the forwards darted like flashes: the history of soccer in utah
April 25, 2010

Soccer: “The Game That Ate Surburbia”

The 1970s saw major changes in the Utah soccer scene, changes that are still having an impact today, and with the exception of one aspect—the attempt to get a professional soccer team in Utah—will mark the end of this history. After that there are just too many clubs, teams and leagues to try to follow any individual one. The three major changes in the 1970s were the wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants, which only increased in the ensuing decades; the rise of the youth soccer movement; and the advent of women’s school soccer programs on an organized level. The wave of Hispanic immigrants, who brought soccer, their national game, with them, has been mentioned above. Bill Bosgraaf of the Utah Soccer Association noted that as of the last fifteen years, since 1990, soccer among the Latino community has grown exponentially, as more and more immigrants from Central America and Mexico, as well as those from South America, have come to Utah. Today there are three Hispanic soccer leagues in the Salt Lake valley, with 30-40 teams each. In addition, there are leagues with multiple teams in Logan, Ogden, Provo, and St. George. That equals thousands of Hispanic Americans playing soccer, and doesn’t even count the youth soccer players in the Latino leagues.
Murray youth league soccer game, 1970s (Murray City Library photo)
Tony Yapias, who came to the US from Peru in 1981 when he was 14 years old, originally came to this country to herd sheep near Evanston, Wyoming. He soon found himself traveling to Salt Lake City, Logan, Park City, and other localities to play soccer with the Liga Union Hispana. While the Latino leagues were originally organized by country, today they are more mixed and no longer have that national basis.

The second factor that caused soccer to explode starting in the 1970s and continuing today, with no signs of abatement, is the youth soccer movement. Jim Haner, in Soccerhead, claims that the popularity of soccer among youth today is the result of Baby Boomer parents who wanted their kids to be involved in sports, but didn’t want them to get hurt or rejected by trying out for the traditional American sports, football, baseball, and basketball. Soccer is something that any child, boy or girl, can play and even excel at, and even though they might get knocked down sometimes, injuries are nothing like in football. You don’t have to be particularly tall or big or talented; if you can run and kick a ball, you can play. Excelling in the sport, and going on to college soccer, is another matter entirely, but at the outset, it’s the perfect sport for young children. Even against entrenched, heavily subsidized programs like football and baseball—whose adherents and advocates are often openly hostile toward soccer programs, denying use of fields and hoarding the recreation budgets—soccer has grown exponentially among Utah’s youth. Murray City, in the Salt Lake valley, is one of the communities that recognized the value of soccer and was one of the first cities to establish a youth soccer program in the state. In Weber County, by 1968 there were 2000 youngsters enrolled in youth soccer programs, and within just over a decade that number had grown by tenfold. The Utah Youth Soccer Association—which is only one of several programs for Utah’s youth—estimates that there are now around 47,000 registered players, and that does not include the junior high and high school soccer teams, both boys and girls, which finally received official sanction of the Utah High School Activities Association in 1982.

Finally, there is the rise of women’s soccer, which came about starting in 1972, with the passage of Title IX of the U.S. Code, mandating that women and girls must have equal access to athletic programs in any school that received federal funds (which of course is just about any school in Utah). Haner, in Soccerhead, notes that the impact of Title IX on soccer “was huge; over the next two decades, 7.4 million women and girls would strap on shin guards and tug on cleats to double the number of registered players nationwide and transform a dying sport into the native game of surburbia.” He also notes that more than 1500 colleges, universities, and school boards nationwide fought Title IX tooth and nail, “denying that they had unequal facilities, uneven funding, or unfair scholarship allocations for women’s sports.” This was true in Utah as well, where as late as 1987, the Utah High School Activities Association rejected a proposal to sanction girls soccer programs, claiming that school budgets couldn’t handle the extra expenses. Soccer advocates, however, pointed out that soccer programs were not that expensive, especially compared to football and baseball, which had long been subsidized by the school districts. University of Utah Women's soccer game, 1996 (University of Utah Special Collections photo) Finally, in 1989, discrimination lawsuits were filed against Box Elder, Logan, Ogden, Weber, Davis, and Cache school districts were alleged to be in violation of Title IX. In the end, the school districts and colleges who had been fighting Title IX gave up and instituted girl’s soccer programs, which are now wildly successful. Today virtually every junior high and high school in Utah has a girl’s soccer program, and the women’s soccer programs in Utah colleges and universities are often contenders for NCAA championships. The Weber State University women’s soccer team, for instance, won the Nikolai Challenge Cup in 1992. In the 1970s and 1980s, both Utah and BYU fielded women’s club teams that won numerous championships in the state. After the University of Utah’s women’s team was given NCAA status in 1996, it compiled a winning record, including being unbeaten in Mountain West Conference play in 2006 and advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Soccer has taken hold among female players in Utah like none of the old miners and ethnic teams could have ever imagined.18 Even now, however, soccer programs have a hard time in Utah, continually having to fight for fields and playing time. In one example, the director of recreation for Davis County was reported to have said that despite the fact that he had 24 fields that were in constant use—and that if the number was doubled those would be full too-that if he had his way, the number of fields would be zero. The national situation that Haner describes in Soccerhead hold true in Utah to this day:

“Kept in a state of financial malnutrition by entrenched football and baseball boosters who continue to command the lion’s share of public money in local parks and recreation departments, soccer continues to lack for the simplest of things. Basic needs—such as fields and uniforms—have to be leveraged with private money, or the sport most assuredly would have died by now. … In Salt Lake City, thirty-four thousand kinds in shin guards campaigned door-to-door to support a $15 million bond issue for a ‘plex of their own—thirty fields along the Jordan River.”19

All of these factors—Latino leagues, youth soccer, and women’s soccer—have combined to make the history of soccer in Utah after the 1980s so complex and multi-layered that it is almost impossible to describe in anything less than a full-length book. Utah soccer has grown beyond the simple days of a few teams playing pickup games. Today it is a major activity for thousands and thousands of Utah residents, and generates millions of dollars in annual revenue. By the end of the 1970s, Utah was poised to take the ultimate step, into professional soccer.

18-The advance of women’s teams, however, was not viewed as a plus in all circles. The BYU men’s team, which in the 1980s was an NCAA sanctioned team, had to give up its NCAA status so that a NCAA women’s team could be formed.
19-Soccerhead: An accidental history of the American game, by Jim Haner. P. 39, 42. Bill Bosgraaf, head of the Utah Soccer Association, recalled a time when he called a local county recreation office to schedule fields for soccer teams. He was told in no uncertain terms that if it was up to the official he was talking to, there would be no soccer fields in the whole county.
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