AYSO “Godfather” Honored in the South Bay

Photo courtesy German Alegria/Los Angeles Galaxy

i-6ea6c6b5348e56059c5788ce22e6af6b-hanstim.jpgHans Stierle, a former Torrance resident regarded as the driving force behind the creation of the American Youth Soccer Association and the now national organization’s first president, was honored before Saturday’s Galaxy game. Stierle, who now lives in the Pacific Northwest, was presented with a Galaxy jersey by Tom Payne, president of business operations for the team.

You could argue (and I essentially do, in a story that originally ran in 2003 and is reprinted below) that without the formation of AYSO and the interest in soccer it caused there would be no MLS.

AYSO marks its 45th anniversary this year.

Stierle will also be recognized at 7 p.m. Tuesday by the Torrance City Council and a field at Jefferson Middle School will be named after him at a 12:30 p.m. Wednesday ceremony. The recognition events were organized by Torrance’s Del Amo Rotary Club.

Stierle was a neighbor of the school that became the home field for the first four AYSO teams, one of which counted a young German immigrant named Sigi Schmid as a player. Stierle and a group of other parents organized AYSO in a garage.

“Hans happened to be the catalyst,” said Torrance Mayor Frank Scotto, a long-time AYSO coach and league official who will present the man he called “a soccer idol for me” with the council resolution. “To this day I’m in amazement he started this here at Jefferson and it’s really kind of cool to think that right now there’s over 600,000 players across America practicing this week for their first games Saturday.”

BTW, below is a feature story I wrote back in 2003 2001 profiling the organization, followed by another history piece that ran in the Daily Breeze the weekend before the Galaxy played their first game in Carson in 2003 that traces the history of soccer in the South Bay.

Move over boys of summer, it’s time for the lads and lasses of fall.

Even as the baseball season slides into its late innings, on Saturday more than 18,000 children throughout the South Bay and Harbor Area ranging in age from 5 to 19 engaged in an alternate September ritual — opening day of the American Youth Soccer Organization.

In Hawthorne, more than 1,400 boys and girls — many wearing fashionably fluorescent pink or purple uniforms — paraded before proud parents as local politicians took advantage of the gathering of soccer moms (and dads) to stump for this fall’s city elections.

In Palos Verdes Estates, about 2,700 youngsters posed for team pictures between stints of bouncing on inflatable playground equipment provided by the South Bay-bound Los Angeles Galaxy, while their parents renewed acquaintances with friends they may not have seen since last season.

“It’s a community within a community,” said Rancho Palos Verdes resident John Abelson, a coach and league commissioner with three children aged between 6 and 11 that all play soccer. “We’ve made a lot of friends . . . through (our children) playing together.”

Professional soccer may remain largely a niche sport, but the same cannot be said for a game at the grass-roots level that boasts such broad family appeal — it’s no coincidence the phrase “soccer mom” has become an established part of the political lexicon.

Indeed, this weekend heralds the beginning of a frenetic four months for thousands of local parents.

Offspring and their teammates must be shuttled to weeknight practices and Saturday games.

Dads with a decidedly limited knowledge of the game will suddenly find themselves taking a crash course in officiating or coaching a pack of 7-year-olds who will have insisted upon christening their team The Loony Bears.

Moms will prowl sidelines on game days keeping children — and husbands — in line, while spending weeknights telephoning fellow parents to press-gang them into assuming the multitude of soccer-related responsibilities necessary to keep the less-than- finely-honed organization running somewhat smoothly.

“They have no idea how hard they’ll be working,” said a clipboard-toting Darlene Haezaert of Del Aire, a mother of two soccer veterans aged 10 and 14, as she watched parents escort tiny tykes with colorful jerseys hanging almost to their cleats past an applauding crowd in Hawthorne.

“They’ll be living here,” she added, suppressing a mischievous smile.

Moms, such as 37-year-old Janice Cooper know only too well what catching the soccer bug means.

All three of her children, aged 12, 10 and 4, play in Hawthorne leagues, which translates into devoting at least three days a week to soccer games and practices.

Moreover, Cooper became so enamored with the game that four years ago she began lacing up the cleats with a women’s team, despite never having kicked a ball in her life.

Her husband? Well, every soccer family needs an “assistant driver,” Cooper said with a laugh.

“We’re working on him,” she added.

AYSO, with a participatory philosophy that mandates all children play at least half the game and its emphasis on sportsmanship over winning, is credited by its fans for playing a crucial role in the game’s rising popularity.

Founded in Torrance in 1964 with a mere 125 players, the Hawthorne-based group has grown to become the nation’s second-largest youth soccer organization with more than 650,000 participants.

i-91cbbaf4d80c6dcece82196d7265a67e-Soccer AYSO 1960s.JPGHere’s the 1966-1967 Torrance Mustangs (notice the footwear) at the old Continental Soccer Field, where Alpine Village now stands. (Photo courtesy John Sloway, who is the kid in the glasses).

