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VARISTY TIMES

Many apply, few chosen for City soccer teams

February 20, 2008|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

It's lunchtime at Los Angeles Fremont High, and a bunch of students have gathered near the baseball field to get in a game before the bell rings and classes resume.

The game they are playing is soccer.

And Fremont is not the only Los Angeles City Section high school where an impromptu soccer game might break out.

"The kids here play every day at lunchtime and nutrition [breaks]. And those are the ones not on the teams," Roosevelt Athletic Director Mike Flores said. "They play on the tennis courts. It could be raining, it could be hot, but they don't miss a day."

Soccer continues to grow in popularity in the City Section.

According to section Commissioner Barbara Fiege, there were no girls' varsity and girls' junior varsity soccer teams 20 years ago. Today there are 72 teams among the 87 schools that participate in a section league. Girls' soccer is closing in on boys' soccer, which has 75 teams. Those 147 total teams are varsity and junior varsity. Currently there are no freshman-sophomore teams.

Even so, Fiege said, "In terms of bodies, there are probably more students playing soccer than any other sport in our section."

A Times story in December, quoting data complied from 1980-2006, noted how much demographic change City schools have undergone. Of the L.A. Unified School District's 49 comprehensive high schools where the data was first collected in 1980, only eight -- Crenshaw, Dorsey, El Camino Real, Granada Hills, Palisades, Taft, Washington and Westchester -- had student populations by 2006 where Latinos were not the majority.

There are five City schools -- Bell, Fremont, Garfield, Huntington Park and Roosevelt -- with Latino student populations of 4,000 or more. The number of students who want to play on the varsity and junior varsity teams there far outstrips the number of roster spots a school can offer.

"We are turning away kids," said Daniel Gallardo, boys' varsity soccer coach at Bell. "When I have tryouts, I have at least 100 kids show up. I have tryouts three times a year; at the end of the soccer season in March, then in July, and in September. And even now kids are still asking to try out a couple times a week."

Boys' Coach Roberto Gonzalez faces a similar situation at Fremont.

"Every year I've been coaching I've been having close to 200 kids come out for the tryouts. Every year," said Gonzalez, now in his seventh season.

"For varsity I try to keep 20; for junior varsity it's the same number. So we're talking 40 students a year. I can field a pretty good team from the student population."

To keep up with the increasing demand, some City administrators favor adding freshman-sophomore teams.

"We should have them," Bell Athletic Director Henry Santiago said. "It's very tough to make the [other] soccer teams because you can only play 11, and teams have up to 25 players. Coaches now want a frosh-soph league, maybe in the spring."

But there isn't widespread support for that.

"The interest is there," Huntington Park Athletic Director John Holton said. "But . . . it wouldn't make sense to offer frosh-soph soccer. The problem is six teams and one field."

Birmingham is the only City school with separate football and soccer fields, according to the City Section office. The rest have one field to accommodate football and soccer, although some schools occasionally shift their soccer games to the baseball field or an off-campus facility.

Both boys and girls play soccer as a winter sport, so it does not conflict with football in the fall. But it is difficult for four teams -- varsity and junior varsity teams for boys and girls -- to practice on one field.

Still, if the demographics continue evolving where the Latino student population is dominant in every City school, it's possible to foresee soccer becoming more popular than football or basketball.

The day when more sports fans go to a Friday night soccer game than a football game is not here yet, however.

"It will be hard," Gonzalez said. "It might happen, but it's going to be hard. Football and basketball are a tradition, and it's hard to break tradition. But maybe soccer will be at the same level one day, in having the same number of people [attending] soccer games like football and basketball."

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mike.terry@latimes.com

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