Dec. 12, 2009

By Roger van der Horst
Special to

CARY, N.C. — If the Men's College Cup is any indication, the face of American soccer is gradually changing.

"It's becoming more and more diverse, without question, both in the Hispanic market obviously and in the African-American community," said Charlie Slagle, chief executive of Raleigh, N.C.-based Capital Area Soccer League and co-director of the College Cup.

Almost a quarter of Wake Forest's 27-man roster is African-American. Of Virginia's 26 players, eight are African-American. They include Tony Tchani, who scored a goal in the Cavaliers' 2-1 semifinal victory Friday against Wake. In the Division I national championship game Sunday at 1 p.m. at WakeMed Soccer Park, Virginia (18-3-3) will face top-ranked Akron (23-0-1), led by star forward Teal Bunbury, who is black. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, he grew up in Prior Lake, Minn.

The game's rapid growth nationwide, a rising awareness that there's money to be made professionally, greater youth league access, more role models and the sheer competitive search for talent all have moved the demographic needle, Slagle and others in the sport say.

"The socioeconomics of our sport are changing, and I think for the better," Virginia coach George Gelnovatch said. "It's still, to a large extent, an upper-middle-class sport, but the socioeconomics are changing. I think that has a lot to do with ... the opportunities in our own professional league (Major League Soccer) as well as internationally."

Gelnovatch, professing to "leave no stone unturned" in scouring his state for talent, said athletes are drawn to the public university because of its cheaper rate for in-state students and academic reputation.

At least at the collegiate level, however, the broader numbers show soccer has yet to make much of a dent in black culture, compared with football and basketball.

During a nine-year period through the 2007-08 school year, African-American participation in Division I men's soccer rose from 7.3 percent of all players to 9.3 percent, according to an NCAA study. In comparison, African-Americans made up 60.4 percent of Division I men's basketball players by 2007-08, up from 55 percent nine years earlier; and 47.5 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision teams, up from 40.3 percent, according to the study.

"There is not this sense of connection to the black community at large with soccer," said Robert Woodard, a former player and coach who wrote the book Black People Don't Play Soccer? Unlocking American Soccer's Secret Weapon. "Probably if you look at the (College Cup) rosters, many of the African-American players are second-generation from Africa or the Caribbean."

There's some truth in that. Bunbury's Akron teammates include Kofi Sarkodie, whose parents emigrated from Ghana, and Darlington Nagbe, whose father captained the Liberian national team. Virginia's Tchani is from Cameroon. Wake Forest defender Ike Opara's parents are Nigerian.

To effect real change in America, Wake coach Jay Vidovich said, "there's so much that has to happen. First off, it's got to get into that culture. Right now, you look at the opportunities for an inner-city kid to play soccer? I mean, they're not that existent right now. ... That's one factor. The other factor is this: Look at the salaries. There's a major difference."

The 2009 minimum salary in Major League Soccer was only $34,000. The National Hockey League minimum this season is $500,000. Four MLS players made $1 million or more this year. The average National Basketball Association salary has reached $5.854 million.

Yet, Woodard said soccer's diversity in the United States has come a long way since his playing days in the 1970s and '80s. Opara noticed the change in just his years at Jordan High School in Durham, N.C.

"Even during my time in high school, you saw more African-American athletes trying out for the team," Opara said.

Much evidence is anecdotal. U.S. Youth Soccer registered more than 3 million players in 2007, compared with just over 100,000 in 1974, but has not tracked ethnic data. Nor has CASL, Slagle said.

In his corner of the world, Irv Smalls Jr. has the numbers to back up what his eyes are telling him. A former tight end on Penn State's American football team, Smalls left a job in MLS' legal and business affairs department to run the F.C. Harlem Lions, a New York City club that has gone from about 175 participants to between 400 and 500 in the past couple of years.

The lone paid staff member, he's got one coach and relies almost entirely on volunteers. He has to rent a bus when F.C. Harlem goes anywhere, and available land for a full-size field is so scarce that Smalls is looking for space to create so-called "mini-fields." The suburban model of organized youth soccer won't work in the inner city, Smalls said.

"Facilities aren't there. For whatever reason in this country, it's a very expensive sport," he said.

With support from MLS and the U.S. Soccer Foundation — and inspiration from what third-world countries have done — Smalls believes he can shift the mindset in his community. He tells the story of a visit by Dutch star Edgar Davids, who brought a street team to Harlem. ESPN came to tape it, and they set up on a handball court adjacent to a basketball court. Within 20 minutes, Smalls said, the basketball crowd was watching the soccer, "doing the 'ooohs' and 'aaahs' as if they were watching a street basketball game."

Smalls, Slagle and Woodard are among those who feel strongly that heroes go a long way toward changing a mindset. Slagle points to U.S. national team players like DaMarcus Beasley and Charlie Davies making a difference. Woodard said the African-American community needs more.

"We have to have a breakout player, and it has to be an offensive player," Woodard said. "If there's a kid from Chicago or New York who grows up in the projects ... ends up playing in the EPL (English Premier League) and scores 20 goals a year, soccer will just go out of sight, because there are so many kids who will see that."

And if that happens, Slagle can dream big dreams.

"Obviously, the U.S. has the athletes to be a world championship power in whatever they decide are their top three or four sports," he said. "Some little kid watches that on TV, goes to a game and sees the fervor out there, maybe he stays with the sport instead of giving it up. There's still a lot we can do better to get the better athletes to stay with us."