Howard County Soccer- a perspectivePosted: September 10, 2014
Howard County, Maryland lies halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It includes one of the first and arguably the most successful of the planned cities that have been developed in this country – Columbia. Columbia was built mostly in the early 1970’s and as the city grew, soccer in the new city grew also. Eventually soccer in Howard County became as integral to life there as it is to any community in the world, even in those countries known far more for their “football” than is the United States. And it is not the just the number of participants in Howard County that is of note. The area has produced numerous state, regional and national championship club teams as well as professional and national team players and scores of college participants. The high schools typically draw four figure crowds , state championships have become a regular , almost expected, event. Sports Illustrated ran a story on the county, calling it the “heartland of American soccer”. It is amazing that such a small county has had such success in promoting and playing the sport. So how did this particular area become so inundated and successful with the sport of soccer?
The story of Howard County soccer is one of hard work, dedicated people and smart marketing.
The ” new town” of Columbia attracted a diverse population and there were a number of internationally born families living in the city even as it first developed. Three of these came together in 1971 to form the Soccer Assocation of Columbia and they attracted about 60 boys in their first season. Felix Rausch, Doug Goodsir and Bill Simm, an Austrian and two Englishman, worked hard to start the organization. Each season thereafter the number grew.. From 60 to 200 to 600 to over 1000. The growth was fueled by a couple of smart marketing decisions by the founders.
First- The city is composed of ” villages” , each made up of smaller areas called neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has it’s own elementary school. When forming the new soccer organization, it was decided that the teams would represent the neighborhoods, and would be composed by players who lived in those respective neighborhoods. While most American youth sports had sponsors , there was something far more compelling for a youngster to be playing for Thunder Hill or Bryant Woods than for Joe’s Gas Station. The results of the weekly games were reported in the local newspaper – the Columbia Flier, with a couple sentences naming players who had good games, for both the winners and the losers. By the second season, community citizens were reading the reports and identifying with the teams from their neighborhood. Although there were no elementary school sports teams, the nature of the teams made it easy to connect the teams to the schools that the players attended. An upcoming big game produced the same excitement in the elementary school that it would have if it were in a high school. The players became celebrities of sorts, which encouraged more children to sign up the next season.
Second- Each participant was given a team shirt to wear during the games. But the shirt was not a soccer jersey. Each player received a t-shirt which was identical to all the other t-shirts except for color. Each neighborhood had it’s unique color to identify it; Swansfield was red, Faulkner Ridge was yellow, etc. Each shirt had a large soccer ball on the front encircled by the words ,” Columbia Soccer” . The players were proud of their shirts and because the apparel was a t- shirt, it was worn constantly by the soccer kids. Columbia was getting an enormous amount of publicity at this time, being one of the first examples of a successful planned city, and photos of the city and it’s residents were everywhere- magazines, newspapers; publications of all types. And, given the family nature of the community, these pics had tons of children in them. So, to the outsider it seemed that every child in the city played soccer, given that nearly every photo had at least one child wearing a shirt with a large COLUMBIA SOCCER emblazoned on it. It was free publicity and well, you just weren’t anybody at school if you didn’t have one of those shirts!
Within a few years the growth of the sport prompted the leaders of the organization to test the quality of the players compared to soccer played in other nearby areas.In 1974, Columbia was represented by an all-star u-10 team at a local single elimination tournament held in suburban Baltimore. The result was a 5-1 thrashing by a Baltimore team from the Shrine of the Little Flower church. Little Flower was the reigning youth soccer power in the Baltimore and the game showed the gap between the fledgling Columbia kids and the established Baltimore soccer community.
A year later , Columbia returned to the tournament with a new u-10 team consisting of boys born in 1965 or later as well as a 1963 boys squad. This time the results were different. The Columbia soccer people were now aware of the caliber of play outside of Howard County and adjusted their coaching accordingly. Both teams did well, reaching the finals, and the 1965’s faced Little Flower again. This time the Columbians raced to a 5-0 win. It was the first tournament win for a Columbia team, the first of many, many triumphs. The Baltimore soccer community was talking about Columbia and that reputation only grew in the coming years.
