Girls Make Their Mark
Celebrating 40 Years in AYSO
By Mike Woitalla
“These nimble-footed damsels and their rooters are putting soccer on the South Bay map.” - Daily Breeze, Nov. 3 1971 (Photo: Bob Carrington)
About four decades ago, a few girls in Southern California asked a question that set off a revolution for American children:
“Why can’t we play soccer?”
It came from girls who watched their brothers enjoying soccer in Granada Hills. Joe Karbus, whose daughter Kimberly was among those asking, knew there was only one way to respond:
“Why not? Let’s start a league.”
Now known as the father of AYSO girls’ soccer, Karbus grew up with the traditional American sports of baseball, basketball and football. He played junior varsity football at the United States Naval Academy and soccer still seemed like a foreign game when his sons, Joe Jr. and Tom, were lured to the sport by AYSO, which was founded in 1964. Joe Sr. quickly recognized soccer’s great attributes.
“I was fascinated by all the movement,” says Karbus.
“But it was obvious something was missing, at least to me. The girls would be on the sidelines while the boys were playing and the girls would kick the ball around whenever one became available. They were dying to get into the action.”
In 1969, Karbus got AYSO to lend some resources such as soccer balls, pooled $5 contributions together to buy material for bibs to serve as uniforms and launched a four-team, 7-a-side league with about 30 girls.
Seeing girls chasing soccer balls in today’s America is as common as spotting boys on the field, but back then it was such a novelty that the Los Angeles Times sent reporters to see what Karbus had started. In January 1970, a Times headline announced “Girls Get Own Soccer…” and reported that Karbus was coaching four teams, the Pink Panthers, Magnificient 7, Rockettes and Fillies.
In the article, San Fernando Valley AYSO Regional Commissioner Ron Ricklefs explained that the league was spurred “by a core of girls who were less than content to repeat as cheerleaders for the boys’ games.”
University of Washington women’s head coach, Lesle Gallimore, on one of the first AYSO girls teams.
The number of participants more than doubled in the second year and word spread rapidly about this “phenomenon” of girls playing team sports.
“One of the fathers was a TV crew chief of NBC Channel 4 Los Angeles,” says Karbus. “He had extra film and shot footage of the girls playing soccer that aired on the local TV channel. After that I received a whole bunch of curious calls, mostly asking, ‘How can my daughter sign up?’
“It was so novel, but it was so natural, that it really caught fire.”
In 1971, the Granada Hills girls league officially became part of AYSO, which means the 2011 40th anniversary AYSO girls’ soccer coincides with the sixth FIFA Women’s World Cup.
At the tournament hosted in Germany June 26 - July 17, the USA aims to lift the crown for the third time, and as always, the U.S. squad will include AYSO alumni, one of whom is Shannon Boxx, a 33-year-old midfielder who helped the USA win Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008. (Hawaii native and AYSO alum Natasha Kai scored the quarterfinal overtime gamewinner at the 2008 Olympics.)
Boxx, a Redondo Beach, Calif. native, credits her AYSO coach for teaching her “real ball skills” and recalls, “I also learned that it was OK to get knocked around and fall down while playing soccer. You just get back up again!”
Defender Rachel Buehler of Del Mar, Calif., also a 2008 gold medalist, is expected to play a key role on the U.S. backline in Germany. The 25-year-old recalls her introduction to the game being a delightful experience because her AYSO coach, Platini Soaf, was “so positive and encouraging.”
The nation’s up-and-coming stars also include women who got their start in AYSO, including Alex Morgan of Diamond Bar, Calif., who played in AYSO until she was almost 14. The 21 year old scored four goals in her first 10 games for the USA, including a crucial strike in a World Cup qualifying clash with Italy.
U.S. National team player and former AYSO player, Rachel Buehler playing in a 1-1 tie against Sweden at Morrison Stadium, Omaha Nebraska. (Photo: ISI Photos)
Whitney Engen, a 22 year old who won three NCAA Division I championships with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is one of the younger players vying for a spot on the 2011 World Cup squad. The Southern Californian (Rolling Hills Estates) had so much fun playing AYSO, she recalls the names of all five teams she played for: Thumpers, Hotshots, Cheetahs, Firebirds and Whatchamacallits.
