of those teams wanted to join the YMCA to get in some extra scrimmage sessions as well as create the aura of legitimacy for their assembled players so they could register them as existing teams for national and statewide tournaments.

In other words, the Blue Angels were cannon fodder--children with parents foolish enough to think that grade-schoolers could still play soccer in Plano just for fun.

"I'm afraid you guys are the exception rather than the rule," Jason Dillard, Plano YMCA's director of sports, said when asked how the Blue Angels could be spared future slaughterings.

High-powered teams have long been part of Plano soccer. But administrators, parents, and former players say that this past year, in the afterglow of the U.S. women's soccer team world championship, the stakes have risen even higher--and with younger players.

"The age level for this stuff just keeps on going down and down," Dillard says. "The parents are pushing these kids too hard, too much training."

In Plano, parents are investing time and money at incredible and unprecedented levels for children as young as 5 years old. Parents are paying skills coaches $150 a month for five extra practice sessions per week for children who have not yet finished kindergarten. By the time their children are in fifth grade, some parents fork over $1,500 in annual fees so their kids can compete in a club or select team. Players on these teams wear $300 uniforms. The parents then have to pay additional sums when the teams travel, sometimes as far away as Washington, D.C.

The time commitments are formidable. Many of the kids are signed up for two or three leagues, including indoor soccer both in the winter and summer months, eliminating any off-season. Some children play games five or six days a week.

"She gets a break during spring break for two weeks to see her grandparents," says Mardy Navalta about his 9-year-old daughter, who is one of the stars on the Samba team. Since his daughter was 7, Navalta, who lives in Carrollton, has had her competing or training six days a week throughout the year. At one point, Navalta says, he had her playing on five different teams. "That was too much," he says.

What would he do if she decided to quit? "I would be heartbroken," he admits. But he adds, "If she decides she wants to quit, it's her choice." When she does sometimes complain about the arduous practice sessions, Navalta says, he reminds his daughter of her goals. At 9, she pines for a scholarship to Notre Dame. "It's pretty scary," Navalta says about how intense the whole thing has become.

Mary Campise is the 36-year-old mother of three soccer-playing girls, including a 9-year-old who plays for Samba. As a teenager growing up in Richardson, Campise was a soccer champion and earned a scholarship to the University of North Carolina.

In those days, she recalls, the atmosphere was relaxed. "There was never a parent at even one of our practices," she says. "My mother never even spoke to a soccer coach."

Today the parental pressure is so intense it's palpable. "It starts when they are this tall," Campise says, motioning to her knee, "and they push them and push them."

For her own daughters, she has tried to cut a path down the middle. She has put them in soccer and even had them try out for the competitive teams, but she has drawn the line at outside private coaching. Campise says that in the long run, the extra help becomes less necessary as the girls get older and mature mentally as athletes. She also worries about her children's opting out.

"My personal fear is burnout," Campise says.

For the Blue Angels, the question is whether they can play soccer at all in Plano. YMCA administrators, after Simonian's wife diplomatically filled them in on the team's predicament, redrafted the game schedule so the Blue Angels and three other "filler" teams wouldn't have to play the 9-year-old semi-pros. But because the YMCA's Dillard doesn't have enough teams who want to play simple recreational soccer, he says, he might eliminate a fourth-grade league next season. "I'm probably going to wipe fourth grade out," he says. "I don't have the structure to deal with this."

Meanwhile, Simonian decided to switch to another league, the Dallas North Soccer Association, where the teams are carefully screened to ensure the playing field is level. Recreational team coaches are only allowed to assemble players from the same public school area--a rule aimed at thwarting the development of superstar teams like the Samba.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen