Soccer's popularity heats up summer days

The Baltimore Sun

While the shakeup in the Baltimore Orioles' management dominated the local sports and news scene Monday, baseball isn't the topic of interest at the Soccerdome in Harmans.

The television hanging above one of the fields just a few feet past the entrance had music shows and an international soccer match. The computer on the desk at the snack bar listed the growing schedule for soccer games at the building plus the various league standings.

Paula Madde, manager of Soccerdome, said that soccer's interest heats up in the summer. In recent years, its popularity has ballooned so much that the game is catching up with baseball and softball.

"People are more into soccer now," she said. "Adults and kids play soccer a lot in the summer. The kids, like 5-year-olds, are starting to play soccer and really enjoy it."

About 17 million people play soccer in the United States. Jerry May, the executive director of the Maryland State Youth Soccer Association, said about 80,000 children and about 10,000 adults play in Maryland each year.

Ron Mox, sports supervisor for the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks, said families plan their summer vacations around their children's soccer camps.

"It's a steady growth of interest in [soccer]," Mox said. "The amount of children coming to the camps has grown."

The children have been getting more of a chance to play soccer in the summer for several reasons, starting with the growth of short camps that emphasize the sport's fundamentals. The Baltimore Blast, which plays professional indoor soccer at 1st Mariner Arena, runs 17-week camps throughout the metro area in the summer.

"The popularity of the sport is absolutely exploding as far as participation," said Kevin Healey, Blast president and general manager. "I think people see the summer as an opportunity to play the game [probably] in some other format."

Mox said that most children who are serious about the game will play in leagues in the fall, winter and spring and join camps or programs in the summer.

He and Madde said there's no question that children are becoming more involved at a younger age, which is fueling more popularity.

"We have kids as young as 4 years old playing in [programs] in the fall, and they're loving it," Mox said. "The main thing we're trying to do here is teach them and let them have fun. That's our key... to have fun in sports in this department and in this county."

The popularity also is helped by the fact that there are two professional teams in the area. In addition to the Blast, D.C. United plays at RFK Stadium in Washington and is one of the most popular outdoor teams in Major League Soccer.

"It's something kids can look up to," Healey said. "You dream of being on that field with them, and dreams are good."

Healey said that the addition of more facilities like Soccerdome also has helped. Simply put, there's more places to play the game in the summer.

Soccerdome has 16 leagues in the summer, all but one for adults. Various divisions of men's soccer and coed soccer take up the fields each evening until at least 11 p.m.

Mike McCarthy is an engineer from Baltimore who plays in Monday night leagues at Soccerdome. He played high school soccer in Rochester, N.Y., and continued with intramural soccer at the University of Maryland and agreed that summer opportunities keep expanding.

"With baseball declining and everything ... you see a lot more people playing in the summer," McCarthy said before his game. "It's always been big [around the world]. People still say they don't like to watch it on TV, but everyone likes to play it."

While children are often looking to get college scholarships or become professionals, adults only want to get the chance to be on the field.

"The kids, they love the game, but [adults] want to do the same thing," Madde said.

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