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My soccer goal: a men's team for USC

It's embarrassing that a school with a dynamic athletic reputation and large numbers of foreign students isn't taking a shot at the world's most popular sport.

November 28, 2009|By Sean Mitchell

There is something missing this fall at USC, and it's not just a BCS ranking that would assure Pete Carroll's football team a top postseason bowl game. What's missing relates to that other football game, the one that's the most popular sport in the world and known in the U.S. as soccer. The top 48 college teams are currently playing in the NCAA Division I men's tournament -- the College Cup. USC is not among them, for the simple reason that USC does not have a men's soccer team.

Sure, many alumni were embarrassed by USC's recent one-sided gridiron loss to Stanford. But more embarrassing to others is that a major university, with a powerhouse athletic reputation, located in the heart of multicultural, bilingual Los Angeles, still does not have an NCAA soccer team for men. There are men's varsity teams in water polo and volleyball. But not soccer. Incredible.

Two teams from the Pac-10, UCLA and Stanford, are in the tournament this year, along with UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and the University of San Diego. You would think USC could compete with them, no?

The first volley usually fired back on this subject is that USC has a women's team, and it's a great one. They've been to the NCAA tournament the last five years in row and won it in 2007. That's terrific. I've seen them play, and they have a wonderful, exciting team. But this avoids the issue. Imagine hearing the same argument if USC only had a women's NCAA basketball team or only played softball, not men's baseball.

USC's official position, reiterated to me by Tim Tessalone, the university's sports information director, is that in order to comply with Title IX -- the federal law that seeks to provide parity for female athletes in proportion to the number of male athletes enrolled -- USC cannot at this point offer a men's varsity soccer program. "USC doesn't plan to add any men's sports," Tessalone stated, "as we plan to remain in compliance with Title IX ratios."

Somehow UCLA, UC Berkeley and Stanford manage to have men's and women's varsity soccer teams. Presumably under the Title IX stipulations, those schools must have fewer male athletes in other sports in order to make room for the men in soccer.

The omission of men's soccer in USC's panoply of highly regarded NCAA teams is of course a reflection of soccer's second-class status in the American sports culture, even in AYSO-blanketed Southern California. But that culture is changing. The recent playoff showdown between L.A.'s two Major League Soccer teams, the Galaxy and Chivas USA, filled the Home Depot Arena. Meanwhile, the quality of Division I men's soccer in general has risen in the last decade to a level of athleticism that draws thousands to some college games. ESPN broadcasts the finals of the College Cup nationally (this year's will be on Dec. 13).

In addition to UCLA, the Pac-10's California, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington, plus associate member San Diego State, field Division I men's teams.

It remains confounding that USC is missing from this list. Oregon? OK. Washington State? OK. But USC? A school whose enormous home stadium, the Coliseum, has pulled in capacity crowds for international soccer matches? A school, it was reported in The Times the other day, that for the eighth consecutive year enrolled the highest number of foreign students (7,482 in 2008-2009) of any U.S. university?

What must those students think when they arrive here from countries where soccer is the biggest sport and figure out that, yes, USC has a men's soccer team but it's a "club" team, one step up from intramurals in terms of status? Nothing against club teams either -- more power to them and to the ingenuity and passion it takes to mount an intercollegiate schedule while privately raising the money to do so.

But to the extent that American universities, even the most academically select ones, continue to justify the expense of high-profile athletic programs because of the visibility and prestige they bring to the schools, relegating a sport to club status is essentially robbing it of any status at all.

And for a storied athletic department to do so now while looking into the changing face of Los Angeles and the nation is to risk appearing out of touch. No one doubts that college football, the kind with first downs and million-dollar coaches, will long be the main sporting event on campuses east and west. But that other kind of football is no longer just a curiosity. UCLA is seeded No. 6 in this year's tournament. If you're a Bruin, good luck. If you're a Trojan, you can always root for Stanford -- or for the day you finally get a team of your own.

Sean Mitchell, an occasional contributor to The Times' Calendar section, played soccer at Brown University.

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