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Alive and kicking; Soccer is a burgeoning sport nationwide, especially in Utah

May 30, 2004, Sunday

The Salt Lake Tribune

BYLINE: Peter Richins , The Salt Lake Tribune

The first time Joanna Barney went with her mother to sign up for a soccer league, the woman who is now coach of the Utah Spiders semi-professional women's soccer team was told there were no teams for girls.

"The guy who was signing people up wasn't even in favor of the girls playing with the boys," Barney said. She was 4 years old, and in 1977, things were much different than they are today.

Now, soccer is by far the fastest-growing sport nationally for both boys and girls, particularly in Utah. Some studies have shown that Utah has the highest soccer participation rate, per capita, in the country. The state also boasts four professional or semi-professional teams with affiliations to national leagues, and Salt Lake City is among a handful of cities being considered by Major League Soccer for an expansion team in 2005.

"I would say we're on the way to becoming a new soccer nation," said Paul Burke, president of the Utah Youth Soccer Association. "Playing soccer is becoming a part of the American experience."

The UYSA is the state's branch of the United States Youth Soccer Association. It organizes both recreational and competitive soccer leagues statewide. The organization's own numbers tell an incredible tale of growth.

The UYSA had 3,874 players in various clubs in its first year, 1977. Through much of the 1980s, participation numbers hovered around 18,000. Then there was an explosion, and between 1987 and 2001 the numbers grew from 18,668 to 32,016.

The Utah High School Activities Association helped things along by adding boys soccer to its list of sanctioned prep sports in 1983 and girls soccer in 1989. In 1987, there were 1,569 players on 52 boys teams and 193 players on 20 girls teams. This prep season, there were 2,739 players on 85 boys teams and 2,275 players on 75 girls teams.

Nationally, soccer is the fifth-most popular high school sport in terms of participation for both boys and girls. In the 2002-2003 school year, 646,606 boys and girls played on high school teams in America.

The rise in the number of female players is largely responsible for the growth. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the percentage of frequent players (who played at least 52 days per year) that were female in 1987 was 28 percent. In 2001, it was 48 percent.

"Our girls programs have clearly been growing," Burke said. "The girls have been inspired by the opportunities presented by Title IX and by the example of the U.S. women's national team."

The numbers are not the only indication of growth in the state.

"We have growth, not only in terms of numbers but also in terms of quality," Burke said. He is the first president of the UYSA who actually played in the association when he was younger.

"You're getting players returning to the system and returning to be coaches," Burke said. "The game has grown, and with each generation, the quality has improved."

On the college level, women have much more opportunity than men in Utah. Nearly every college and university in the state has an NCAA-sanctioned women's team. The only sanctioned men's team in Utah is at Westminster College; the other schools have men's soccer, but at a club level.

"Now, things have turned around because there's more opportunity for girls in soccer than there is for boys, at least in college," Barney said. Women's teams at BYU and Utah have seen significant success in recent years. Both made it to the NCAA Tournament last fall, and BYU made it all the way to the Elite Eight.

The Spiders provide a way for girls to continue playing competitively, both during and after college. The team plays in the Women's Premier Soccer League, a semi-professional league which allows collegians to continue playing during the offseason and still keep their NCAA eligibility. With the recent collapse of the professional Women's United Soccer Association, the WPSL has become the top women's league nationally.

Men have a similar opportunity to play for the Utah Salt Ratz, a team in the semi-pro Men's Premier Soccer League. The MPSL, the first men's league to grow out of a women's league, started last year. Because skilled players from Utah must travel out of state to play on a men's college team, the Salt Ratz allow Utah natives to continue playing during summer breaks.

"It allows those kids to come back and play at a very high level during the summer, in front of mom and dad," Salt Ratz owner Ralph Hansen said.

It can be easy, however, to confuse the semi-pro Salt Ratz with Utah's only professional men's soccer team, the Utah Blitzz. The Blitzz play in the Pro Soccer League, which sits two steps below Major League Soccer in the United Soccer League's organization. Hansen said the Ratz do not intend to take the place of the Blitzz as Utah's soccer team, despite the way they advertised themselves last year.

"We're not trying to make that sound like we're the Blitzz," Hansen said. "Our focus is to build soccer based on Utah kids. I would hope that some of our players could get on the Blitzz someday; I would like to see them be good enough to get on the Blitzz."

Still, according to Blitzz owner and coach Chris Agnello, some confusion has arisen. His primary concern is confusion among sponsors.

"We've had a few sponsors say they were approached by the Salt Ratz and got confused and ended up backing out," Agnello said. "Another group coming onto the scene only makes our job that much harder to accomplish."

The Blitzz's goal is to bring the highest level of soccer to Utah, whether by becoming a high-level professional team themselves or by creating enough interest in the state to draw a team here. In order to keep itself afloat, the team has established youth soccer programs that draw attention to the Blitzz. The Blitzz count 16,000 kids in their Junior Blitzz program.

"It's no different than the Jazz in the early 1980s when they started the Junior Jazz," Agnello said.

The Blitzz are not the only USL team in the state. Last year, Brigham Young's men's club team became the first to join the USL's amateur league, the Premier Development League. The Cougars struggled to win in the new environment last year, but coach Chris Watkins is positive the team can improve and adapt to the higher level of competition.

Burke recognizes that, despite the growth, soccer is not yet as popular nationally as other sports. But, he is patient.

"It's not a top-four sport yet, but give it time," Burke said.