Big Splash

During this summer’s World Cup, American sportswriters once again contemplated the future of the world’s most popular sport here in the land of the free and the home of the Braves. And despite an excellent run by the U.S. men’s national team, many scribes still felt compelled to remind Americans that the Beautiful Game would never enjoy the popularity of our “traditional” sports.

I don’t know any of these hacks, but I’m fairly confident that many must be cut from the same cloth as my grade-school gym teacher. In the late ’70s, when my friends and I discovered Pele, the NASL and the joys of playing soccer, Coach Carter mocked us, called us “commie-ballers” — and unwittingly taught us something about xenophobia.

But sportswriters can deny the truth for only so long: Soccer is enjoying a great deal of popularity. Witness the fact that youth soccer leagues have far more players nationally than Little League Baseball(TM).

And if you want further proof, come to Asheville.

Why? Well, for starters, it’s the home of a professional soccer team, the Asheville Splash.

You may not know about the Splash — they don’t do much advertising and don’t get much media exposure — but in their first season, they’ve won the hearts of fans throughout Western North Carolina. The average attendance for a Splash home game at Asheville’s Memorial Stadium is more than 1,000 people. That’s a staggering feat, considering that the local professional basketball team, the NBDL’s Asheville Altitude, struggled to put fans in seats in its inaugural season. Even with the backing of the mighty NBA, marquee players such as Duke’s Chris Carawell, and a team that played exciting basketball, the Altitude fell woefully short of meeting its initial attendance projections.

Oh, and did I mention that the Splash is a women’s soccer team? But that should come as no surprise to fans of American soccer, who have seen the sport’s greatest successes come from our women players.

Who can forget the indelible image of Brandi Chastain celebrating her victorious penalty kick over China in front of 90,000 screaming, flag-waving fans as the U.S. women’s national team won the 1999 World Cup final. And in a historical twist of fate, there’s a common denominator in the success and popularity of the women’s game at both the national and local levels: Stacey Enos.

Enos has an impressive soccer pedigree. In the early ’80s, she was part of the dynasty of successful teams at the University of North Carolina, winning three consecutive NCAA titles. From 1985 to ’87, Enos was a member of the first U.S. women’s national team. Legend has it that on the eve of the team’s first international appearance in Italy, the players stayed up late into the evening sewing patches on their jerseys and making other alterations to their uniforms, which were hand-me-downs from the men’s squad. Some 17 years later, members of the national team — such as Mia Hamm — would be inking million-dollar deals to pitch products ranging from cleats to sports drinks. And some 17 years later, Stacey Enos is still playing professional soccer — in Asheville.

Enos is an assistant coach/player with the Splash. At age 38, she still laces up her boots and runs the field for 90 minutes — often playing against women half her age. Her other soccer duties include coaching the women’s team at Warren Wilson College. The Asheville Splash plays in the Women’s National Premier League, competing against teams in the Central Conference’s Atlantic Division (which runs from northern Virginia to Florida).

The Splash itself has an international flavor. Four players on the roster hail from the Trinidad and Tobago national team (including Ricarda Nelson, who’s scored 20 goals in 60 appearances for her national side in international competition); Judith Chime, who also tends the nets for the Nigerian national team; and Emma Wirkus, a 20-year-old goalie from Down Under who’s been tapped as a member of the Australian national team pool.

Don’t get the impression that international ringers are carrying the Splash, though. In fact, reveals general manager and co-owner Steve Woody, one of the team’s goals is to develop local talent from the ranks of area youth-soccer teams. One such recruit is former Asheville High School standout Hillary McKay — a two-time Western North Carolina player of the year who’s signed on to play college ball right here at UNCA.

Accordingly, the Splash is growing its future stars (and fans) via a tiered system of developmental teams for players of all ages. Through the team’s soccer academy, players can hone their skills and advance from the Splash Futures to the Splash Juniors and on to the Splash Reserve team, whose members get to train with the pros … and perhaps win a spot on the roster. Splash players are the coaches — a unique arrangement that enables kids to learn the game at the feet of the women they cheer for.

“I brought the team here not so that the community could support [it], but so that the team could support the community,” notes Woody.

That philosophy seems to be paying off. At a recent match against the Jacksonville Jade, the stadium was filled with young players, their soccer moms and dads in tow. The end result was a 2-1 overtime loss for the Splash, but the game was packed with riveting soccer action — not all of it on the field.

A group of rowdy fans calling themselves the Splash’s Bathtub donned bathrobes, singing and chanting for the entire 90 minutes –as if they were in Wembley Stadium, not Memorial Stadium. After the match, Splash players gathered under a tent as throngs of young fans hovered for autographs.

Jinelle James, who at age 26 has already seen 10 years of international play for her island nation, signed everything from shirts to shoes. What was fascinating, though, was the way she and her teammates interacted with the kids. As one youngster approached her, James called out in a melodic Caribbean accent: “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in ages.” It seemed as if everyone was on a first-name basis; the traditional barrier between players and fans was replaced by a familiarity that usually exists only between players and coaches.

“They put themselves in a role-model position,” avows Woody. “The kids know all of the players on a personal level. It’s something you don’t see very often in professional sports.”

As the sun slowly set and fans headed for the gate, a lone figure sat in a folding chair signing her name to anything and everything. And as the last autograph seeker filed out, Stacey Enos lifted her head, giving me a quizzical look: I was a little old, but I did have a pen and a notebook, and she seemed ready to oblige should I request her John Hancock. Instead, I asked her about the past — about being part of the vanguard of her sport. She smiled a weary smile and spoke about how far the game has come during her career. “We just had over 1,000 fans come watch women’s soccer — in Asheville! It’s unbelievable,” she exclaimed. “It’s so important to see these kids. They are the future of the game.”

Later, as I walked to my car, I was struck by the fact that I’d just interviewed a modern-day Babe Ruth or Walter Camp — a true sports pioneer — and all she could talk about was the kids and the stars of tomorrow.

Maybe the sportswriters are right; maybe soccer will never enjoy the celebrity of football or basketball in America. Players like Enos, it seems, are too busy teaching the game to the next generation — too busy focusing on what is right and good about sports.

For additional information, call 281-4921.

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