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In the United States and Illinois where football is king, soccer's foothold is becoming a bit wider.

"I definitely feel like we're not the red-headed stepchild that we used to be," ALAH soccer coach J.D. Graham said.

In southern Illinois, soccer's seen a good deal of expansion in recent years. The number of teams has steadily increased since 2000, when the IHSA held two state tournaments for 329 teams -- it's now at 447 for three classes.

That rise holds true across the United States. According to NFHS participation surveys, soccer has increased by more than 100,00 players -- add another 100,000 for girls -- in the last 15 years. It's the fifth-most popular boys sport with 432,569 players, a mere 50,000 behind fourth-place baseball.

With the economic downturn in the late 2000s and as schools have had less funding to work with, progress has slightly slowed. Still, in the last five years there has been an increase of 30 teams with the IHSA, including area schools like Pana and Newton.

Both teams were born out of successful youth soccer programs and both have booster clubs that entirely fund their program. That means paying for travel to and from matches, uniforms and referees to officiate.

It's not much compared to other sports, especially once the infrastructure is in place. But it still takes plenty of work to raise the revenue for a team. That's offset by the payoff of seeing success -- Newton was one game under .500 in its first year -- and providing students with an opportunity to show off what they're best at.

"I took over the program three years ago when we started having some very competitive junior high teams, and the tournament that we're in down in Teutopolis, we were doing very well," Newton coach Matt Creadore said. "It was kind of a push to say, these kids can play, they're kind of good at it, and that's what started the push towards the high school level.

"One of the big reasons we were able to do it -- we are self-supporting."

Holmes also sees the sport's biggest competitor in the fall as one of the reasons soccer has picked up. As more and more focus is zeroed in on concussions and CTE with football, he's seen some parents wanting to make the switch.

"Fifteen years ago, kids got hit in football and they never told anybody about it," Holmes said. "Today, I don't see that happening, but some kids are saying 'I don't want to see that happen to my body.' That especially makes soccer a little more appealing."

Warrensburg-Latham/Maroa-Forsyth coach Kevin Emery has been with the Cardinals for 12 years and has seen programs rise up. He's also seen them fall -- sometimes, a team is created for a talented class and there's not enough staying power created during those four years.

"It's always an interesting isssue with the new programs and the groups that push the school board," Emery said. "The question is, once those players graduate and move on, is there a base behind that? Is the level of play and the expectations there?

"Sometimes there's not. Heyworth started a program and I think it lasted four years."

That's partly because of the sport of soccer itself is a second-class sport in many fans' and schools' eyes to football. It can sometimes be a struggle when a new sport pops up that potentially takes away athletes from the popular gridiron.

Creadore said he's seen the community rally around the team once they've seen a few matches. While options to watch soccer on television has exploded in the last few years, Creadore knows sometimes it takes a personal touch for parents and fans to connect.

"You know, it's really come a long way, in my opinion, in a community like ours," Creadore said. "We've always been predominately football. We've found that the games we've had here, we've changed a lot of people's minds.

"People haven't been exposed to it, and once they are, they find that they really like it. That's a great thing, and it's becoming more popular in this area with the youth programs."

It's a different case in Macon County. Emery's seen the amount of high school players stay the same or decline in the area, which he partially attributes to the decline of the county's population. But the quality among that set of players is vastly different than when he started.

"Back in the day for the Decatur area as a whole, there were a couple of guys, maybe five to six really, really talented players. I think there are more players like that now," Emery said. "I still think the total of players is less, but the population of quality soccer players is up."

Creadore sees the rise of soccer on TV as part of the reason. He graduated from Olney in 2005 when opportunities to watch soccer were few and far between. With extended cable holding channels exclusively dedicated to the sport and major networks like NBC airing games, it's offered a vision of what the highest level of soccer can look like.

"My high school players are watching Premier League games on Sundays and they're wearing Chelsea jerseys. When I was in high school, we weren't doing that. Sure, we watched some games when we could, but it wasn't as accessible to us.

"I have that beIN Sports on mine and I watch all kinds of different games. And I think that's really made the younger high school players be other types of players than those just on the high school field. I think that's really helped out a lot."

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adow@herald-review.com|(217) 421-6978

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