Two years later , in 1977, the Columbia 1965 boys broke through the Maryland State Cup barrier, winning the cup without giving up a goal in the tournament. Once the feat was accomplished , several teams followed suit , including the 1967 girls who eventually ruled the state by claiming 3 State Cup titles. Two years later another level was reached. Both the 65 boys and 67 girls won Md cups and went to Binghampton, NY to represent the state in the Eastern Regional tournament. Both teams reached the final game with the boys claiming the championship. Now Howard County soccer was officially a national power. But these accomplishments were dwarfed by the 1966 boys who as u-16’s and again as u-19’s reached the highest accomplishment in American youth soccer by winning the national championship twice. In 1987 the 1971 boys took the national u-16 title and in 1996 and 1997 , Howard county ruled the country in the u-17 and u-18 bracket by winning consecutive national championships. What an amazing set of accomplishments from an area as small as one county in a suburban location!
So what was the secret? How did this community manage to turn out the quality of player and teams that put it on the national youth soccer map? To the Soccer Yoda, there were several unique characteristics that helped produce those amazing results:
The major common thread running through all the successful teams was the presence of one , dedicated, knowledgable coach , working with a core group of players for several years as they developed their skills and efficiency as a team. These coaches varied in their backgrounds from teachers and professors to businessmen. Their soccer backgrounds varied from professional players to dad’s who picked up the game when their kids did. But the common thread was that they stuck with their teams , continued to learn the game and never asked for more than the dedication of their players. They insisted that their teams played quality soccer, they didn’t short-cut the learning curves of their players for immediate wins. In the long run, the players became increasingly proficient and their teams rose up the ladder of youth soccer achievement.
These coaches were allowed to express themselves with their teams. It is not uncommon for modern clubs to dictate coaching methods, styles, even formations, in the interest of club continuity. But the successful Howard County coaches varied greatly in these areas. Al Goldstein’s 1965 boys who won 2 Md cups and a regional title were known as the ” passing team” and used possession and movement to control opponents. But they were subject to physical play in attempts to literally knock them out of their comfort zone. At the other end of the spectrum, when Rudy Storch took his Longfellow neighborhood team and added a couple of Goldstein’s players and a couple more from other neighborhoods to form his 1966 boys squad, he headed off the rough stuff by presenting a tough physical aura to the team. They wore plain gray shirts ….nothing fancy ….and retaliated quickly to any attempt to intimidate them. Almost lost in the atmosphere was the quality of play, the control, quickness and skills of the team. The mix brought national championships to the team and to Columbia. Coaches who were free to coach as they wanted were responsible for highly successful sides and players.
Another distinguishing factor was the incredible community support afforded Columbia teams.As the city grew its reputation as a youth soccer hotspot, it’s Memorial Day tournament drew top teams from around the East. Many spectators turned out for group games, but the finals became a “event”. Hundreds of local soccer fans turned out for the championship games and any local team which earned its way into a final enjoyed a major boost of hometown support. Big high school games were played on Saturdays or under the lights at Howard High School, which was the only high school to have a lit field at that time. These matches drew crowds exceeding 1000 fans with a couple estimated at double that number. Columbia players and coaches became local celebrities, which increased the number of new youth playing the sport and , perhaps more importantly, kept them playing in Columbia rather than journeying into Baltimore or down Rt 29 to DC to join the clubs in those cities.
That above mentioned factor- keeping the talent at home, proved to be another important ingredient in the Howard County success recipe. Not only did the area produce excellent players, but they represented Howard County when they played. The combination of quality coaching, support and results actually encouraged top players from other localities in the Baltimore-DC area to join the Columbia locals. Although predominantly Howard County grown, several of the high reaching sides had players from outside central Maryland.
So, by dedicating themselves to quality soccer, having soccer knowledgable coaches and administrators, by marketing the sport and the players and keeping the quality talent at home, Howard County became one of the top soccer communities in the country and for its size, perhaps the highest concentration of soccer success in the nation. It’s a formula that would work today as well as then.