Although soccer is not recognized as America's game, it has grown immensely in popularity nationwide, particularly with larger numbers of youth involved with the sport than ever before.
It is, however, arguably recognized as Europe's and perhaps the remainder of the world's game with play getting so intense that rioting and fans storming the field, setting fire in the stands and even threatening or taking the lives of players, which cost their country a game, is not unheard of by any means. That sort of psychotic behavior and off-the-wall lunatic actions wouldn't happen in the USA, however.
Unfortunately that is wrong. The level of violent play has risen as indicated by the number of concussions and head injuries sustained and growing violent situations on the playing field. Stickers bearing the motto "Soccer is Life'' are seen more frequently, and assaults on the field have increased.
Very recently, however, the growing lack of control of discipline in the game and lack of control by coaches and players came to a head. Ricardo Portillo , a referee out of Utah, had been working games in a league that had grown more violent . His family had warned him of this, but he continued in the league. This past month during a league game, Portillo had issued a yellow card to a 17-year-old goalie in the game, who became extremely violent after the foul was called and punched Portillo in the head, causing him to lapse into a coma for a week before dying.
The player has been booked on aggravated assault with further charges pending. This was a youth league game, not a World or Euro Cup match. This sad and unacceptable event is not an isolated one. With the "winning is the only thing" attitude, I have seen full blown fights break out between players at PAWest matches and at large tournaments, with little regard for referee intervention.
Along with the growth in popularity of the game has come the ugly side of the win-at-all-cost mentality. It is destroying Pele's concept of soccer as the beautiful game. It is time for every parent and every coach at every level to police their ranks, crush this mentality of uncontrolled violence and tighten up dangerous play significantly. That can't all be done by the referees, rather it is the responsibility of the entire league from club president and director of coaching to parents and players. Senseless violence like that in the Portillo case must be put to a grinding halt and the game brought back in to focus immediately.
n The popularity of the game is reflected in the local community with the record number of teams involved in Altoona Soccer Club Spring travel leagues. With 176 players registered and 14 travel teams, the problem which was feared most has come to fruition. There virtually are no fields to play on or even practice on. Older teams needing full fields have been using field space at the AYSO Valley View fields, which are slightly smaller than regulations require for full field play.
Leopold Field, a mud pit for the bottom 20 yards, has not even been a realistic option. The Altoona Area School District IM turf field, where many games were played, is still being resurfaced, while Mansion Park, which used to be used almost weekly, has been shut off for weekend play, and the AAHS junior high field sits empty on weekends, but the club cannot secure permission to play any games here.
They have even reached out to PSU Altoona to utilize Spring Run Stadium, but the rental cost put on the field by the university is far too high for the club to afford. So while fields are available, they are currently unattainable for use, and many teams are playing a vast majority of their games away every week in Pittsburgh or farther as a result. T his is an issue best addressed by the school board since most of the players are students in the district, and parents are Altoona taxpayers.
n Several schools will see some coaching changes for the upcoming scholastic year. Central Cambria will be bringing on a new high school girls head coach, and the Altoona girls program will be bringing on an new assistant varsity girls coach.
n St Francis University has always been active in working with area youth in soccer development and has scheduled soccer camps for co-ed players ages u-6 to u-14 and also for high school boys on July 28-Aug. 4. Coaches or parents interested can gain additional information by going to www.sfuathletics.com under men's soccer and click on summer camps.
n Positive local soccer news comes from the American Youth Soccer Organization ranks in that following the sale of Valley View Home by the county, the organization will be able to retain use of their fields and won't have to search for a new home for hundreds of area youth to enjoy instructional soccer programs.
Tom Schmitt writes a monthly soccer column for the Mirror.