The Shooting Stars were about to score a goal. The Runaway Bunnies couldn't wrestle the soccer ball away. Then it happened. The ball shot past the 5-year-old girl tending goal for the Bunnies.
The little goalie was crushed. Tears welled up in her eyes. Then she turned to her father, a team helper who stands behind the goal. He embraced her tenderly until play resumed.
It was a warm gesture you might not see in other kids' sports. But this is AYSO soccer (American Youth Soccer Assn.), where winning isn't everything.
Children 5 to 18 years old can sign up for AYSO soccer, and they do so in astounding numbers. In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, about 13,000 kids play on teams. In the city of Ventura alone, 2,100 kids compete on 156 teams, making it one of the 10 largest AYSO regions in the nation.
Nearly every community in the county has an AYSO program. Children sign up in April, and teams are drawn in August. Games are played at local parks and schools on Saturdays from September through November.
On a recent Saturday, as the Runaway Bunnies faced the Shooting Stars, other teams of 5-year-olds took the field as well. The Little Monsters and the Speeding Bullets were there, as were the Sparklers, the All Star Barbies and the Red Hot Peppers. As usual that day, all the games ended with a 0-0 score.
"We don't allow wins or losses until they are 8 years old," said Judy Reynolds, who heads the Ventura program. "Until then, every game is a tie."
Nonetheless, team spirit is high. During pregame warm-up, the Bunnies and Stars stretched on the grass and practiced kicking goals. Parents watched from the sidelines under each team's banner, which displayed the players' names in little stars.
The girls followed the ball up and down the field in a swarm that was in constant motion. Sometimes a player would head down the field the wrong way until a coach shouted, "This way, this way!"
When it was over, they were all tired. Nobody was angry, and nobody cried. That's the way it ought to be, according to AYSO's philosophy.
"The whole foundation of the organization is to have balanced teams, positive coaching and let every child play," Reynolds said. "You are guaranteed your child will play a minimum of half the game."
It was a revolutionary idea when AYSO formed in Torrance in 1964. Back then, winning was nearly everything in kids' sports, even if that meant playing only the best players. But in AYSO, no one tries out for a team. Skill doesn't determine who plays. Teams aren't stacked with the best players.
"A lot of kids play AYSO who are not athletes," Reynolds said.
That doesn't mean they aren't competitive, especially as they get older, she said. Every season, teams that play well at the regional level go on to compete in areawide competitions, and eventually the winners go on to play in the Southern California Championship.
It doesn't cost much to play AYSO soccer. Annual registration is $20 to $50, depending on the community, according to Bill Keene, area director. That includes shorts, shirt and socks, all in team colors. Shin guards, now mandatory, cost from $4 to $10. Kids can play in tennis shoes, or they can buy rubber-bottomed soccer cleats for about $13.
Labor for the games comes cheap. Parents do it all. They line the fields with chalk, they referee, and they coach the kids.
Parents who want to coach go through special training that emphasizes the child's self-esteem, according to Lolly Keys, national director of public affairs.
"Child development is the message," she said. "Soccer is the medium."
AYSO attracts about 350,000 kids in 38 states, she said. About 30% are girls, a percentage Keys says the organization is striving to raise. The sport is most popular for the 8- to 11-year-olds.
"They breathe it. They sleep it," she said.
WHERE AND WHEN
Sign-up for AYSO soccer is in April, and teams are drawn in August. Play runs from September through November. For information, about how and where to sign up, call (800) 262-4234.