“AYSO is a crucial organization to the development of young soccer players in so many ways,” says Engen. “Not only does it allow girls to spend time with their peers, but AYSO empowers them by giving each girl a chance to compete in a healthy environment. AYSO as an organization is large but it is put on at the local level. The parental involvement with coaching, organizing, and planning makes the teams inclusive to everyone. I think this is one of the key points to the organization’s success as it not only builds peer-to-peer friendships, but community ties as well. I know that I am very thankful that I was able to participate in the organization and I hope that my children will one day have the same opportunity.”
Not only will the USA be fielding AYSO alums at this summer’s World Cup, so will Mexico. University of Washington assistant coach, Veronica Perez, was born and raised in Northern California—and started her soccer with AYSO’s Pink Cotton Candy Kickers and Blue Sharks. She’s eligible for the Mexican national team by heritage. Last November, the 22-year-old scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory over the USA that qualified Mexico for the Women’s World Cup.
The American players at this summer’s World Cup grew up after the youth soccer boom spread the game so thoroughly across the country that signing up for a soccer league has become practically a rite of passage for children of both genders.
The U.S. stars who lifted the very first Women’s World Cup in 1991 came out of the first generation of players who found leagues of their own. It’s no coincidence that a number of the 1991 team’s key players hailed from areas in which AYSO had taken an early hold.
Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Mary Harvey—all of whom followed up their 1991 world title with Olympic gold—got their passion for the game thanks to AYSO.
“AYSO was a wonderful introduction to soccer for me,” says Harvey, the goalkeeper who started in every game for the
USA at the 1991 World Cup and also starred at UC Berkeley and with German club FSV Frankfurt, with which she lifted the 1990 German
Cup in front of 70,000 fans at the Berlin Olympic Stadium.
Alex Morgan (21) of the US Women’s National Team strikes for her first career goal during an international friendly at PPL Park in Chester, PA. The U.S. tied China, 1-1. (Photo: Brad Smith)
Harvey’s mom signed her up for AYSO when Mary was in sixth grade. Her cherished team photos from her four years of AYSO play show her in goalkeeper gear with those old-fashioned spongy kneepads, but she also remembers playing a lot in the field – and the benefits of the AYSO experience off the field.
“I went to a small private school and playing AYSO helped me meet other kids I normally didn’t see,” says Harvey, who was the Chief Operating Officer for the Women’s Professional Soccer from 2009-10 after being the first female Director of Development for FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. In that position, she oversaw FIFA’s drive to develop women’s soccer throughout the world.
Like Harvey, Foudy also became a leading advocate for women’s sports. She was the only athlete who served on the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission that successfully prevented the dilution of Title IX in 2002.
Foudy and the women stars of the 1990s brought women’s soccer into the American mainstream. The U.S. women who won the 1999 World Cup on home soil with a victory over China—thanks to Chastain’s penalty kick—in front of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl ended up on the covers of Time, Newsweek, People and Sports Illustrated, and were dubbed the “Title IX Babies” after the federal law that required colleges to provide equal athletic opportunities to women.
Title IX was enacted in 1972, a year after AYSO started the girls’ soccer revolution, but wasn’t enforced until the 1980s. By then, colleges saw adding women’s soccer programs as a perfect way to balance the gender scale while meeting the demand created by girl’s youth soccer.
University of Washington women’s head coach Lesle Gallimore, a teammate of Harvey’s at Cal Berkeley, has coached college ball for more than two decades. She played AYSO just after it launched girls’ leagues in the South Torrance-Redondo Beach, Calif., area, and also remembers her first teams: Red Hots, Leprechauns and Majestics.
“I never thought about it at the time,” she says, “but thinking back on it I now know that I was right smack in the middle of the Title IX movement. And I grew up in Torrance where AYSO was on the cutting edge of youth soccer in general, let alone the beginnings of girls getting to play sports that boys did.”
Mike Woitalla is the Executive Editor of Soccer America Magazine. He was an AYSO player in Hawaii and now coaches his daughter Julia’s soccer team in Northern California.