published Sunday, June 6th, 2010

Kennedy: 'Throwball' better call a huddle

At supper one night, I asked my family if they were up for a Chattanooga FC soccer game at Finley Stadium on July 4.

"Football game," my 8-year-old son said, correcting me.

"Soccer game," I insisted. "Son, the last time I looked, your birth certificate said East Ridge, not England."

"Football game," he said again, smiling and shoveling mac and cheese into his mouth.

My son has a Chattanooga FC T-shirt with the outline of an American football on the back. Under the pigskin, it says, "This is throwball." Under that is the likeness of a soccer ball, with the caption, "This is football."

He, like hundreds of other Chattanooga kids, has come under the spell of the city's newest spectator sports rage, adult soccer. Chattanooga FC, a second-year club made up of area soccer players, is part of the National Premier Soccer League.

I saw my first adult soccer game the night before I turned 52 years old. It was the much-discussed game on May 29 between our Chattanooga FC and FC Atlas, said to be one of the top under-23 teams in soccer-obsessed Mexico.

The game, which drew 6,317 fans to Finley Stadium, was a culture shock for me. No, it wasn't Neyland Stadium on a September evening, but by Chattanooga sports standards it was a throng. (Check the sports section for results of last night's scheduled Chattanooga FC game at Finley.)

I came away convinced we are seeing the future of American sports unfold on warm nights on Chattanooga's Southside, which is as close to middle America as it gets.

Here are five reasons to believe soccer -- I'm too old to call it football -- is here to stay:

* World Cup Fever. Ask a random, suburban 12-year-old what big sporting event is coming up on Saturday. Don't be surprised if they say the U.S. vs. England soccer match, a first-round World Cup contest in South Africa.

Television coverage of the World Cup will be relentless this summer, and many think the United States has a kind draw that could vault its team into the second round. A good showing could light a fire here that could burn for years.

* The female factor. One of the striking things about a Chattanooga FC soccer game is the astonishing number of girls and young women in the stands.

A generation of girls has come of age on the soccer fields around Chattanooga, and they are fully invested in, and knowledgeable about, the game.

Plus, if there's anything cuter than a 5-year-old girl in pigtails and a "Chattahooligans" T-shirt, I'd like to see it.

* Money. The combination of $5 adult admission tickets and $60 team jerseys is ingenious marketing by Chattanooga FC. The team is simultaneously selling access and status.

My son is saving his allowance for a Chattanooga FC team jersey, a financial plan heretofore reserved for Wii games.

* Competitiveness. Everybody loves a winner, and Chattanooga FC is fun to watch.

They defeated the team from Mexico last month on the strength of goals by two Chattanooga-area players, Russell Courtney, 28, formerly of Chattanooga Christian School, and Irvin Espinal, 21, who played at Dalton High School. The soccer-gap between the United States and the world may be at a tipping point. Climb on the bandwagon early.

* Attitude. This is subtle, but despite its reputation for overwrought fans worldwide, soccer has a halo of civility that appeals to the mellow temperament of today's youth.

A older man in the stands at a recent Chattanooga FC game observed loudly: "They (players) always stay on the ground and pretend they are hurt."

I think he expected snickers from those sitting around him. Instead, he got icy silence.

Times are changing, fella. This is not throwball.

E-mail Mark Kennedy at timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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