Youth soccer has been popular in the U.S. for more than a generation, and that may be driving high viewer ratings for World Cup games involving the U.S. Here’s a look at five people who grew up playing and loving soccer in America, from a woman who played on a boys team as a kid and now coaches boys soccer, to a man who named his dogs after World Cup players.
The 42-year-old Chicago attorney has two soccer-playing sons, 8 and 10, and coaches youth leagues. His own parents signed him up when he was 5.
“They’re not very sports-minded people. It’s just what you did. Every kid I knew played soccer and baseball,” he said. “For me and a lot in my generation, we stumbled into it and fell in love by accident.”
While he doesn’t own a jersey or paint his face, Helfand has seen the U.S. team play in person 16 times, traveling as far away as Australia and Ireland.
He’s amazed how far the sport has come in the United States. “Walking down the street now, you see kids wearing Manchester United jerseys and Chelsea Football Club jerseys and Barcelona, and I didn’t even know what those were as a kid. I didn’t know who the best players were in Europe,” Helfand said.
He loved the go-go nature of the game compared to other sports.
“I was a hyper child and the idea of playing in the infield much less the outfield in baseball, and just standing there waiting for something to happen or waiting for your turn to bat, never really appealed to me,” he said.
Ben Fox, 28, sells solar panels in San Francisco but grew up in the small Vermont town of Peru. He started soccer when he was 4 and played until knee injuries took him out in college.
“We skied in the winter and pretty much everyone played soccer in the summer,” he said. “But soccer was all I wanted to do all the time.”
His dad is English but wasn’t a rabid soccer fan, thinking his son should study more and play soccer less.
Fox’s family used to breed English springer spaniel dogs.
“The first litter, I named all the dogs after members of the 1994 World Cup teams, like Dunga, who was the captain of Brazil at the time,” he said.
His mom, an American and the parent who schlepped him to games, named her favorite dog Mia Hamm.
Cureton, 30, of Bealeton, Virginia, started playing when she was 4, introduced to the game by her older brother. Now, she’s a rare female coach of a varsity boys soccer team, at Patriot High School in Nokesville, Virginia.
“I was in gymnastics when my brother was in soccer and his team used to let me play with them. I hated wearing leotards,” she said.
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Cureton often played on boys teams. There was no all-girls soccer team, but the two or three girls who made the boys teams faced resistance.
“Boys were very threatened by it. It would be a lot of teasing. It was, ‘You must be a boy.’ It never affected me. I just wanted to play soccer,” she said.
Cureton went to George Mason University on a soccer scholarship but stopped playing competitively after college, partly due to injuries.
“I had nine concussions between 14 and 21. If there were concussion baseline tests now I would have never played in college,” she said.
Garcia, 52, was 16 when he moved to New York City from Bogota, Colombia.
“Oh my God, playing soccer is all we did. We’d play soccer waiting for the bus. We’d play soccer in the classrooms, in the hallways. We’d come home and play in the rain,” he said.
But in the U.S., the soccer-crazed teen from Colombia could barely find a game.
“In the Bronx there was a park near where we lived where some Europeans played. Me and my brother used to play there a lot. Everybody was playing football and basketball and baseball,” Garcia said. “I lost a little bit of the drive to play when we came here.”
After high school, he joined the U.S. Army and played some, then became an aviation mechanic for United Airlines, which hosted employee soccer tournaments.
Garcia, now an engineer for a San Francisco water treatment plant, spent 18 years coaching boys’ soccer, including at his son’s high school.
“When I started coaching here in the United States, I didn’t understand why the parents didn’t want to let the kids play every day,” he said. “We never got tired. We never burned out.”
The game is “a natural high,” said Garcia, who still plays but has bad knees from the sport. “Soccer is like life. It’s running through my blood. I want to play it. Getting old really stinks.”
The 46-year-old co-owner of a public relations firm in Dallas played soccer from age 7 through college. His three kids gave him a USA team jersey for Father’s Day.
“My dad had no idea about soccer. I had a friend at school who started playing and I came home one day and said I wanted to sign up,” he recalled.
The Dallas Tornado and other North American Soccer League teams were promoting the sport when Coulter was growing up. Many players had come from England, Brazil and other soccer-centric countries for one last chance to play.
“I just idolized those old guys. They’re the ones who really lit the fire and just made us love the sport. Guys like Kenny Cooper and Mike Renshaw and Pele,” he said.
“When I was a kid, you had two different groups of friends. You had the ones who played soccer and then everybody else.”
Coulter coached boys teams before he became a dad, was a ref in college and has coached his kids. His oldest played from age 4 but gave it up when she started high school.
“My jaw sort of dropped,” he admits.