• Saturday Morning Quarterback says The beautiful game is catching on

    By Andy Reed -

    Sometime back in the 20th century, a youth league baseball president (not in Lebanon) called soccer “a communist sport”.

    He would probably figure the World Cup, which kicked off a one-month run Thursday, is right where it belongs, in the former seat of communism – Russia.

    He would also go spastic when thinking about the Cup’s 2026 destination – the good ole’ US of A, along with Canada and Mexico.

    For those of us who grew up with “American” sports baseball, football and basketball, futbol has been an acquired taste a lifetime in the making.

    When I was a kid, soccer was constantly called the next big sport in America, bound for an explosion. Pro leagues formed and dissolved unbeknownst to John Q. Public. There was no such thing as soccer in Lebanon. The first time I saw it was the last year Castle Heights Military Academy was open, in 1986. The Tigers were playing in a spot where Hearthside currently sits.

    TSSAA didn’t began sanctioning the sport until a couple of years later. But while most of Nashville’s bedroom communities began embracing the game, Wilson County was late to the party.

    None of our local high schools added the sport until Lebanon took the plunge in the mid-1990s, around the same time Lebanon Youth Soccer brought the game to kids who had only recently learned to run. Friendship Christian dipped its toe a couple of years later. Mt. Juliet started it sometime around that period and by the time Wilson Central came on line in 2001, the Wildcats had their own on-campus field. Mt. Juliet Christian enjoyed more success in soccer than its other sports during that school’s early years. Watertown didn’t have it until the new campus was built, with a pitch (that’s what a soccer field is called) included, four years ago.

    Colleges began playing the sport and the NCAA and NAIA started sanctioning the sport. That led to scholarships.

    Better than cramming unwanted pro leagues down the throats of a public which didn’t want it, some wisely touted soccer as great for kids to develop skills, particularly footwork, to be put to work in other sports.

    Greg Taylor, who is helping to start the new Wilson County Wildcats’ youth football program, told me when he saw current UT junior linebacker Daniel Pituli do footwork drills in his first-ever football practice for the Bellevue Steelers program at age 10, he told the coaches there the Nigerian native will someday play pro football because of his footwork, developed while playing soccer, and athleticism.

    Credit our kids for gradually converting us into a soccer nation. The first generation in many instances to play “the beautiful game”, the young ‘uns have caused some of us old folks to try and embrace what is the world’s most popular sport.

    In the U.S., one might think the fact most parents never played the sport would keep them from coaching from the sideline opposite the team benches. But a high school coach told me this spring it didn’t cause his players’ parents from offering unsolicited advice on strategy, just like those parents in baseball, football and/or basketball who actually did play those sports decades ago.

    The announcement this week that the World Cup is coming to North America in eight years have folks in Nashville hopeful a game or two will be played in Music City.

    In doing a little research for this piece, I came across an example of how big soccer has come in this country – in the Associated Press Stylebook, of all places.

    In my 1990 AP Stylebook, there is no mention of soccer. If I couldn’t spell it, I would have to look elsewhere.

    But in Sinclaire Sparkman’s 2018 edition are 2 1/2 pages devoted to the sport. I can actually learn the rules of the game which more than a half decade of watching my two daughters play have failed to teach me.

    I know “offside” in football is when a player is on or across the line of scrimmage at or before the snap of the ball. In soccer, it’s more complicated. It’s been explained to me enough I sort of have a feel for it, but I can’t define it in words. And when it’s called or not called, I’m not educated enough to yell at the official.

    The emergence of the Nashville Predators as part of our sporting lives has helped since hockey and soccer are similar in many respects, including the offside call. Not knowing the nuances of hockey hasn’t kept us from embracing the Preds. Contending for titles is what hooked us almost overnight.

    Soccer’s emergence has been a gradual thing. But the lightbulb flicked on for me (and I think my oldest daughter) last fall. The youngest kids in the Wilson United League (which replaced LYC a few years ago) simply try to kick the ball toward the goal with coaches teaching the most rudimentary of skills such as dribbling and reversing the ball.

    After a few years, a goalie is added and players are lined into positions. But, not unlike basketball (another sport with constant movement) in which those who’ve spent a lifetime watching can identify positions and plays, the nuances of soccer began falling into place. There are actually positions besides the keeper (goalie) and responsibilities for those positions.

    I have to credit local youth coach Phil Williams, who emphasizes passing to the open area, for turning on the switch for me.

    Without a local rooting interest (the U.S. team didn’t qualify this year), I doubt I will watch the World Cup. But this quadrennial event has spawned viewing parties not unlike the Super Bowl – smaller but for a longer period. When Americans are interested enough in a sport without an American team participating, that’s a big step.

    Soccer has come a long way in a generation. It’s a communist sport no longer.

    Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 615-444-3952, ext. 17; or by email at [email protected]

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