The Serious Side of Soccer

By C.W. Nevius
Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle

This weekend may appear to be no more than the first sunny days of an early spring, but for hundreds of kids in Contra Costa County, one of the Bay Area’s soccer heartlands, it is a nerve-wracking rite of passage.

At fields up and down the I-680/24 corridor, dead serious tweens and teens are putting their soccer careers on the line -- literally -- in an extensive network of tryouts that would rival NFL scouting camps.

Frankly, some of the parents weren’t completely clear on what they were getting themselves into.

"This is a traveling team?’’ Linda Sue Tanner says she asked when her 9- year-old daughter, Kera, decided to try out for the Lamorinda Soccer Club in Moraga. They’ll get the idea soon enough.

"Recreational" soccer -- a game in which everyone plays, hardly anybody yells, and attending practice is a suggestion, not an obligation -- is still played in the Bay Area. But in hot spots like Contra Costa County and San Jose, "competitive’’ soccer is a whole other ball game.

Tryouts are required to make a team, matches are scheduled all over the state (and even the United States), and your competitive soccer jacket, with your name stitched over the heart, is a social badge of honor. There are going to be some tense dinners the next few nights as players run themselves ragged over two-hour workouts and then worry if they are going to get the coveted call from a coach. Not making the competitive team can be the end of a soccer career.

Gail Latronica, who lives in Walnut Creek, recalls that when her son Victor tried out for a competitive team a few years ago, there were "at least 100 8-year-old boys’’ on the field when she arrived. Before they started, the coach said, he wanted to speak to the parents. She was anticipating a welcome. Instead, the parents got the soccer version of George C. Scott’s speech from "Patton.’’

"I am taking the top 12,’’ the coach began. "We are representing this city. And if your son makes the team, and little Johnny is having a bad game, he will not be on the field. I don’t care if you drove to Santa Rosa. If there is anyone who has a problem with that, they can leave now.’’

"Oh, my God,’’ Gail remembers thinking, "what did I just do?’’

Soccer is serious business in Contra Costa County on every level. In fact, it is both serious and a business. The upper-echelon Diablo Valley Soccer Club in Concord has just finished phasing out parents who coach. All of their instructors and trainers are paid professionals.

During yesterday’s tryouts at Lamorinda, parents were given a handout that included the club’s 2004 budget. It is $506,263.

"It is such a different atmosphere,’’ says Rick Morin, director of coaching for Diablo Valley. "I tell these kids that when I played in Walnut Creek, I used to ride my bike down the street to games, and the big trip of the year was to Watsonville.’’

Now players at the top levels have been all over the country before they get their driver’s licenses.

Victor, Gail Latronica’s son, turned out to be top player. About to turn 16, he just learned that he has been picked for Diablo Valley’s "Black Pearl’’ team, which the club says is for "the top 1 percent of players in the country. ’’ The family was delighted, although they couldn’t help but wince when they heard the travel schedule that runs from June to October.

"Dallas, Las Vegas, San Diego, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Huntington Beach, Long Island, San Diego again, and back to Washington,’’ Gail says. "They told us to figure $800 per trip and everything is out of pocket.’’

A single parent, Gail would find it hard to make those trips with her son, but the reality is, she’s not invited. Players are sent airline tickets by e- mail, put on a plane and given an itinerary when they reach the hotel. They are expected to manage their schedule themselves. If parents fly to games, they may not even catch more than a glimpse of their kids.

"At this point you’re a mere spectator,’’ Gail says. "Lots of times I wouldn’t even stay in the same hotel. Sometimes they give you a family night and you can go out to dinner. But sometimes you’d just get to wave at them across the field.’’

In 2001, a "Sports Illustrated for Kids’’ survey found that 70 percent of all children active in sports quit before they reach the age of 13. That’s just about the time that sports begin to become much more serious and competitive.

But for a certain type of kid, this is their concept of a wonderful time.

"A lot of my friends take a vacation once in a while,’’ says Patrick Fry, 16, the goalkeeper for the Black Pearl boys’ team. "I take them eight times a summer. My friends are blown away by how much I do.’’

Gail Latronica remembers nagging Victor to go to swim practice in the summer. She finally gave up and let him quit. But the day high school ended last year, Victor said he "couldn’t wait to get back with those guys’’ on his soccer team.

"He has a passion for this,’’ she says. "If he said, ’I quit,’ I’d be the first one to say OK. But it has been nothing but a positive for Victor.’’

There is no disputing the results. In Pleasanton, the boys program, Ballistic, and girls, called Rage, are nationally recognized. The Walnut Creek and Lamorinda teams regularly place among the top teams at the state soccer cup.

But it is Diablo Valley that has raised its game recently. About 40 former club players have gone on to play college soccer, including North Carolina goalkeeper Aly Winget, who recorded a shutout in this year’s national championship. The club makes its traveling schedule according to "showcase’’ tournaments where they know college scouts will be attending and recently announced that it had hired Brazilian women’s soccer star (and former member of the San Jose Cyber Rays) Sissi as a coach. However, it all comes at a stiff price.

"When you get to a level like this,’’ says Gail Latronica, "you need more than a bake sale.’’

Registration for the Diablo Valley club, for example, is $325. The fee for the Black Pearl team is $1,500. Playing on one of the top Lamorinda teams is $1,167, plus an extra $250 for the uniform. The big spending isn’t limited to Contra Costa. Morin says a large Santa Rosa soccer club recently calculated that the entire 1,000-member team spent a total of $3 million a year on everything from cleats to airfare.

"There’s so much money flying around here it is crazy,’’ says Morin. "But it is not being spent wisely. Out here we have a big Latino community. Obviously there are some fantastic players that are being left behind, just financially. We need to address that, maybe with corporate sponsors. Morally it is just not right, just for starters.’’

Of course, some parents think they will recoup the investment when their son or daughter gets that college scholarship. Morin attempts to hold down expectations. He says that in the entire Diablo Valley club roster of nearly 900 players, "probably 10 kids’’ have a chance at a Division I college scholarship. But some parents don’t want to hear the reality. They have invested so much, emotionally and financially, that they sometimes spin out of control.

"Parent behavior on the sideline last year was atrocious,’’ says Morin. "The worst I’ve seen. To have adults yelling at a 14-year-old kid. Some of them get so caught up in the politics that they miss enjoying their kids.’’

That’s an old story. And it isn’t every parent. Gail Latronica is well aware that "I could keep laying out $8,000 every summer and Victor could just hang up his cleats.’’

But that doesn’t mean that the children won’t go the extra mile, just like all those kids sprinting in the springtime heat this weekend.

Last year, Victor’s team was playing in a tournament in Raleigh, N.C. Fry, the keeper, says it was "90 degrees and 90 percent humidity.’’ The conditions were so rough that a referee collapsed in the heat and had to be taken away in an ambulance. At some point in the game, Victor ran to his coach. He was exhausted and said the coach would have to take him out of the game.

"I can’t,’’ the coach said, "there’s a scout standing right here.’’

Victor stayed in.

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