Popularity of club soccer among girls still climbing — but not without a price

Published: Saturday, June 2 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Like thousands of other girls in Utah, Emma and Tess Burick, identical twins from Salt Lake City, played soccer year round largely with one goal in mind: It would lead them to the college game.

This was the carrot that was dangled in front of them by their club coaches: If you want a soccer scholarship, you have to play the sport year round. The Buricks began playing soccer at 7. By 10, they were playing at the club level — winter, spring and summer — and by 14 they were playing the high school season in the fall, the indoor season in the winter, and the club outdoor season in the spring, plus club tournaments during the summer and winter holidays.

Their bodies rebelled when they reached high school. As a freshman at Judge Memorial, Tess began to experience back pain while playing club games on back-to-back days and by the second day she couldn't play. An MRI revealed Pars Fractures in the L4 and L5 vertebra. The injuries sidelined her for several months and continued to bother her enough that she was forced to miss part of her sophomore school season and the winter and spring club seasons. Still struggling with back problems in the fall of her junior year of high school, Tess tore the ACL and meniscus in her left knee, sidelining her for another nine months.

Then there was Emma. In the spring of her freshman year, she tore two of the four major ligaments in her left knee — the ACL and MCL — plus the meniscus, knocking her out of action for more than six months. In the fall of her senior year, she tore the ACL and MCL in her other knee.

The sisters worked with private strength trainers and rehab specialists to return to play, but by the time their senior years arrived they had had enough. They quit soccer.

"Injuries were a big part of it," says Emma of the decision.

Says Tess, "I was either injured or coming back from an injury or training so I wouldn't get injured. Playing year round there was no break. It was constant training. It caught up with us."

The Buricks' story is hardly an anomaly. Because of their wider hips and other traits unique to their gender, female athletes already have a predisposition for injuries, especially to the knee. Add to that the stop-and-go, hard-cutting nature of soccer itself, combined with the year-round demands of the sport, and you have a recipe for injuries.

"We knew 14 girls during our high school years who had torn ACLs," says Emma. "Some of the girls had torn them more than once and one girl had torn it three times."

Dr. Russ Toronto, who has been treating sports injuries for more than 30 years in Utah, has had hundreds of soccer patients in his office. Although there have been few comprehensive studies on the subject, he believes that club soccer significantly increases the risk of injury, particularly non-contact knee trauma.

"The problem is that it is played year round," says Toronto. "They're never getting time off, and as a result they're getting repetitive-stress injuries because they're doing so much of the same thing all the time. Time away from the sport would be helpful. If you keep doing the same thing, the muscles fatigue and it loads up the ACL. It gets pulled in the same direction all the time and never gets to recover."

Club soccer has taken girls sports by storm, riding the crest of Title IX and the increased visibility of soccer, especially the U.S. women's team. Of the more than 41,000 kids who play club soccer under the auspices of the Utah Youth Soccer Association, half are girls. UYSA has enjoyed phenomenal growth. The organization started in Utah in 1978 with about 2,000 kids and enjoyed steady growth. In 1994, when the U.S. hosted the World Cup, boys and girls membership soared from 20,000 to 30,000 almost overnight. In the last five years, with the continued emergence of Real Salt Lake and the increased TV exposure of the sport, it has experienced another growth spike, adding 6,000 kids. Many of the elite teams were in action last month as clubs competed for state championships in the annual State Cup in Orem.