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Soccer participation continues to grow

By Mike Stunson mstunson@paducahsun.com

Across the nation, participation in youth soccer continues to grow at a rapid rate, and that holds true in parts of west Kentucky.

Especially Marshall County, where nearly 250 children play soccer in the fall and up to 350 in the spring through the Marshall County Soccer Association.

Headed by Jason Terry, the MCSA had a lull in recent years in its numbers, but it is back on track and continuing to grow with not only a recreation program, but a competitive league.

Terry said soccer can be played at a very young age, with his association involving 2-year-olds who are getting their first taste of soccer and athletics.

"Players can start at a very young age with soccer. And with other sports you try to do the same thing and you do have T-ball, but with basketball there is more challenge to get a 2-year-old out there," Terry said.

"In soccer you can modify the game toward a younger age group, and our emphasis is on learning teamwork, sportsmanship, and to promote wellness and health."

From 2014 to 2015, there was a 9 percent increase in U.S. Youth Soccer membership, reflecting the rising popularity of the sport.

The 3,055,148 children who are playing soccer, according to the USYC, is an 89 percent increase from 1990.

Terry said there has been a recent initiative from the state's youth soccer association to promote excellence in youth soccer, as it's encouraging leagues to push player development from a young age to give players the proper learning atmosphere, and to adapt the game to their skill level.

"We're trying to retain players and not just throw them out there to see who is best," Terry said. "We're trying to retain them so we can give them the best shot to reach their full potential for when they reach competitive age."

Andy Pagel, head coach of the Marshall County High School boys soccer team and adviser for the county's soccer association, said soccer is different from other sports in that allows individual creativity on the field.

"Soccer is a players' game. Football, basketball is a coaches' game. What we do as coaches, we have to put them in the best scenarios we can see, but as the game unwinds, the responsibility is on the players and we can't call timeouts," he said. "We can sort of diagram schemes, but it's up to the players to execute it and do that. I think the players have more ownership."

Soccer's popularity is at an all-time high in the country over the past half-decade, but there is now a decrease in numbers in youth baseball -- once a rite of passage to play as a child. According to data from the Sports & Industry Fitness Association, the number of kids ages 6 to 12 who play baseball has fallen from 5.44 million to 4.34 million from 2007 to 2015. Baseball has suffered on the national level as more and more children begin to specialize in one sport, including soccer.

In addition to the health benefits of soccer, including increasing of muscle and bone strength, building of endurance and the improvement of health due to the shifts between walking, running and sprinting during competition, soccer is a sport that can be picked up at any age.

"With rec soccer in general, a player can come in at a young age and find themselves well at home on the soccer field on a team with a chance to build their skills, even if they are entering the game at an older age," Terry said. "For other sports, it's a little tougher to do that."

There's all of the benefits for the future of his high school team and the health benefits for the children, but Pagel said, "We owe the community this opportunity" for a soccer league.

"We would love to see all of these kids become good soccer players and give us this pool and half of them move on and have college careers, but the reality is these kids need to run around and have organized activity with other kids, and soccer allows that at a young age," he said.

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