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Founded right here in the South Bay, the AYSO Celebrates 50 years as America’s soccer tradition.

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    Stefan Slater

Sigi Schmid was 11 when he first played for the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) back in 1964, when the organization first started in Torrance.

“I was on a team called the Firefighters,” says Sigi, who’s currently the head coach of the Seattle Sounders. AYSO was founded by a group of passionate soccer fans, including Hans Stierle, Bill Hughes and Brian Davies, who wanted to introduce the sport (which was still growing in popularity) to local South Bay children. 

The league began with a handful of teams, and Sigi recalls distinctly being quite excited for the opportunity to play with new friends. “My parents were German, and to be able to play a sport that they knew and loved was great. I became a soccer junkie very early on—to be able to play and be local, I was very fortunate,” he says.

From the beginning, AYSO set itself apart from other youth leagues because there wasn’t an emphasis on winning. Competitiveness comes naturally to children, and the early AYSO organizers simply wanted their players to learn about soccer and have fun. 

Left: Launch year team portrait, 1964.  Center: Team portrait, 1964. Right: An AYSO volunteer carries the torch in the 1984 LA Olympics torch relay tour.

“If you focus on the improvement of each player and focus on creating a team environment where the kids work together and have fun, then you have a good chance of getting them to come back next year,” says Mike.

With local teams competing against other local teams, the first AYSO players were given the chance to socialize with new, nearby friends and also learn more about soccer. 

That concept of lighthearted fun was also stressed when it came to picking coaches and referees for the league. “My first coach was a guy named George Kay,” says Sigi. “We all called him ‘Scotty’ because he was originally from Scotland. He passed on his passion for the game to all of us.” 

That attitude of spreading positivity and passion about the sport of soccer became a crucial part of what it meant to be a part of the AYSO. Competition—that drive to win—was set aside, and the focus was instead placed on making sure all players had a chance to contribute during a game, and also that each player learned the basics of proper sportsmanship and teambuilding. 

South Bay Origins

50 years later, soccer is as much a part of the South Bay as the sand and the surf. On any given day of the week, one can see scores of children and adults practicing the sport on athletic fields up and down the coast, from Manhattan Beach to Palos Verdes. 

“We have roughly 30% to 35% of the schooling population in the South Bay,” says Mike Hoyer, a coach, referee and board member for the AYSO. The organization features 50,000 teams with more than 500,000 players throughout the nation, and children ranging in age from 4 all the way to 18 can be found playing on these teams. 

AYSO is mostly volunteer-operated, and parents and soccer enthusiasts often fill the roles as referees and coaches—more than 200,000 volunteer their time on a regular basis. That concept of volunteering is a vital part of what makes the AYSO unique and so popular. As an organization, it’s community-oriented, and it’s focused entirely on bringing players and their families together in an active, friendly and positive manner. 

“Every Saturday when I go out, you see all the fields full of kids in their AYSO jerseys,” says Sahar Milani, a communications associate with the AYSO. 

Since the organization is a notable part of the South Bay’s culture—and because it was started here in Torrance—it seems only fitting to offer a retrospective on what makes the AYSO so distinct. The league was one of the first to adopt an “everyone plays” mindset, and for a half-century, it’s been one of the most popular means of introducing both children and adults to the sport of soccer in a safe, effective manner here in the South Bay as well as throughout the nation.


The Six Philosophies

Inevitably AYSO’s beginnings in Torrance contributed to the creation of the league’s core philosophies. “We’re in the business of getting kids out to have some fun and get some exercise and get some sportsmanship,” says Mike. 
The AYSO is based around six concepts that inform the agendas of all the organization’s teams throughout the country. The first—and the most important—is the concept of “everyone plays.” 

“Winning a game with respect for your competitor is a learning opportunity,” says Scott. “Losing with grace is a learning opportunity.” 

While some soccer leagues may stress the importance of developing talent—therefore ensuring that stronger players will have more field time than more casual players—the AYSO is different. The league is open to players of all skill levels, and furthermore every player on a team has an opportunity to play during a game. No one is forced to sit out because they aren’t good enough.

“Our program is built around player development—paying attention to the success and development of a player and not on the results of each and every game,” says Mike of the second philosophy. 

Scott Gimple, the director of development for the AYSO, agrees with this point. “It’s an opportunity. What we want is for every child to play soccer. Most soccer programs are looking for the best soccer players, but we want everyone to play.”

 The next three philosophies—balanced teams, open registration and positive coaching—all reflect that initial concept of openness and casual but active fun that the first AYSO coaches practiced. 

Left: The first time orange slices are served at an AYSO game, 1965.

The final philosophy, though, represents a critical concept that can be applied outside soccer: sportsmanship. By encouraging players to interact with one another (and their coaches and referees) respectfully on the field, it’s the AYSO’s belief that players will be able to continue that sense of good sportsmanship off the field as well. 

He adds that by creating a safe learning environment for children, AYSO organizers and volunteers are instilling the kind of morals in these children that will ultimately help them later in life. The AYSO also helps parents understand that competition isn’t everything. While competition isn’t stressed, the players are typically driven to play and cooperate with their teammates, so there’s still an innate sense of competition during any soccer match. 

“When you get kids on opposing fields, they will compete,” says Scott. We never want to discourage kids from competing. But we want to make sure parents put their children’s competition in perspective.”

Right: The First AYSO National Games and SoccerFest, 1988.

It’s also important to note that the organization, while more inclined to more approachable play, does foster incredible soccer talent. Professional athletes such as Landon Donovan, Julie Foudy and Shannon Boxx all honed their skills with the AYSO when they were younger, thus highlighting that the organization’s approach can ignite a lifelong passion for soccer that’s tough to snuff out. 

Lasting Legacy

“We’ve had a ripple effect that’s affected football and youth basketball, so it’s not just the best kids playing the game all the time. Every kids gets to play,” says Mike. Ultimately the AYSO mindset helps youths become excited about soccer, develop crucial athletic and teambuilding skills, and above all it helps them develop their sense of self. Both Mike and Scott note that when kids are given the responsibility to act appropriately with their fellow teammates and coaches, it helps build their confidence. 

“Every kid gets to play.”

Lastly and notably, the AYSO helps children connect with one another. It’s extremely common for teammates who met as children to stay in touch over the years. In the case of Sigi, he’s actually quite close with a small group of other men from his original team. “We still talk, text and see each other every month,” he says.

At the end of the day, though, it’s all about what coach George Kay first instilled with the Firefighters back in the ‘60s—having fun. Mike, whose children participate in AYSO, says that there’s one thing that he observes frequently when his children play soccer—it’s the one main reason why he loves to work with the AYSO: “They just have a good time, and they leave smiling. That’s the payoff for me.” 