But in a development that’s enough to make the jingoistic choke on their apple pie, soccer’s growth has come at the expense of such traditional American sports as baseball.

“I play baseball, but it’s too slow,” said Angel Andrade, 14, of Hawthorne, echoing similar comments made by soccer players and parents alike on Saturday. “(Soccer) is a moving sport.”

Indeed, baseball participation among American youths is in “serious decline,” according to a study by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, with the number of players plunging 40 percent from its peak year in 1993.

In contrast, one-third of all children in the United States between the ages of 6 and 11 have played soccer at least once.

AYSO spokesman David Brown said total youth soccer registration in the United States has doubled to 4 million in the past decade.

That translates into participation levels locally that amaze even die-hard soccer fans.

Daniel Juarez, director of the area that includes the beach cities and Hawthorne, quoted El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon as saying during a recent council meeting that of the approximately 2,700 students in the city school district, about 950 play AYSO soccer.

On the Palos Verdes Peninsula, AYSO participation has leaped by 400 children in just the past two years.

“It’s the single largest team sport for youth we have on The Hill,” said Jim Sala, a Rolling Hills Estates resident and board member with the local AYSO league. “We really saw the numbers jump when the (U.S.) women won the (1999) World Cup . . . It became a cool thing to do.”

Growing popularity has meant growing pains.

Soccer fields are in short supply in many areas.

For instance, the loss of just one Hawthorne field due to construction at a school forced Juarez to lop an hour off the time teams are allowed to practice each week.

On Saturdays, the first games begin at 9 a.m. and the last match at 6:30 p.m. is often finished under the lights. Some games are even played Friday nights.

“It’s a fever,” Juarez said. “There’s just not enough fields for all the kids who are playing.”

Another new initiative this year is the designation of fields where games are being played as a “Kids Zone” by posting behavior standards on signs or badges worn by supporters at games.

The idea: to ensure the disturbing trend of parents becoming abusive or violent toward coaches, officials or other parents doesn’t infiltrate the AYSO ranks. The problem was highlighted in Torrance last fall when a parent assaulted a high school football coach over his son’s lack of playing time. “We offer more than just a place to play soccer,” said Nick Lincir, 68, a San Pedro resident and AYSO volunteer for 26 years who is now director of the area that includes Torrance, the Harbor Area and the Peninsula.

“We offer something I think is sorely needed: integrity and good sportsmanship and the kind of stuff our society is in dire need of. We build character through our program.”

And here’s that history of soccer in the South Bay story:

When the Los Angeles Galaxy kicks off its home season Saturday in its new, soccer-specific stadium at Carson’s $150 million Home Depot Center, it won’t be the first professional soccer team to have been based in the South Bay.

Or the second. Or even the third.

The names Aztecs, Lazers and Sunshine – and there are others, too, even more obscure – probably mean little to all but the most devoted local soccer fans.

Yet they were among the franchises that had short and not particularly glorious existences locally.

In fact, professional soccer in the South Bay can probably trace its roots to the 1964 formation of the American Youth Soccer Association in a Torrance garage.

The initial four-team league has today grown to become a Hawthorne-based organization that involves about 900,000 players and volunteers nationwide.

Soccer interest in the South Bay grew along with it, recalled Marine Cano, a Bishop Montgomery High School graduate who is the women’s soccer coach at the University of California, Irvine and is known locally as director of the long-running Mr. Soccer Camps.

By the 1970s thousands of people were showing up for high school and even high-profile AYSO games, Cano said.

Bumper stickers were common in Torrance that proclaimed the community Soccer City-USA, as boosters cultivated its image as the nation’s capital of the sport.

Local players, including Cano, embarked on professional careers, and entrepreneurs began capitalizing on that grass-roots support in a soccer hotbed.

First up – and most memorably – were the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League.

The Aztecs played two seasons in the South Bay in 1975 and 1976, with offices in Redondo Beach, a training ground at Inglewood’s Hollywood Park and a home field at El Camino College’s modest Murdock Stadium near Torrance.

They drew respectable crowds, averaging 6,000-7,000 spectators.

Incongruously, many of what were then some of the top soccer stars in the world played in the rather inauspicious environment, thanks to the NASL’s reputation of paying salaries that were far too generous.

Among the big names was Pele, who in 1975 attracted a record Aztecs South Bay crowd of 12,176 to Murdock Stadium when the New York Cosmos visited.

Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid, a longtime South Bay resident who along with Cano was on one of those first AYSO teams in 1964, remembers taking the club team he coached to watch the Aztecs.

“What I remember most about El Camino is that you were on top of the action,” he recalled. “It was a (soccer) education, but it was also something for (young players) to look up to.”

Prominent Aztecs of the era included Irish star George Best, a ball wizard who has been compared to Pele and was such a celebrity in England in the late 1960s when he played for famed Manchester United that he was known as “The Fifth Beatle.”

