You know how hot it was. You really had to WANT to be out there. And they did, on baking playing fields which sprawl for about half a mile to the west of the enormous indoor complex south of Rt 30 near Coatesville. Nearly a dozen games on this Tuesday evening, all but one are girl’s matches. A freshly-defeated team files off the field, their coach leading them up an embankment to a vacant spot, where he chides them for lackluster effort. “We have our next shot on Thursday,” he tells them. “Blow it off this way again and you can forget about getting those letters from the colleges. They’ll be using the backs of our programs to write down the names of other teams…”
United Sports Center, mid-February, 8pm:
Three of the indoor matches feature pre-teen girls’ teams. In the adjacent gym of Lightning-Fast, speed-training consultants to professional and amateur teams alike, a petite master-trainer named Shannon Grady, who is also a professional runner, is closing the pro shop when a woman walks in with her daughter, asking to sign her up for the next Speed Clinic. The girl is ten. I ask Shannon how young she’s gotten them. Eight.
Blame Title IX if you wish. NEWSWEEK did, but for other reasons, its venerable George Will echoing a lament that the initiative was a “train wreck” which had shoe-horned female athletes into college sports at the expense of established men’s programs. Boo-hoo! The Women’s World Cup 1999 triumph would have happened without Title IX, the threnody went on, because application of the 1972 legislation wasn’t codified and enforced for well over a decade, by which time women’s sports had already blossomed on their own. NEWSWEEK subsequently balanced their spin on Title IX, putting a dumbbell-curling Michelle Kwan on the cover, and in their “Gamma Girls” cover-story, correctly crediting Title IX for facilitating the emergence of well- adjusted teen girls who weren’t back-stabbing clique-queens or basket-cases. Go ahead, blame Title IX for the legions of Type A parents eyeing sports-scholarship dollars. But if you look a little deeper you’ll realize that this is a small price to pay for the bounties of the girls’ soccer-mania unfolding around us.
Like many of us of above a certain age, I can recall when soccer was an autumn boys’ sport, grudgingly included as a sidelight to football in private schools. You didn’t see “pick-up” soccer games they way you do with basketball or football. And girls played field hockey. As the growth of soccer in this country parallels the growth in women’s sports altogether, it seems as though a junction was unavoidable: no other sport offers all girls the same wide-open opportunities and possibilities.
ALYSSA- my niece, was far less outgoing than her twin older sisters. Small, but solid, she had no team-sport experience at age 10 when I enrolled her in Lionville Youth League soccer in an attempt to open her up. As she’d signed up late, her first time on the field they put her into a game. She didn’t know anything about positions and rules (“What position are you playing?” I asked, just before she went in. “I’m a captain.” she said), but made up for it with such agility and aggressiveness the coach was near tears when I moved her on to a traveling team a year later.
She needn’t be big. Or tall. Or strong. She needn’t possess the natural gifts which separate the Mary Lou Rettons and Michelle Kwans from their peers early on. There are no expensive lessons, equipment, clothes or facilities. Give her a few yards of space and a ball, and she can stay busy for hours. It’s democratic, equal-opportunity as can be. Her sport’s not a “girls’ sport” or some other segregated subset, but a universal game, the biggest in the world. And now, like generations of boys before her, she has idols of her own. Some, like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, are icons, household names, drawing crowds wherever they go. Some, like Philadelphia’s own Heather Mitts and Lorrie Fair (both of whom are models), are gorgeous enough to be sex symbols. And tough? Oh yes, feminine, but at the same time, tough. Best of all, tough.
FELICIA- another tiny, shy girl, younger and far less physically-aggressive than Alyssa, this dark-eyed beauty had a tendency to shrink from soccer’s inevitable collisions. But she’s on the Phoenixville United team, coached by Stassi Theodoropoulos, himself something of a local legend in youth soccer training. A former professional club player in Europe, Stassi, 54, lives the sport and has an excess of excited energy which he spends in drilling several teams, including the girls’ varsity at the Villa Maria Academy. His work with the Phoenixville United grew them into a machine which thrashed most of their opponents, including some older girls’ teams. And Felicia? She’s grown too, her timidity a distant memory as she now tears into any opponent who comes her way.
There are the school teams. There are local clubs like the Lionville Youth Association and Phoenixville Area Soccer Club. There are bigger organizations like the Intercounty Soccer League and Philadelphia Area Girls’ Soccer (PAGS), which provide a framework for much of the league play throughout the region. All of this adds up to an impressive tapestry growing thicker by the week, and you don’t need to look very hard to see its evidence. New playing fields are popping up everywhere, and on any given weekend or evening you’ll likely to drive past a girls’ match.
Charlestown Park, Phoenixville, October:
Now with autumn, the fields get little rest. Be it Saturday or Sunday, before one game finishes, other teams arrive and are warming up at the sidelines. It’s the same way down the road at Lionville Youth Association. Not to mention at the schools. It’s the same way everywhere. And once the girls reach their teens many of them are playing for both their schools and their league teams. Even Stassi, with all his energy, can’t match that. With the main season in full swing, he’s had to hand off his beloved United team while he tends full-time to the Villa Maria girls. But they’re in good hands he assures me, and he’ll be keeping an eye on them all.
In an editorial I wrote for Women’s Physique World in 1999, I called our Women’s World Cup victory the finest day in women’s bodybuilding: “What else can you call it when the predominant image across America is an ecstatic young woman ripping off her shirt and flexing triumphantly before the entire world, and no one questions it?” A new paradigm of physical acceptability had been launched with these new heroines, I said, “and that’s significant to us because their prominence is forever tied to straining sweaty muddy-specked quadriceps, bone-crunching collision and all-out exertion. It’s raw muscle, shown in function. And thus needs no excuses. Lady-like? Ha! You tell Mia she’s not ladylike!”
Charlestown Park, Phoenixville, early April:
April? That’s right, it’s early April…a raw, rainy Saturday afternoon, but Stassi’s United girls are loving it. The rain and the mud are part of the fun. They’ve just shut out the other team four-zip, and despite the rain they happily kneel on a blanket, clowning for some post-game photos. It’s those other people huddling in the rain who don’t seem to be enjoying it. But that’s ok…they’re just grown-ups. What do they know about fun?
It can only get better. Our local heroines, the Philadelphia Charge, completed another stunning season last year where they lead the league until the final week. We head into this year’s Women’s World Cup with tens of thousands more devotees than were on-hand for the last, many destined for those same fields. They’ll be ramping up the volume on a new generation of superstars who ratchet the standards of physical possibility even higher. The young league-team girl amidst this growing swarm enjoys a freedom her mother only dreamed of, a future unfettered by antiquated notions of physical correctness, sports-conditioning and the limits of femininity. From the mud and dust of her local sward, through the scrapes and bruises of countless collisions, she can see. And she can soar.