University City

The glory is born in hot, repetitive summer practices

This October, as chilly autumn breezes rattle the leaves on the willow oak trees, a midfielder for the Vance Cougars will make a perfect cross. Bang. A nimble striker will slam the ball past the keeper and into the goal.

We'll cheer our fool heads off, just as we did this past week when the American team tied Brazil in the final seconds of the women's World Cup quarterfinals.

The heroics may appear effortless, like Megan Rapinoe's magically zooming pass to Abby Wambach, whose header saved the U.S. from elimination. The U.S. went on to win the match in a shootout.

But such moments of glory really represent the end of a long, hard journey.

If you want to see this for yourself, come out to the Vance fields on a July morning at 7 a.m. Vance head soccer coach Kyle McAvoy already has his team out running, doing calisthenics and getting fit, even before they start practicing soccer in a couple of weeks.

Nearby, members of the Vance football team are out there practicing, too.

By 7:30 a.m., it's already as hot and humid as a Turkish steam bath. The young men won't know if they make the cut until after tryouts next month, but they don't hold back. It's not fun, but it's necessary.

After stretching and exercises, McAvoy has his group run two miles, even as the heat continues to climb.

"Soccer is a game for runners," a player said.

Meanwhile, the football-squad workout is going strong on the opposite side of the parched and tattered turf. Lots of wind sprints. There are some quick, strong athletes going out for the football team.

It is interesting to see them in action without the Darth Vader costume that is an inseparable part of American football.

American football is a defining icon of our regional identity, like NASCAR and quarreling over ketchup versus mustard barbecue. There's no sign of it becoming less central any time soon.

UNC Charlotte is putting 40-million-plus eggs into its football stadium basket, and Southeastern PBS stations plan to broadcast college football along with "Nova" and Big Bird.

Meanwhile, the Southeast doesn't have even a single Major League Soccer team.

Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, even Dallas and Colorado have solid teams and strong attendance.

Here in Charlotte, we fill Panther Stadium for international soccer matches, and UNC Charlotte and Davidson College both have solid programs for women and men.

Even our American Youth Soccer Organization teams are strong.

The Vortex, an AYSO all-star team coached by Chad Irons that practices at Mallard Creek Park, finished second in a recent tournament in Virginia that included ranked club teams from the mid-Atlantic states.

But soccer still plays second fiddle here. I don't understand how anybody able to sit, captivated, watching a NASCAR race go round and round and round on TV can call soccer "boring." But, hey, I'm a transplanted West Coast Yankee - the worst kind, I'm told.

None of this matters much out on the practice field in the summer heat.

A lot of these young athletes enjoy playing any number of sports, like Megan Rapinoe and her twin sister Rachel, whom Soccer America called "multisport junkies" as kids.

On both sides of the Vance practice fields, next fall's stars, in both flavors of football, are too busy competing with the merciless heat to much care about such "you-say-potato-I-say-potahto" silliness.

A long perfect pass for an All-American touchdown. A brilliant setup and goal worthy of "o jogo bonito," as Brazilians call "the beautiful game."

It all begins here, with pushups and two-mile runs, and with coaches willing to come out and work with our sons and daughters in the heat and ozone.

Most of all, it begins with these young athletes who follow their dreams, but who understand that hard work in the heat of summer is what turns dreams into victory in the cool decisive days of fall.