A Kick in the Grass 

Missoula gets a leg up on the world's favorite game

Believe the hype-soccer in the Garden City is here to stay

Spiders of pain crawl up the back of my legs. My lungs flame in ways they haven't for awhile. I'm on a ragged field down by the Clark Fork River. A soccer ball spins my way. Skinny, asthmatic and white-as in the kind of white you buy at the paint store-I'm practicing organized soccer for the first time since second grade.

The Carnies, my team, debut this week in Missoula's Co-Rec A summer league. At the moment, it doesn't seem our opponents have much to fear. We're looking like the most talentless gang of chuckers to muck up the sport since... well, soccer's been around, in one form or another, since Homo sapiens learned that balls roll when kicked.

There must have been a worse team once. Sometime.

A survey of the field, scented with sweat after just a few ramshackle minutes, reveals an array of body builds and heart rates, but pretty much one level of play. It ain't like watching Brazil, though we could possibly lead the league in nipple rings and tattoos.

This slog in the spring heat provides a kind of a rare epiphany. I've been a fan of the sport for years without incurring so much as a grass stain-although I recently feared that a run-in with a self-proclaimed Irish hooligan could lead to possible bloodshed. Now it's easy to see why soccer is the world's football.

If you've got feet and some elementary reflexes, you can at least take a wild stab at it. And with the World Cup starting in France on June 10, it's more apparent than ever that not even the world's most powerful country can resist the planet's most popular game. Beginning next week, the Cup's impact will be felt even in the God-fearin' U.S. of A., where the sport is sometimes treated as though it were a Commie conspiracy.

Major League Soccer, meanwhile, has revived the pro game in a dozen cities. The Los Angeles Galaxy drew 28,000 in a losing effort against Chicago last week, while 56,000 paid to see the MetroStars of New York melt down Miami's Fusion.

Not that your local daily sports section took much notice of those big-league events, of course. Nonetheless, locally the tribulations of the sport's mainline backers-the players, coaches and refs who take the fields week-in and week-out-are felt as distinctly as the struggles faced on the world stage.

Soccer in this country has gone from total television obscurity to respectability. Witness DC United defender Eddie Pope-a law-school grad from North Carolina with movie-star looks-facing down the world in a new advertisement for Adidas soccer shoes.

And this month's Rolling Stone, featuring a host of next generation sports figures including Nike's Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, has soccer ads up the proverbial wazoo as well.

Of course, growth doesn't come without pains. The introduction of marketing practices perfected in America has taken the game to a level of hype heretofore unknown.

That has many worried about creeping elitism in a sport often perfected by shoeless, Third World kids. Similar concerns have been voiced locally, where the surge in popularity has pushed the game to something of a crossroads.

Gary Stein coaches Hellgate High's perennially hard-luck soccer squad. He's also the immediate past president of the Missoula Soccer Association, the organization governing grassroots leagues that give hundreds of grown-ups a chance to play.

Stein's watched the game in Belgrade (Yugoslavia, not west of Bozeman) and from the legendary stands of English league titans Manchester United. So he's more qualified than most Americans to render an opinion on the state of the game, in Missoula and abroad.

"The game comes from, well, not just humble origins but ugly origins in a lot of cases," he says. "And now it's become an elite sport, especially in the United States. You pay to play.

"I was watching TV the other day and David Ginola comes on to sell shampoo. This is a French player most Americans have never heard of, but there's now that glamour associated with the game that doesn't have much to do with its roots."

This sort of exposure, of course, is galaxies removed from my Carnies. But soccer, like the Olympics, is an activity capable of galvanizing a squabbling species into united fixation. And as bad as the team is, I tell myself, there are players from Billings to Baghdad who are worse.

What's more, we all dream of greatness on the pitch.

That same vision was in full effect two weeks ago at Playfair Park, as young State Cup soccer players swarmed. Despite the fact that teams from around Montana served notice that Missoula's days as the Big Sky's soccer capital are finished, the Missoula Strikers triumphed in the male 19-and-under competition.

With two Missoula clubs taking the field, and with the pride of the Five Valleys at stake, you might have expected a few more trophies. The largely empty-handed outcome comes a couple of seasons after a new organization, Football Club Missoula, split from the venerable Strikers, once the state's most-powerful club.

Tony Mattina, FC Missoula coach, talks soccer over an enviable lunch spread-good Italian-style bread, salami, salad adorned with capers and olives from Cipolato's Broadway Market. Mattina grew up steeped in soccer in his native Italy, but didn't compete until moving to America.

Now in his 50s, Mattina coaches his son's team along with Patrick Cameron, a freshly-minted UM economics grad who once played for a fish market-sponsored semi-pro team in Boston. Sitting at lunch, the pleasure they take in the game and their coaching partnership is evident.

