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Photo by Jeanne RiceIn a recent Ultimate Soccer League (USL) match at Saddleback College, Mission Viejo goalkeeper Cici Peterson stretched to make a save and then kicked the ball downfield to teammate Kelly Anderson, who dribbled and shot. Pomona goalkeeper Heather Williams blocked the ball, which ended up on the foot of Mission Viejo's Haleigh Roach, who shot and scored. After the extra point, Pomona's Kasey Truman dribbled half the field and blasted a shot of such ferocity at Peterson's head that the goalie showed remarkable instincts: she ducked. The ball ricocheted off the post to Truman, who dribbled left and was fouled. Her penalty kick was good. Back came Mission Viejo, going right at goal, where someone took a shot that Williams sent back in the air. From there, it was headed back by Mission Viejo's Ann Desmond toward the top of the goal and looked like a certain score, except that Williams jumped at the last moment and punched the ball over the goal and out of bounds, a play that not only prevented a score but also kept her team in the game since they were trailing only 50-28 at the time.
And that was five minutes. Five minutes. The amount of action one normally expects to find in an entire soccer match—or season—occurred in five minutes of a USL match.
The league, which concludes its inaugural season Saturday with the Ultimate Cup between Pasadena and Moorpark at Orange Coast College at 7:30 p.m., was designed for such end-to-end action with players—soccer players!—actually trying to score all the time.
The USL bears the mark of a league started by a computer entrepreneur—in this case, computer entrepreneur Josh Hodge. Hodge identified a customer base—10- to 14-year-old girls—and did a market survey.
"We learned that we could attract a fan base while attracting players if we increased the opportunities to score," he said.
Which is why the USL plays on a shorter, 80-yard field; why coaches are allowed to substitute fresh players freely, as in ice hockey; and why the league eliminated the offside rule that prohibits an offensive player without the ball from advancing past the last defender before the goal, allowing players to attack freely and more aggressively.
"People want to see goals; they want to see points," said league publicist Kira Wagner, stating what is not only a fact in soccer but also in every other American spectator sport, from baseball—with its bandbox stadiums and juiced baseballs—to the NFL, which hamstrings its pass defenses.
"A soccer fan in Europe can appreciate a well-played ball, a play that develops nicely," said Wagner, who played soccer at UCLA. "Even if there's no score, they'll still cheer the effort. In America, they want numbers."
The numbers they came up with—scores in the 50s, 60s and 70s—were apparently too much, though, owing to the fact that a goal was worth seven points and that after every goal, the scoring team's goalkeeper was allowed to try a 30-yard extra point worth three more.
"The scores have gotten so big that it's not easy to understand what's going on," he said. "I think next season, we'll get something closer to soccer—probably three points for a goal and one point for an extra point. Yeah, I'd have to say giving seven points was probably not the wisest decision."
From our perspective, neither was allowing the 10- to 14-year-olds' input on naming the teams, which produced a roster of franchises that resemble something found in Richard Simmons' happy closet. The Pasadena Star Gazers, the Manhattan Beach Blue Dolphins and, most egregious, the Mission Viejo Raspberry Roxies. They're fine names, for kids—my 10-year-old daughter played on an AYSO team called the Blue Dolphins—but rather unbecoming for a team of strong college players. And the league needs to keep happy players who play for free and usually at the behest of their college coaches.
"We end up recruiting the coaches more than the players," said Jeremy Gould, who is in charge of player development for the league.
The advantages for a coach are simple: their players stay in shape while getting practice, especially around the goal.
"You get as many opportunities in one game here as you'd get in a bunch of regular games," said Mission Viejo's Nicole Bucciarelli, a former UC Irvine player who'll assist UCI coach Marine Kano this season. "That's really valuable for a player."
But coaches have voiced concern that their players could pick up bad habits in the league, especially when it comes to the elimination of the offside rule.
"Yeah, I've heard that," said Kano, who has 10 players in the league. "The way I look at it, it's fun for them. They get a lot of experience playing around the goal—and I'm talking both offense and defense.And you know, the offside? I tell my players they have to learn to cheat anyway. Wait, I shouldn't say, 'cheat' . . . crafty! They have to learn to be crafty. Because it's only offside if the ref calls it, right? I think here they can get into the habit of pushing it to the limit, of not being tentative when it comes to getting down around the goal."
Overall, Hodge says he's happy with his venture's first season. The league has averaged about 500 fans per match, though it drew better at night, no doubt owing to the fact that its target market was probably playing in summer league soccer matches during the day.
So, like any good entrepreneur, he'll follow the market. There'll be more night games next season. And the scoring will change.
Unfortunately, according to Hodge, the team names won't.