Nielsen Media Research estimates 111.6 million U.S. television viewers watched at least six minutes of soccer’s 2010 men’s World Cup. Nearly 15 million U.S. viewers watched the United States play against Ghana.
With that many kids and parents being exposed to soccer, interest in the sport is increasing in Springfield, soccer officials say.
YMCA soccer director Paul Marconi said registrations of new players last fall more than doubled, to 65. The YMCA added four additional teams to the fall league, which brought the total number of players to 1,985. Spring registration continues through mid-April.
Marconi says soccer, the most-played sport in the world, remains popular in Springfield and he expects it to continue to grow, even though the best teams from around the planet won’t gather for another World Cup tournament until 2014.
Marconi says second-generation soccer players are joining the Y league, and the organization on the national and local levels is better than ever.
“When you get a jump of 65 kids, that’s a pretty good jump, and I think a lot of that is from the World Cup,” he said. “When you’re watching soccer, you’re going to want to play soccer. I think soccer is right along that top tier of sports we have here in town. There aren’t any football leagues that have 2,000 kids playing in one league.”
Finding enough players to field a soccer team hasn’t been an issue in Springfield since the late 1980s. The community supports several leagues, including the YMCA, Central Illinois Youth Soccer League, Springfield Area Soccer Association and Springfield Men’s Soccer League.
But soccer wasn’t always as popular locally as “American” sports such as football, basketball and baseball. It took love, hard work and dedication from a group of foreign-born players — including some transplanted Turks and Greeks — to foster its growth and make it a local favorite.
Springfield soccer in its infancy
When Aydin Gonulsen, former head soccer coach at Sangamon State University, settled in Springfield in 1968 after graduating from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, there were nearly as many people playing rugby as soccer.
The most prominent soccer players were his brother, Yavuz Gonulsen, a former professional player from Turkey, and two Greeks, Harold and George Christofilakos.
Harold would later become the owner of Soccer World, an indoor soccer facility that Gonulsen said helped greatly increased players’ skills and raise the sport’s local popularity.
That group, along with a few local kids such as Tom Bundy, current SMSL chairman, would compete against area college teams and anybody they could find to play. It wasn’t a paying gig, but Gonulsen said the mish-mash of different ethnic groups found togetherness on the soccer field.
“It was more than soccer,” he said. “It was a social situation where all of these foreign people had one thing in common.”
Eventually, the YMCA hired Gonulsen as an assistant physical director with the goal of starting a soccer league. He said it was difficult at first because Springfield resisted a sport played mostly by foreigners. He said some
people even connected soccer with communism.
The biggest breakthrough came in 1976, when the Springfield School District approved soccer as a varsity-level sport. Gonulsen said it came down to active politicking by soccer enthusiasts and board members realizing that it’s inexpensive to field a soccer team.
“We didn’t have enough votes on the board, so we got involved in American politics, so to speak, and we campaigned for Carmen Chapman and she got elected and became the deciding vote,” he said. “We knew we needed that for the game to be more popular.”
Soccer scores in Springfield
One year later, Sangamon State University (now the University of Illinois Springfield) hired Gonulsen as its head soccer coach. Almost immediately, the Prairie Stars were one of the top teams in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
The better the Prairie Stars did, the more buzz soccer created. Registrations with the YMCA began to rise, and Gonulsen and a group of soccer enthusiasts started the Springfield Area Soccer Association (SASA), a competitive soccer league. Many of the competitive tournaments SASA sponsored would draw 150 teams to Springfield to play soccer over a summer weekend.
“Once our program started growing because of the YMCA’s support of the program, and later on the university’s support, we became bigger than a lot of other communities, including Peoria and Elgin,” said Gonulsen, who now coaches men’s soccer at Blackburn College in Carlinville. “We started drawing big crowds and some games drew 2,000 people.”
Sangamon State won three national championships (1986, 1988 and 1993). Although the university has not repeated that success recently, the foundation was established.
Age doesn’t matter
There is a league for nearly all ages and skill levels in Springfield.
For recreational players age 4 through high school, the YMCA has the largest league. In Chatham, the Ball Chatham Soccer Association also has a recreational youth soccer league along with a competitive league for players in grades 5-8.
At the competitive level, the Central Illinois Youth Soccer League, which includes Carlinville, Danville, Peoria and Quincy, gives players older than 8 and under age 19 a chance to showcase their talents.
Within the CIYSL, advanced players in the Springfield area can try out with SASA.
For adults, the Springfield Men’s Soccer League is in its 11th year. The league has an annual draft, and Bundy said there are more than 200 adults who play most Sundays in the fall and spring out at the UIS soccer fields.
“Approximately 40 percent of the participants are of different nationalities,” he said. “It’s usually a festive atmosphere with lots of camaraderie.”
What’s in a name?
Youth football teams in Springfield adopt the names of NFL or major college teams, such as the Steelers or the Wildcats. Little League baseball teams use the names of major league teams (Cardinals, White Sox).
The names of the teams in the Springfield Men’s Soccer League might not be as familiar to many central Illinoisans as the Steelers or the Cardinals, but soccer fans know exactly what Real Madrid or Manchester City mean when local players suit up on Sundays.
Instead of naming themselves after Major League Soccer teams that play in the United States (Galaxy, Dynamo, or Chicago’s very own Fire), SMSL team names come from some of the top European soccer clubs — teams such as Chelsea, AC Milan, Liverpool, Roma, Manchester United and Inter Milan.
Many of those teams are competing in the UEFA Champions League playoffs this spring.
The league for adult players began the 2011 spring season last Sunday. Games continue through mid-May.