Bridging the divide on the fields of play

Youth soccer in small town USA. Photo shot by Derek Jensen (Tysto), 2005-September-17, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Youth soccer in small town USA.
Photo shot by Derek Jensen (Tysto), 2005-September-17, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

When you get right down to the divots, polo and soccer have a lot of similarities.

I recently had a weekend that truly exemplified what life is like in Santa Barbara: I spent Saturday on the soccer field and Sunday on the polo field.

At first glance, these two fields seemed to have nothing in common beyond their sneeze-inducing allergens that battle hopelessly with my Claratin prescription (now available over the counter). However, as a trained UCLA sociology major, I am qualified to speculate on sociocultural connections where they exist and to invent them where they don’t.

Both sports involve opportunities for off-roading — you get to park on a beautifully manicured lawn at the polo fields and what could easily be a BMX course at the UCSB soccer fields.

High-density housing tastefully abuts the mountains overlooking the polo fields, while graduate student housing will soon replace the soccer fields, if the university’s plans are ever approved.

Also, there were members of the Firestone family at both venues, which certainly bodes well for the next Board of Supervisors. If Brooks and his offspring can bridge the gap between soccer and polo, surely there’s hope for the battle between north and south Santa Barbara County.

Both sports involve opportunities for mayhem — men charging on horses trying to hit a ball at a goal, and 5-year-old boys and girls running full out trying to kick anything they can, including their teammates.

Both sports apparently also involve cartwheels; although at soccer they take place on the field and at polo they were strictly on the sidelines. Polo is more kid-friendly than you’d think. My son and his buddy ran up and down the grandstand between chukkers, while little girls exhibited spontaneous bursts of gymnastic skill.

Little boys are likely to burst into spontaneous bouts of wrestling and possibly even multiple rounds of jokes, but I have yet to see my son or his teammates do even one cartwheel on the field when the game is going on.

The boys also could care less what color their uniforms are, let alone whether their hair’s brushed, while one adorably pink-clad girls team (the Rainbow Princess Sparkle Dolphins or something) had matching French braids, which were great for keeping their hair out of their faces during cartwheels.

A visit to the soccer field offers opportunities to say hi to everyone you’ve ever met in Santa Barbara, without the conversational expectations of a cocktail party. If Marty Blum and Lois Capps were smart, they’d hold their office hours during AYSO games and get a tan at the same time.

The polo match was more about people watching than people talking. If you’ve ever lusted after a straight-out-of “My Fair Lady” hat at Nordstrom’s and decided you had nowhere to wear it, attending a polo match gives you the perfect excuse. It’s also a great place to bring out that wedding gift picnic basket you thought only people in Town and Country Magazine ever used.

At the soccer field I looked anything but fashionable trying to juggle enormous folding chairs, soccer balls, juice boxes and a small, rowdy boy.

Did I mention that my sociology training qualifies me to speculate on sociocultural connections that may or may not exist?

While snack time is one of the highlights of the soccer game for both boys and girls, the polo matches put on a halftime show that’s a big favorite with bigger boys and girls — the stomping of the divots. Similar to the stomping of the grapes, spectators are invited onto the field to stomp on the grass on their way to a complimentary glass of champagne.

No wonder they call polo the “sport of kings.” Anything that involves sunshine, mountain views and cocktails is OK by me. I hope our soccer team understands that when it’s my turn to bring snacks.

Originally published inĀ South Coast Beacon on September 30, 2004.

Get Your Kicks

Soccer has dribbled its way into becoming one of the most popular sports in town, but that wasn’t always the case. It was really considered a foreign sport when Cam Camarena came to Santa Barbara to play for UCSB in 1974.

Camarena is credited with bringing AYSO (the American Youth Soccer Organization) to the community in 1976. “I thought that their philosophy was exactly what soccer needed,” Camarena said.

Indeed, the philosophy — based on the concepts that soccer is open to all, everyone plays, and teams are balanced, with an emphasis on positive coaching and good sportsmanship — is still at the forefront of the organization almost 30 years later.

After an initial struggle to popularize the sport — that first year AYSO had just six teams of boys only — over the years Santa Barbara’s seen super moms morph into soccer moms. “Last year we had 256 teams (almost 3,000 kids),” said John Maloney, the AYSO commissioner for this region.