Despite playing 23 times and scoring 15 goals for the Aztecs in 1975, by then Best, who has since had a liver transplant, was more interested in booze than soccer balls. It’s no coincidence a Hermosa Beach bar still bears his surname.

Encouraged by the South Bay support and in search of more money, in 1977 the Aztecs were sold to a group of investors that included Alan Rothenberg, who later became president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and an investor in Major League Soccer, and relocated to the Rose Bowl.

The group boasted in a November 1977 Daily Breeze article that they would transform a “second-class operation” into a first-class one. But as the Galaxy learned, fans wouldn’t commit to buying tickets in a large stadium if they were always guaranteed a seat.

“If they would have stayed and made it the hottest ticket in town they would have been the hottest team in the old NASL,” Cano said. “They made a crucial mistake.”

The Aztecs folded in 1981.

Next up locally were the Los Angeles Lazers in 1978. They also played at El Camino in the second-tier American Soccer League. The league disbanded the team at season’s end.

That year actually saw no fewer than three professional franchises locally. Two teams called South Bay United and the Southern California Cougars played Sunday doubleheaders at Redondo Beach’s now-defunct Aviation High School in something called the Western Soccer League.

Among the players on the United roster was Schmid.

Players received $75 to $300 a game he recalled, although that didn’t guarantee they would show up as scheduled.

During one road trip to Palm Springs a player shortage literally forced the coach to offer a game to a young Latino man walking down the street, said Schmid. He made the starting 11.

Not surprisingly, that league was short-lived, too.

The ASL returned in 1979 with a team called the California Sunshine. Cano, who played for the team, remembers them drawing average gates of 1,300 at games at Torrance’s West High School and at El Camino College.

In 1982 Torrance was awarded a franchise in what was dubbed the Southern California Professional League, another entity that no longer exists.

Finally, from 1986 to 1988 the Los Angeles Heat, based at El Camino College and West High, participated in the Western Soccer Alliance, a precursor to today’s A-League.

The roster included Cano, by then coach at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Beginning next weekend, the newest and already most successful chapter in South Bay professional soccer history unfolds with the opening of the stadium, which fans are calling “Victoria Street.”

Considering the South Bay’s soccer history, the region deserves it, said Torrance resident Nick Geber, co-host of “The Galaxy Soccer Report,” which airs at 7 p.m. Wednesdays on KMPC 1540-AM.

“It’s sort of coming full circle,” he said. “Youth soccer was born here and the (nation’s) premier soccer facility is going to be housed here. I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate.”

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About Nick Green

South Bay-based Los Angeles News Group soccer columnist and blogger Nick Green writes at the 100 Percent Soccer blog at www.insidesocal.com/soccer and craft beer at the Beer Goggles blog at www.insidesocal.com/beer. Cheers!
  • Studs Up

    In my way of thinking AYSO is not the ONLY reason there is an MLS today nor is it the ultimate salvation of the sport in this country.

    AYSO (and youth soccer in general) has never proven to be an economically sustainable factor in support of the pro game. I dare say it’s that misjudgement of owners reliance on the AYSO factor which has left a legacy of failure of pro soccer in this country and will continue to do so with WPS and god forbid maybe even the MLS.

  • The Aztecs I remember.

    California Sunshine? West Torrance? I had no idea. And I lived there, then.

  • Joseph D’Hippolito

    King Snake, I remember the California Sunshine. They played at Orange Coast College in 1978 (and, I think, for a year or two previously) before moving to the South Bay in 1979. The Sunshine and the Los Angeles Skyhawks (based in the San Fernando Valley) played for the 1978 ASL championship at Pierce College. One of the members of the Sunshine was Poli Garcia, who played indoor soccer for the Lazers in the 1980s.

  • John Sloway

    Youth Soccer as an organized sport is still a relatively new way to feed the Pros. I do not know if the Pro game will ever compare to the EPL or La Liga or any of the others, but I have to think as the generations begin to know and accept soccer as a mainstay, it will mature. That said, I’m 52, and I’d still rather play it than watch it!

    P.S., anyone remember the Los Angeles Toros?

  • Me

    Idiots! The man did something good for the youth and yet you have nothing nice to say. What have YOU done!?

  • Studs Up

    Toros played in NPSL in 1967, the same year the LA Wolves won the rival USA league championship. I think they also played at LA Coliseum. I followed the Wolves and was at the Coliseum for the exciting 6-5 final over Washington. I thik we had over 18,000 there for that game.

    The best soccer league in LA for many years (I believe for about 70 years) was of course the Greater Los Angeles Soccer League. That semi-pro league made up mostly of ethnic teams like the San Pedro Croats and the LA Macabee played 3 or 4 games a day in San Pedro and at Jackie Robinson stadium in LA on weekends. US internationals like Hugo Perez and ex European pros used to play in that league from time to time.