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From the Catbird Seat... Soccer explosion

You know your sport is popular when your team has so many players some of your teammates wear the same number. The Arrowhead Youth Soccer Association (AYSA) kicked off its "Lower Division" season this week, and to say the Cloquet and Esko areas a...

You know your sport is popular when your team has so many players some of your teammates wear the same number.

The Arrowhead Youth Soccer Association (AYSA) kicked off its "Lower Division" season this week, and to say the Cloquet and Esko areas are important to the league would be an understatement.

"The Cloquet Youth Soccer Association (CYSA) is the largest in our organization," said AYSA Executive Director Dave Geary, "and we're one of the biggest youth organizations in the state."

For CYSA to have a larger membership than, say, Duluth, is jaw-dropping. It's a big

undertaking.

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As Ed McMahon might have said to Johnny Carson, "How big is it?"

Well, let's use raw numbers. According to Geary, the AYSA will field approximately 320 teams in U-6, U-8, U-10, U-12 and U-13 boys and girls play over the next two months. Over 70 of those teams will be from Cloquet and Esko - nearly one in five - and 41 of those teams will be from Cloquet. AYSA teams generally average 15-17 players per team in the lower age brackets.

Final registration numbers weren't immediately available, but it's estimated that 600 Cloquet children will take part in soccer this summer and fall on those 41 teams, with about 450 Esko children joining them.

One of those teams is mine, a U-10 girls team that is learning the basics of positional play and a few of the skills they'll need to succeed at the next level up the ladder.

But it's teams like that group of girls that fulfill a basic mission of AYSA - for the kids, especially at the younger levels, to have fun while they play.

At the U-10 level, one of the things I strive to teach is how to be a teammate. That includes sharing the ball, cheering for your teammates and learning how to work together to play the world's most popular game.

It also makes substitution time not unlike the proverbial Chinese fire drill, with a horde of happy faces all wanting to get into the game at the same time, at the positions they would like to play.

I do understand how a teacher feels each fall when looking out at a classroom full of new faces. I'm hindered by the fact that I have two number eights, two number 26s and two number nines on my team. Happily, one of the eights is

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my daughter, which helps

considerably.

Youth soccer is like two

different worlds, in a manner not dissimilar to other sports. In our sport's case, the dividing line comes at U-10s.

Standings aren't kept until you reach U-12s, participation rules are that each player must play half of each game, and parents are still encouraged to bring snacks and treats to the games.

Yet, participation is the key. The girls with better skills show those skills easily, and make their teammates better in the process.

Baseball great Willie Stargell was famous for saying "the umpire doesn't say 'Work ball!'" Well, even when you're playing for wins, losses and playoff positions, youth soccer is still about improving skills, having fun and learning the game.

The time will come when the hundreds of thousands of American youth players will forge themselves into a formidable world soccer power. When it happens, perhaps one or two of them will have cut their teeth in today's youth leagues.

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That's something to dream about. But isn't that what youth sports are supposed to be for?

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