“No matter what happens, you play three-fourths of the game (up from half the game in previous years),” he said. There’s a huge difference between that and more traditional competitive team situations, he said. “But more game time helps develop the skills.”

As their expertise develops, many kids leave behind the politically correct world of AYSO for the more competitive club teams, which has caused some conflicts over the years.

“This town has gone through a little bit of the club wars. We’ve got several prominent soccer personalities

in this town. And different attempts to form a club that kind of reflects the diversity of this town,” said UCSB Men’s Head Coach Tim VomSteeg.

“One of the reasons that everybody hated everybody is that kids were trying to play both (AYSO and club teams) and that upset people because you’re going to let somebody down,” said Camarena.

“(In AYSO) there’s no punishment for not coming to practice,” said Andy Roteman, coach administrator for the organization. Without the balanced team requirement, the kids who play club experience a higher level of competition. “The cream gets to play with the cream,” he said. “We’ve had coaches take their team club because the kids want to keep playing together. … Then they pay $50 to $60 per month to belong to a club team (versus $80 per season for AYSO), plus tournament fees and traveling. So where is (a) parent going to give their allegiance to?”

Partly in response to the issues between the club teams and AYSO, a soccer coalition was started about two years ago. “We’ve been meeting once a month to work together instead of working against each other. Even though so many kids are involved with soccer, we still have less fields than everyone else because we’re always fighting within ourselves,” said Camarena, who currently coaches the Legends girl’s soccer team. One of the agreements achieved through the coalition is that club teams would not recruit AYSO players during the regular (fall) season.

“As popular as soccer is, I think one thing that has really hurt the overall development at the highest level has been the politics of this town; unfortunately, there always seems to be (politics) at every place you go. You have the recreational people thinking that the competitive level is wrong and vice versa. But I think that has changed in the last two years,” said Camarena.

AYSO’s Maloney agreed that things are improving. Currently, AYSO has a good working relationship with both FCSB and Legends (the two leading clubs in town), he said. “That wasn’t always the case.

“There’s a lot to be gained by the soccer organizations working together. There are not enough soccer fields in Santa Barbara, and the situation may become worse. AYSO has used UCSB’s soccer fields for the past five years, but it doesn’t look too good (that) they’ll be there in the fall,” Maloney said. “When UCSB instituted parking fees last year, it allowed AYSO to pre-sell discount tickets to parents. Now they want to raise fees, plus the new parking services automated system isn’t capable of handling our volume,” said Maloney, who has been working to come to an agreement with the university. In addition to an estimated $60,000 in parking fees, AYSO now pays about $28,000 per year to use the fields and monitor parking. “It definitely isn’t an inexpensive venue.”

If negotiations with USCB fall apart, AYSO has the right of first refusal to use Girsh Park in the fall, Maloney said. It would be less expensive than UCSB, but there are fewer fields, so games would have to be played on Saturdays and Sundays, instead of just Saturdays, which could cause conflicts for some families.

One of the things Camarena would like to see the soccer coalition do is bring the community together to buy land to develop dedicated soccer fields. “It would be a dream come true to have community soccer fields.”

Soccer for grown-ups

Part of the popularity of soccer is attributable to being able to start playing at such a young age — AYSO starts at 41/2 — but opportunities to play also abound for adults.

At the recreational level there’s the “huff and puff league” (HAPCO). “(People) come out there to have fun and don’t worry about the sport; it’s really a social recreational event. They’re probably a bunch of people that never played soccer before but their kids are playing, so they’re now trying to come out and play themselves a bit,” said Dennis Van Alphen, who founded the website five years ago as a resource for centralized local soccer information.

Also popular for moms and dads was the PAYSO (parents of AYSO league) that later turned into the more competitive Santa Barbara Adult Soccer League, said Van Alphen. Limited to players 30 years and older, he said, the league is “still competitive but not as competitive as the others. There are guys that are over 50 but the majority are in their late 30s.”

He said the best league in town is the Central Coast League. “One of the teams, Durango, just won the state’s championship a week ago. … They have a bunch of players from Westmont and SBCC and UCSB, among other players that are at a good level.”

