Look around on any fall Saturday--from Del Mar to Oceanside, Encinitas to Escondido--and you'll see soccer uniforms. All day long, children scurry after black-and-white balls on every available field in the county.
Having successfully competed with other traditional youth activities like Little League, soccer has firmly established itself in North County as elsewhere. The area also finds itself home to some new trends, decried by some and applauded by others.
"The population in North County is growing fast, but the numbers of kids playing soccer are growing even faster," said Judith Wesling, a district commissioner for the United States Youth Soccer Assn., one of two national organizations overseeing soccer in the county.
As the number of children playing increases, so do the options available and the confusion for many parents over the right choices for their own children.
In most communities, boys and girls can choose to play purely recreational soccer in their own neighborhoods or try out for more competitive teams. For instance, the Encinitas Soccer Club offers three levels of play: A or recreational teams play locally; AA teams are more competitive and may travel to other communities for their games; AAA teams are the most competitive and travel far afield. Any child may sign up for a recreational team, but for the two competitive levels, team members must actually try out and be chosen.
At the AAA level, soccer often becomes a 12-month commitment, especially when combined with high school soccer. In fact, this region has acquired a reputation as a hot bed for year-round soccer.
On any given weekend, AAA teams like Poway Vaqueros, Escondido Heat, La Jolla Nomads and Rancho Bernardo Pegasus, may face each other or travel outside of the county for distant tournaments. For instance, the San Dieguito Surf under-17 boys team (and many of their family members) will spend Thanksgiving in Tempe, Ariz.
Tryouts and traveling are not the only relatively new wrinkles in youth soccer. In many cases, the coaches of the AAA teams are not volunteer dads and moms; they're paid non-relatives who play soccer themselves.
"Ten years ago, paid coaches were not the case, but now there's a definite trend in that direction," Wesling said. "As the youth players get better and now have national role models in the pro players, they're looking for a higher level of coaching. The paid coaches have the expertise and skills that parents who didn't grow up playing soccer don't have."
One of those coaches is Joseph Giacalone, who has played for a pro soccer team in San Bernadino and is trying out for the San Diego Soccers.
This season he's coaching the Rancho Bernardo Hornets, a team of 10- and 11-year-old girls. He said income from coaching and giving private lessons allows him the freedom to continue playing professional soccer.
"The kids and parents at the AAA level are more motivated," Giacalone said. "I try to put as little pressure as possible on them and still try to teach them to be good soccer players."
According to Robin Schultz, whose daughter, Jennifer, plays for the Hornets, the trend toward paid coaches seems to be working: "The kids are playing better, and, since this is the livelihood of these coaches, they have to be good with the kids."
Paying coaches and traveling to distant tournaments do not come without a price tag. One mother whose son decided to try out for a AAA team after having played on recreational teams said she was ready to write a check for about $35 but found out that a check for 10 times that amount wouldn't cover the cost for the season.
The coaches' paychecks come out of the parents' checkbooks, as does the cost of team travel and uniforms. Each league collects the money differently, but a fee of several hundred dollars is not unusual.
The United States Youth Soccer Assn.'s counterpart is the American Youth Soccer Organization, which emphasizes the recreational rather than competitive aspects of the sport.
The American Youth Soccer Organization has leagues in Mira Mesa and the San Marcos area and plans to open a new region in Carlsbad next year.
"Although we have some paid staff in the national office, every one else is a volunteer in our organizations, from the coaches to the registrars," says Eric Brummond, the national development coordinator for the organization. "We place an emphasis on having fun, staying fit and teaching skills."
The organization's philosophy revolves around four principles, says Brummond: every child should play at least half of each game; each team should be balanced so children don't get discouraged; clubs should hold open reservations with no tryouts so that there is no discrimination on the basis of skill, and all coaches should practice positive coaching.
Actually, all teams in the county, regardless of national or state affiliation start out at the recreational, nontraveling level. The competitive option kicks in around the age of 9. In most leagues, organized play begins at the age of 5.