"Patrick and I are very compatible," Mattina says. "A lot of times, we'll make up a line-up separately and compare. And it will be precisely the same. We agree on when to sub and who to sub and what to do. It's been quite wonderful."

While FC Missoula's break from Strikers can't be held responsible for the emergence of new powers such as Helena Arsenal and the Flathead Force, some blame it for short-term weakness on the part of Missoula's squads. The Strikers, after all, laid the ground-work for youth soccer in Missoula.

Ralph Serrette, a native of Trinidad who's been part of Missoula soccer since its Paleolithic Era in the '70s, however, takes an optimistic view of the squabble. Serrette, who runs Missoula's only soccer specialty shop, the aptly named Ralph's Soccer Store, watches the local scene from the front row and notes that the rise of other clubs around the state isn't entirely due to a divvying of talent in Missoula.

"Ultimately, this is a good division," Serrette says. "It's gonna cause some problems, some weaknesses in the short term, but in the long run both clubs will improve."

In fact, Serrette says, getting beaten might be a good thing. The way players are supervised at younger ages has already begun to change. The fact that he's talking about youth soccer with nuances and complexity usually reserved for athletes making millions shows the inroads soccer has made.

The Strikers were pretty much the only game in town before the creation of FC Missoula. Even now, more than 200 players don the club's red and white on 13 different squads, a quantum leap from years past.

Dart Smith, the Strikers' program director, says, "We've gone from having one U-19 boys team with players anywhere from 14 to 18 years old to age-specific teams, boys and girls, from 11 on. We try not to cut anyone. If we have enough players, we'll do two teams in one age group."

Parents involved with FC maintain they appeciate the new club's looser rules and reduced costs. For his part, Mattina's worked his way into statewide soccer organizing bodies, mainly, he says, to see how they work.

"Frankly, I'm puzzled by the un-child-sport attitude," he says. "I don't see it as really promoting soccer for the general public's participation. I want a populist league, not an elite league, to get more kids involved and playing.

"I don't know what the ratio of population between Missoula and Helena is, but Helena has twice as many kids playing. I think in Missoula, soccer's been a very elite pursuit. I'm interested in seeing more kids play."

As for the split between FC Missoula and Strikers, the pair of FC coaches say it will ultimately prove a positive challenge.

Mattina, for one, foresees a future of friendly rivalry and mutual support. "I've yet to see an area of life where competition isn't a good thing, and that includes love and politics," he says.

Cameron, an economist, puts things in more technical terms, though he keeps a slightly folksy slant. "My grandmother's political conflict model says, if you're the only one with power, that's bad."

Stein says he hopes Missoula soccer is headed back to its roots as an affordable, wide-open game. Good things have happened since Stein hit town, and he's anxious to capitalize on improvements in quality, facilities and respect.

"When I moved here in 1980, you knew exactly who the top 15 players in town were," he says. "That's not to say they were all that great, but rather that the talent pool was so small. Now there would be a pretty good debate over who your best 11 would be."

A recent MSA decision not to shell out for sanctioned refs, meanwhile, has meant a break on sky-rocketing costs. It has also closed the gap between those officiating the matches and those playing in them.

This weekend, those with a mind to check out some of the local talent can head for Playfair to see these big kids play. The Archie Robb Tournament, the state's largest, will draw teams from around North America to test their pitch prowess.

This week, in advance of the Robb series, though, Playfair's mostly quiet. Some young Striker players, U13s maybe, screw around, waiting on their coach. Scrimmaging from mid-field, they miss a lot of kicks but nice turns and passes are almost as common.

On the next field, a couple late-teen boys blast a ball off each other's calves as hard as they can-an apparent test of strength-then slow down and juggle back and forth. Each cradles the ball on his foot for a half-second before flipping it away.

Stein's vision, Mattina's vision, Serrette's vision and Smith's vision all come together for a moment, even, as I'm idling along one of Playfair's running paths. I'm still nursing sore legs after getting kicked around with the Carnies on Tuesday night. Our first game, a 5-3 loss, wasn't high art, but it wasn't a total disaster. We might even get better.

I watch as a blond kid in the scrimmage takes the ball at the corner of the penalty area. He meditates over it for a second, tapping the ball tenatively from toe to toe. His head's cocked to one side like he's looking for a teammate. Only when his foot thwacks against vinyl is it clear that he's got a hell of a boot.

The ball rips the upper corner of the net, untouched by the keeper. At this moment, as the goal's author lets himself celebrate just a little, Missoula soccer's troubles don't seem too immediate at all. Even in the face of splits, controversies, hype and a changing world, the game remains the same.

Photos by LISE THOMPSON

Jenna Dwiggins of the Striker's U-13 girl's team, practices her throw-in techinique. Opposite page: Brian Anderson dribbles during a U-14 boy's practice.

Kody Downey, Kristen Nicklawsky, Jessica Stevenson and Lindsay Crandall get psyched before a scrimmage.


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