More and more Arizona youth are taking up soccer as they look up to the stars in the FIFA World Cup and Major League Soccer.
The Arizona Youth Soccer Association, a Phoenix-based group that governs youth soccer for the entire state, reported participation by boys and girls spiking from 31,504 in 2013 to 40,078 this past year, a 27 percent increase
“With the increased popularity of soccer and the growth in our state, we would be excited to reach our goal of over 50,000 players by the year 2017,” said Kelleigh Evans, administrative assistant for the soccer association.
The group oversees more than 70 youth clubs spread throughout Arizona as well as the Olympic Development Program state team, which hosts annual tryouts to identify the best talent in the state for competition in national tournaments.
According to Evans and Wendy Anaya, director of administration for the group, Arizona has experienced the largest growth in youth soccer registration of any state in the country.
“We usually see a spike in enrollment when the U.S. does well in the World Cup, the Olympics, or if a hometown team gets national recognition,” said Brandy Jo Marshall, the Tucson Co-ed Coordinator of National Youth Sports. The group also offers leagues for basketball, volleyball, baseball, flag and tackle football. “We’re seeing more kids with interest in the sport and that has made us expand into how many fields we need and how many teams we have so that these kids can play.”
In summer 2014, Pima County leaders approved a plan to buy 167 acres of land near Kino Sports Complex in Tucson, Arizona, to build 19 new soccer fields, including stadium seating for 5,000 to 7,000 fans.
Rillito Park Racetrack in Tucson was also the site for three new soccer fields, although there’s a demand to install and set up even more. The county wants to become the center of soccer activity for the state in hopes of attracting more regional and national tournaments to southern Arizona, according to Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
The 2014 Men’s World Cup recorded the highest soccer viewership ever in the U.S., including 25 million viewers for the U.S-Portugal group stage game, according to Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).
This summer, the women will be on the international stage for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. The U.S. women’s soccer team is ranked second in the FIFA World Rankings, with two World Cup titles in 1991 and 1999.
In 2000, girls represented 45 percent of total youth soccer registration in Arizona, according to U.S. Youth Soccer. That number has now risen to 48 percent.
“Soccer is a sport that girls can compete even against the boys,” said Marshall. “Sure, the boys may be faster or stronger, but the girls can be physical too when they play. There is no gap between the competitiveness as if boys play the game better or girls play the game better. Everyone can get after it in soccer.”
Televised games have made a difference, as well.
“I grew up playing soccer and have played my whole life, but to see the sport grow has been great because it’s meant that kids are playing and growing with the game,” said Edson Rico, director of training for Sonoran Foothills Soccer Club in Tucson. “I think the World Cup showed kids that there are professional players who play here in the U.S and are also able to be successful internationally.”
Major League Soccer began with 10 teams when it was founded in 1996, but that number has now doubled with New York City FC joining this year for the franchise’s first season.
Following the collapse of Women’s Professional Soccer, the new National Women’s Soccer League launched in 2013, including four teams from the old league. Expansion is already in the works for the new league, and they have gained support from the national soccer federations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico that the former league did not have.
“Part of why we came out here to run camps and coach kids is because we can see that kids want to play,” said Niall Foy, regional director for U.K. International Soccer and a coach for camps and skill clinics throughout Arizona. “England is home for me and there, the sport is frenzy all the time. Everyone watches. I’m not going to say it’s the same here in the states, but the game is really taking off more than I really imagined.”
In April and May, the 2015 Arizona State Cup Championship will be played, bringing together the best boys and girls teams in the state in advance of the U.S. Youth Soccer Region IV Championship in June.
As professional soccer leagues gain popularity, Arizona youth hope to one day play with the professionals they idolize and admire.
“I think Messi is amazing because he’s not the biggest but he’s unstoppable in how he scores so many goals,” said Sacha Dennison, who plays midfield for her 13 and under club team and currently participates in American Youth Soccer skills camps in Tucson. “I’m small too, so it helps to watch him and learn from his skills.”
Cam Chery is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.