There’s also the Southern Union Soccer League, said Van Alphen. Finding enough fields is a challenge for the adult leagues as well as the kids. He said the only fields with lights that are available to adult leagues are at La Colina and Santa Barbara junior high schools.

For more information on adult soccer, visit

Paying the way to play

With so much focus on youth soccer, there’s some debate as to whether it really paves the way to a college scholarship, as some parents seem to think. “In Division 1, you are allowed basically 9.9 full scholarships and most teams carry a roster of 30 full time players. We have eight scholarships, so we’re not quite fully funded,” said UCSB Men’s Head Soccer Coach Tim VomSteeg.

“The potential of a kid receiving money is very small in terms of the scheme of things. … At USCB we average about 20 emails and letters a day from players, four to five tapes a week. … If I go on a trip for week or something you’ll have 90-100 emails from kids,” said VomSteeg, whose team has been ranked in the top 20 for the past two years. There are 200 Division 1 colleges, and probably six new players added to each program each year, so that’s 1,200 spots opening up, he said.

The competition starts early. Top players from AYSO are routinely recruited to play on club teams where the talk of college begins in earnest. “Mostly what will happen is you’ll go to a major tournament and you’ll put out a thing with your name and stats, so you can email (college coaches),” said Julia Bottiani, a Goleta Valley Junior High eighth grader who “plays up” on the Legends under-19 team. “My coach, he tells all the juniors, ‘you should be emailing to the schools you want to go to.’ ”

Of the graduates of the last year’s two Legends teams, coach Cam Camarena said at least 25 are playing college soccer on scholarships, an impressively high percentage.

Division 1 coaches are allowed five evaluations of a player, so club tournaments are very efficient. “The top kids are all playing against each other. With top clubs, (you) have a good change to see kids that are not only good players but are playing against good players,” said VomSteeg. There’s very little chance of a San Diego State recruiter coming to Santa Barbara to watch a high school game.

With more and more kids playing in this country, VomSteeg says soccer is really reaping the benefits. “We’re able in soccer, for the first time, to pick up the really good athletes that in years before would have played other sports. Thanks to really good contracts for pros, what’s changed now, we have some kids that would have played basketball or baseball, and instead they are choosing to play soccer.”

Behind the scenes of Soccer Moms

‘Hotter than the other moms” is the reputation Santa Barbara soccer moms have around the tournaments. They’re fitter and more stylish, said playwright David Starkey, who takes an entertaining look at the force behind the sidelines with his play, Soccer Moms, opening tonight at the Center Stage Theatre. “You go away to tournaments and they’re checking each other out at the breakfast bar.

“The intensity of the moms on the sidelines was really astonishing to me,” said the poet and English professor, who three years ago migrated from Chicago to marry into an enthusiastic soccer family.

“I thought you could do a play where all the action takes place on the sidelines.” While true soccer moms focus on the field “with laser-like attention for whole game,” in the play, the parents also have their share of offsides R-rated adventures.

Set in Santa Barbara, Starkey’s “gentle satire” has played in North Hollywood and Seattle, but tonight will be its local debut. After one show, Starkey heard a theatergoer say, “I hope no one from Santa Barbara is in audience.” But he thinks people will enjoy laughing at themselves. No one more so than his wife, Sandy, whom he describes as “one of the more intense soccer moms in town.

“Real life is not nearly the soap opera I make it out to be … but there are some cases of life imitating art,” Starkey said.

For example, in the play one of the moms gets a personal trainer to help her daughter’s soccer. “I wrote that and then subsequently Sandy got a personal trainer for (daughter) Julia,” he laughed.

Soccer Moms is the premier show of New Bard Productions, founded by Starkey and Jinny Webber. E. Bonnie Lewis directs a cast that includes Michelle Osborne, Deborah Helm, Tiffany Story and Mike Walker.

Soccer Moms plays at the Center Stage Theatre, upstairs in Paseo Nuevo, at 8 p.m. today through Saturday with a 2 p.m. Feb. 28 matinee. Tickets are $15 general admission and $13 for student and seniors. Call 963.0408 or visit

Originally published in South Coast Beacon