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A Parents' Guide to Soccer

It smelled like victory. My 9-year-old daughter, Leigh, was out in front as her soccer team rushed downfield. As I screamed her on, her teammate passed her the ball, and Leigh was ready to charge forward and whale it past the goalkeeper.

"Run, Leigh! Get it!" I screamed, wild with excitement. Leigh booted the ball into the back of the net and jumped high with victory  -- almost as high as I did. I cheered so loudly I didn't hear the whistle. I didn't notice the other soccer parents were strangely still. Until one of them tapped me on the shoulder.

"Uh, Moira? She was offside. That didn't count."

Ouch. That day I realized the plain truth: My daughter, caught up in the soccer craze along with nearly every other child in the nation, had ventured into a world I knew nothing about. Sure, I could pick the legendary Pele out of a lineup, but that was about it. When I was growing up, there was no girl's soccer and very little boy's soccer. It was never on television and you rarely, if ever, read about it on the sports page. It was time for me, a budding soccer mom, to get educated.

Because soccer is here to stay. The United States Youth Soccer Association has three million members and another 600,000 are registered with the American Youth Soccer Association, and those numbers are growing. In small towns and big cities, more unusual is the child who isn't on a soccer team. And last year's Women's World Cup, complete with superstars, role models, and nail-biting last minute wins, only boosted the sport's popularity.

That popularity may also be because soccer is just plain good for kids. Soccer is a sport where biggest and strongest isn't always best. Though big players can certainly succeed, smaller, petite players can as well, if they are faster and more agile than larger players. And soccer teaches teamwork: The best player is the one who knows instinctively to give up the ball to another player with a better chance of scoring, and who understands that the act of giving up the ball is a play unto itself. Sage advice for life, all in the form of fun and games.

It's important for us parents from the presoccer generation to learn and learn fast. Our kids are going to be heading and bunting and blocking whether we understand it or not. Isn't it more fun to go along for the ride knowing what you're looking at?

The Laws of Soccer

In soccer, the rules are known as the laws. The object of the game, of course, is to get the ball into the opponent's goal without using your hands or arms.

Play stops if the ball goes out of bounds. If it goes out on the sidelines, a throw in is required (see "4 Moves That Every Young Player Should Know"). If the attacking team sends the ball over the end line, the defensive team (the one whose goal the ball is near) gets a goal kick. The defensive goalkeeper places the ball in the goal box, and he or another player on his team kicks the ball upfield. If a defensive player kicks the ball across that same end line, the attacking team is awarded a corner kick. The attacking player hopes to kick the ball high and set up a teammate for a possible goal.

The penalty that is most often called and that is the most confusing, especially for nonplaying parents, is offside. "The offside rule makes soccer different from other team sports; it was created to encourage support play by the attacking team," says Enrique Meana, director of coaching for New Jersey Youth Soccer. The simplest way to explain the rule is that when the ball is not between an attacking player and the goal, there must be at least two defensive players between the attacking player and the opponent's end line when the attacking player is in the opponent's half of the field.

Other common penalties include charging from behind, "handing" the ball (touching it with hands or arms), holding, kicking, tripping, pushing, hitting, or charging an opponent, and kicking the ball while it's held by the goalkeeper. Breaking these rules means your opponent is awarded a free kick. A free kick can be indirect, meaning a kick to another player in the hope of setting up a goal, or direct, meaning the kicker can score without first passing to another player. A free kick is taken where the penalty took place. A penalty kick is a direct free kick from the so-called penalty spot, awarded for a major foul committed by a defensive player in his own penalty area.

Backyard Drills

Want to help your child practice at home? Take a few minutes and try these drills.

One vs. one with a cone: Take an orange construction cone and place it on the ground. Take turns being attacking and defensive players. The goal is to knock the ball against the cone. Play two minutes with no break, switching from defense to attack anytime someone takes control of the ball. The small play area helps children hone dribbling skills and learn to challenge the player with the ball.

One vs. one with two lines: Set up two lines on the lawn, 20 yards apart and 10 yards wide. (You can mark the corners with cones or chairs.) Each player stands behind an opposite line. Take turns dribbling the ball to the center, where the other player tries to take the ball away. This improves dribbling, forward movement, and attack skills.

Agile dribbling: Set up an obstacle course of cones on your lawn. Have your child dribble the ball through and around obstacles. From time to time have a "freeze" moment, forcing the child to control stopping the ball and then starting again.