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Soccer craze has a new outlet: indoor arenas

Eight-year-old Kristin Becks, all 4-1/2 feet of her, is the only one back on defense for the Wolfpack. There's a breakaway. She moves up to challenge the onrushing striker, successfully pokes the ball away, and clears it with a powerful kick off the boards.

Boards? Indeed. On a recent Saturday, as a cold wind blew outdoors, the St. Charles Sports Center was packed with parents barking instructions to their child-athletes. At first glance, it looked like their kids should be wearing skates and helmets. Instead, they're in sneakers and on synthetic turf, playing a whole new version of soccer.

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The decades-old youth soccer craze in America has kicked into an all new gear. Indoor-soccer arenas are sprouting around the country like mushrooms on the damp outdoor fields left behind.

From cold-weather climes to sunny California, youth and adult leagues are embracing a version of the game made even faster than its outdoor kin by a smaller-size field and the lack of an out-of-bounds. Admittedly, indoor-soccer facilities have been around for years. But there may be as many as 340 such arenas today, up from approximately 200 just four or five years ago.

"There's definitely been a big building boom over the last five, six years, and we're often seeing two fields per facility now rather than just one," says Andy Barney, a British expatriate who is president of the National Indoor Soccer Championship in Kansas City, Mo.

He believes the rapid growth in outdoor soccer's popularity has created a steady increase in demand for indoor facilities, but that only in the past five years has the economy allowed entrepreneurs to catch up to that demand.

For kids like Kristin, the idea of year-round soccer is enticing. "She played outdoor soccer this fall and decided to continue with the same team," says her father. "She just loves it."

As prevalent as Home Depots

The construction boom is exemplified by Let's Play Sports, a San Diego-based builder of indoor-soccer arenas which opened its first facility in Utah in 1987. Today it has 16 arenas, all of them west of the Mississippi, 8 of which have opened in the just the past three years.

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There is still a slew of cities with no facilities, including New Orleans, San Antonio, and Las Vegas, says Tom Higginson, president of Let's Play Sports. The company has purchased land for four more arenas and is seeking permits at five additional locations where it plans to buy property.

Although a number of the artificial fields are owned by companies with multiple facilities, and a few cities and YMCAs have ventured into the business, some of the indoor arenas are being built by individual soccer enthusiasts who saw a need in their local community and moved to fill it.

These "soccerpreneurs" include Terry Knafl and Don Siebert, a pair of soccer dads who opened a 150,000-square-foot arena in Plainfield, Ill., in late December; James Murphy, an oral surgeon whose arena in Campbelltown, Pa., is expected to open this spring; and Mark and Shawn Conley, who opened West Virginia's first indoor-soccer arena just two months ago.

It's not just for kids

"We have mostly youth teams," says Conley, whose wife quit her job to manage their arena full time. "But we're already starting to see a lot of interest in recreational leagues by parents whose kids are very active in the sport, but who have never touched a ball themselves. It's exciting."

To be sure, the boom is not driven solely by youth leagues. Adult teams are equally prevalent in a number of locales - some of them play games as late as 1 a.m. due to the limited field availability. For aging baby boomers, indoor soccer appeals as a quick, vigorous, non-weather-dependent workout.

Some observers believe indoor arenas may help take America's soccer proficiency to the next level by creating both year-round training facilities and a sense of place where young players can feel at home and have their talent nurtured.

"Soccer all around the world, except in our country, is based on the club system where you start out as a 10-year-old playing in that club, and then you end up playing with them as a professional," says Kevin Milliken, president of the Federation of Sports Arenas, which formed two years ago and now has 37 member arenas that compete against each other, in both youth and adult leagues.

"We're creating a club atmosphere where people want to belong and participate, and where there's more to do than just watch and play soccer," says Mr. Milliken. "You can sit down and relax, have a slice of pizza, the kids can play video games, there are rest-rooms - it's a lot more comfortable than going to a park."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society