I'VE BEEN TOLD THAT ABOUT 90 PERCENT of the children in my Northern California neighborhood sign up for organized soccer. American youth soccer sure wasn't like that when I joined a team, at age 6, way back in 1970.
My desire to play had been spurred by the enthusiasm my family, immigrants from Germany, had for the sport.
We had to drive a good ways to find a league, in North Dallas. But after one year a league started up in our neighborhood as the American youth soccer boom got underway.
The North American Soccer League's Dallas Tornado had much to do with the spread of the youth game in the area as Coach Ron Newman, an England native, and his players, mostly Brits, introduced the sport to young Texans and started leagues around the Metroplex.
"I'd go to a school, juggle a few balls and kick a few balls, and they'd be fascinated," said Newman. "Then I would get them to fill out a few forms and start looking for volunteers."
Newman tells of building goals with unused lumber from construction sites. Among his colorful anecdotes from the early days is what happened when a post collapsed during a youth game — he stood rigid for the final half of the game holding the crossbar up.
"Everybody knows me as someone who won all these championships," said Newman, who also coached in the ASL, MISL and MLS. "But then, I was just a goalpost."
These were the days when soccer was still being treated as something new and foreign. The only soccer we got regularly on TV was the short highlight of Pele scoring in the 1970 World Cup final that was part of the "Wide World of Sports" opening montage before the "agony of defeat" guy fell off the ski ramp.
Now, walk by a schoolyard today and you're almost guaranteed to spot kids wearing replica jerseys from teams like Barcelona, Chivas and Manchester United.
Soccer wasn't yet a "cool" thing among the kids when I was a boy. The most peer admiration I got from my soccer skills was at kickball. The class bully started being nice to me when he discovered I could kick home the runs at will and began picking me first for his team each recess.
For sure, the 1970s were a transformative period in American soccer, when it went beyond ethnic enclaves.
As Paul Gardner wrote in his book about American sports, "Nice Guys Finish Last," amateur and semipro teams around the Eastern seaboard had names like Philadelphia Ukrainians, New York Hungarians, Blau-Weiss Gottschee, Newark Portuguese. And they played in leagues like the German-American League or Lega Italo-Americana di Calcio.
"If Americans thought of soccer as a foreign sport, there was a good reason for it," Gardner wrote.
The ethnic social clubs that sponsored the teams also fielded youth teams. Hank Steinbrecher, who went on to become the U.S. Soccer Federation's secretary general, played youth ball in the 1960s for Kohlsman Soccer Club, which was sponsored by a German machinery company.
Steinbrecher, whose parents emigrated from Germany, says nearly all his teammates were immigrants or the children of immigrants.
"When I was a young player, all the play was in New York City," says Steinbrecher. "There was hardly any soccer on Long Island. Then with the rise of the Cosmos and suburbia, more and more leagues started up in the island.
"When my family moved to Levittown, I would hitchhike in or catch a train or a bus to go to the Metropolitan Oval. We'd play a preliminary game and then the senior team would play, and you'd have 5,000 people there."
Such popularity and the opportunities for youth soccer were generally limited to immigrant communities. What finally pushed soccer into the mainstream was the NASL, particularly the New York Cosmos, who signed Pele in 1975.
Pele appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and visited the White House. Rock stars went to soccer games and even owned teams.
The league was broadcast on network TV while NASL teams worked to promote the game at the grassroots level. Youngsters across the nation discovered the joys that the free-flowing sport offered. The game that had long enchanted the rest of the world swept across the nation. It was a hit.
The ethnic clubs that sponsored youth teams began integrating youngsters who didn't have a family link to the game, and new leagues and clubs sprang up. The U.S. Youth Soccer Association, now the largest youth sports organization in the United States, was founded in 1974.
Despite the NASL's demise in 1984, the sport grew healthier at all other levels and participation by boys and girls increased at a phenomenal rate.
When the USA qualified for the 1990 World Cup, its players represented the new face of American soccer.
Three players — John Harkes, Tab Ramos and Tony Meola – had played their youth ball in Kearny, N.J., one of the early soccer hotbeds thanks to Scots who had immigrated to work in thread mills.
All three played for the Kearny Scots, although only Harkes' family hailed from Scotland. Ramos emigrated with his family from Uruguay and Meola's parents came from Italy.
Maryland native Bruce Murray was also Scottish-American. Paul Vermes was born in New Jersey to Hungarian parents.
Defender Steve Trittschuh came out of the St. Louis area, whose rich soccer history had unique origins. There the game spread through the Catholic Youth Council, and clubs were associated with the churches and parishes rather than ethnic social clubs or companies with immigrant workers.
Paul Caligiuri, the hero of the qualifying campaign, got his start playing AYSO ball in Southern California, and many of the teams' other 1990 World Cup players were introduced to the sport thanks to the 1970s boom.
A look at today's national team program, from the youth squads on up, reveals states that a few decades ago had no soccer culture at all, are producing elite players. This is combined with immigration trends that have created a larger and more diverse pool of players.
For example, only about 100,000 Africans immigrated to the USA from 1961 through 1980, but nearly 900,000 have arrived since 1981. By 2000, half of the foreign-born population in the USA hailed from Latin America.
Indeed, the majority of immigrants to the USA arrive from soccer-mad nations, providing the country a constant influx of potential players, fans and coaches.
As opposed to the first phase of the game's history in the USA, immigrants who cling to the sport of their homeland can now enjoy a pastime from their own culture that is also embraced by mainstream America.
It's a scenario that benefits all levels of the game — whether it's MLS, the U.S. national team program, or youth soccer.
(This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)