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PARENTING : Soccer Kicks In : The World Cup is over, but youths in the San Fernando Valley are about to begin playing in organized fall leagues.

August 26, 1994|JEFF BOOK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Jeff Book is a Los Angeles writer. and

The World Cup hoopla may have faded, but soccer, the sport of urban immigrants, continues to sweep subur ban America. According to a recent survey, 12 million Americans under the age of 18 played soccer at least once last year. In the San Fernando Valley, a hotbed of soccer action, many young athletes will soon be playing once a week or more as organized youth soccer leagues kick off their new season next month.

The game's patterns and pacing may not fit the TV-sports mold, but soccer's simplicity and its emphasis on fluid team play make it a natural for boys and girls of all ages and abilities. Unlike football and other contact sports, soccer is a low-impact game that stresses stamina and finesse over physical clashes and elaborate gear. Cheap, easy to learn, open to all, it offers a good way for youngsters--ages 5 to 18--to catch the spirit of team play.

"The primary thing we're trying to do is teach children sportsmanship so they can learn to work for a common goal," explains Tom Brennan, of American Youth Soccer's Burbank-Glendale Region.

Since it began in California 30 years ago, AYSO has grown to encompass more than 400,000 kids playing on more than 30,000 teams nationwide. "Everyone plays" is the cornerstone of AYSO's approach, and virtually any child with interest and enthusiasm finds a place on an AYSO team.

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To promote even matches, AYSO's volunteer coaches balance their teams with players of varying abilities. Teams are small enough that every player on every team can play at least half of each game--an AYSO rule.

"We're truly a community league," says Harold Minden, of AYSO's Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Region. "We take every kid who wants to play, and if they don't have the money, we help fund them."

AYSO team selection occurs in July, practices start in August, and the season runs from September into December. Minden's region charges a $65 annual membership fee per player and $55 for each additional child from the same family. (For the Burbank-Glendale region, the fee is $55 for those who register before April, $75 thereafter). The fee buys each player a uniform, a participation trophy or trophy yearbook, team photos and supplemental insurance.

"It's one of the safest sports, though," notes Brennan, "because there's no contact. One-on-one contact is a foul."

With its low "crunch" factor, soccer has become increasingly popular with girls. Kristen Hayes, of the independent West Valley Soccer League, has watched her 9-year-old daughter grow with the game since she began four years ago.

"At 5, (the players) are like a swarm of bees after the ball--we call it swarmball--but by the end of the season, they're really getting it," she says. "Unlike AYSO, we keep the same teams together from year to year, so they become friends and know each other's abilities on the field. But they also have the option to go into the draft if they want to get on another team."

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Recreational players from ages 5 to 15 are welcome in the West Valley league, which holds tryouts and chooses teams in June and starts practicing in late July; their 1994 season runs from Sept. 10 through Dec. 3. Like AYSO, the West Valley league makes room for all kids, and on recreational teams, every member plays three quarters of each game. The league's $95 annual fee includes uniform, trophy, yearbook and photos.

But for all its egalitarian ways, recreational soccer is still about winning. Winning teams from both AYSO and WVSL go into playoffs, and both organizations also field all-star teams.

In addition, for older players who enjoy the spirit of rivalry, there's the further thrill of competitive or "club" soccer. The West Valley league has a separate club division for such enthusiasts from ages 10 to 17. Its club teams are affiliated with the California Youth Soccer Assn., a subdivision of the larger U.S. Youth Soccer Assn.

The CYSA stresses competitive soccer, with regular and tournament play going on almost year-round. Tryouts are held periodically throughout the year, so the best chance of getting on a team after the season has started is probably with a CYSA team.

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CYSA clubs like the North Hollywood Jets and Valley United Youth Soccer League each field a number of teams for boys and girls age 8 and older who want the heads-up action and coaching of competitive soccer. But CYSA also has recreational leagues, such as the Desert Winds Soccer League in Lancaster-Palmdale.

Whether the play is recreational or competitive, however, soccer's vitality comes not from superstars and TV sponsors but from its grass-roots appeal and the efforts of countless volunteer coaches, referees and fund-raisers. And for children--from serious athletes to those who just like running around--the sport might just kick off a lifetime of fun.

WHERE TO GO

What: American Youth Soccer Organization, (800) USA-AYSO.

What: West Valley Soccer League, (818) 591-WVSL.

What: California Youth Soccer Assn., (818) 360-0197 or (310) 837-5861.

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