The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • World Cup helps KC, United States catch up

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  • Sunday's World Cup final between Argentina and Germany signifies the end of the month-long global sporting event that's captured the attention of millions.
    While the U.S. was knocked out at the beginning of the month, Jon Parry, Sporting Kansas City Youth Academy's director of coaching, said ripples from the team's performance will be felt stateside for years to come.
    After emerging from the "group of death," the U.S. filed behind a record performance by keeper Tim Howard to narrowly miss moving to the second round of the knockout stage after falling 2-1 to Belgium in overtime.
    "I think this World Cup opened a lot of people's eyes in regards to the country (being able to) compete for a World Cup title now," Parry said. "When we went down 2-0 to Belgium, all of a sudden we started to play. I think that shows people that we can play, we have soccer players."
    As head of the Youth Academy, Parry said this World Cup signified an emergence of youth soccer in the U.S. that had been primed for years.
    Sporting had two players, midfielder Graham Zusi and defender Matt Besler, play significant roles during the U.S. team's success. Zusi had the team's game-winning assist during the team's first game against Ghana, while Besler played every minute for the U.S. and was featured on ESPN after the Belgium loss.
    Parry said this marks a big step for soccer in the metropolitan area.
    "Zusi's grown up here as a pro, Matt Besler (was) born and raised in Kansas," Parry said. "Kids see that and it just proves to them that there's a pathway to the ultimate dream of playing for the professional hometown team and then at the highest level playing in the World Cup."
    Immaculata High School soccer coach Frank Mazeitis said soccer in Leavenworth has grown rapidly in the last five years after the Leavenworth Parks and Recreation Department built soccer fields near Warren Middle School.
    As a lifelong soccer fan, Mazeitis can recall the early days of soccer in the Kansas City area, starting with the Kansas City Spurs of the North American Soccer League during the late 1960s and ending with Sporting Kansas City today.
    While St. Louis was the U.S. soccer hub for years, the growth of soccer in Johnson County and the Kansas City Wizards transformation to Sporting Kansas City put the area on the map in the soccer scene.
    "Slowly, the whole center of soccer migrated to the Kansas City area," Mazeitis said. "It had a difficult time growing, but it did and it finally made it."
    In 1974, four years after the Spurs folded, youth soccer participation in the U.S. was listed at 103,432 players. In 1980, the number grew to 810,793, but by 2012, according to U.S. Youth Soccer, the number was more than three million players.
    Page 2 of 3 - Parry attributes the growth to enhanced national exposure of the sport. He recalls his childhood when he would get one chance a week to watch the game on TV. A program called "Soccer Made in Germany" was broadcast on PBS every Sunday night, showing week-old highlights of select European soccer games.
    Today, he said, it's easy to find soccer on television. Exposure has been the crucial component of the growth in youth play around the country, especially in Kansas City.
    "It has absolutely exploded," Parry said. "The landscape of youth soccer has changed immensely. ... There's a ton of growth the last 10 or 11 years in the Kansas City area, and you could probably say that's across the country as a whole."
    Despite the growth, Parry said the U.S. is still searching for an international star, such as Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo or Argentina's Lionel Messi.
    With Sporting's Youth academy, Parry said the program is trying to answer that call by seeking to develop young local players into household names.
    "Everybody always talks about when we're going to develop the first Messi or Ronaldo," Parry said. "Our goal with our academy at Sporting KC is, obviously, we want to develop professionals, but we want to develop top internationals as well. We want to develop guys that can go compete in the World Cup."
    One example of player development is Sporting defender and Lee's Summit native Erik Palmer-Brown.
    The 18-year-old has been a member of Sporting's Youth Academy since he was 11 years old. Earlier this year, Sporting turned down a $1 million offer from Italian Serie-A club Juventus for the budding star, and Parry said the offers will keep coming.
    "Juventus has come after him multiple times trying to sign him," Parry said. "Erik Palmer-Brown's a guy who is one of our most exciting products and hopefully he's one of those guys who develops into a top international (player)."
    Mazeitis said he sees a bright future for soccer.
    As soccer steadily grows, he said U.S. youth have been exposed to more soccer than any previous generation. While the old guard might scoff at the idea, Mazeitis said he predicts an emergence of soccer as one of the nation's most popular professional sports.
    "I think it's going to vie with professional football," Mazeitis said. "People are not going to like it, but they have no choice because more and more kids are going to be playing it and more people will get exposed to it."
    Leavenworth High School soccer coach Ken Lott isn't as enthusiastic.
    He said the nation's most popular sports will not change, though soccer might start inching closer in coming years.
    "You're not going to have something overtaking something else," Lott said. "But, the interest is going to be a little more evened out between those major sports."
    Page 3 of 3 - While the future is undetermined, the sport presents a viable option for athletic youth for years to come, Parry said.
    He said the simplicity of the sport combined with it's surge to the top of the nation's attention via the World Cup might draw more young players in coming years.
    "Soccer is easy to do," Parry said. "There's no pads, there's no helmets. You throw on a pair of shorts, a shirt, shinguards, socks and cleats and you're ready to go."
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