When Ward Lay and the San Antonio Thunder were awarded a North American Soccer League franchise in 1974, they found a local youth soccer community that barely existed.

A handful of neighborhoods had organized youth soccer programs, most notably the Prospect Hill Athletic Club, which had thriving adult and youth leagues since the 1960’s. Due to the lack of local competition, the Yellow Jackets organized matches against border community and Monterrey teams. YMCA also held summer leagues, and local private and parochial High Schools played in statewide competitions. In 1974, San Antonio Parks and Recreation took steps to organize a soccer league. Alex Perolli, the first coach for the Thunder, assisted in opening their program in a ceremony at Normoyle Field on November 23rd.

It was apparent to Lay and Head Coach Don Batie that the barren youth soccer landscape needed to change. They believed that a well organized, city-wide youth program would be a plus for their club’s long-range prospects. Lay felt strongly enough about the program’s importance that he funded a Youth Commissioner on the Thunder staff to lead the efforts.

San Antonio Youth Soccer Takes First Steps

San Antonio Thunder Head Coach Don Batie
Thunder Head Coach Don Batie (Image credit: Don Batie Personal Collection)

Batie, while Head Coach at Chico State University in California, had formed a successful youth soccer organization in a community a fraction of the size of San Antonio a few years earlier. When he arrived in Texas, he found it difficult to believe that a city with 859,000 residents had such a limited youth soccer world. Batie approached Thunder owner Ward Lay and received his approval to move forward. Batie joined the youth soccer community as an interested resident until the level of interest supported club involvement.

His first step was to meet with a senior San Antonio ISD (SAISD) administrator. Batie found a receptive audience for soccer at the District on an unofficial level. In a June interview, Batie told me, “They didn’t see it as a goldmine for them. They saw it as an opportunity for a lot of kids to get involved in sports that were not involved in sports.” Batie’s next stop was with San Antonio Parks and Recreation, who expressed interest in an integrated and expanded soccer system. “They very much wanted the program. They wanted the numbers in their program and said they would provide all the field space needed.”

SAYSO Organizational Efforts Begin

Batie’s efforts led Parks and Recreation to set up an organizational meeting at Trinity University on September 30th. A small number of interested parents and representatives from existing leagues attended. The name of the emerging soccer organization was San Antonio Youth Soccer Organization (SAYSO). The association also had a new slogan, “If you want to play soccer…all you have to do is Say So.” Batie spoke at the meeting and told the small group assembled that 5,000 kids were a reasonable target to shoot for in the first year of the program, noting that the DFW Metroplex had over 20,000 registered players already.

In the San Antonio Light, Batie commented on the limited number of youth soccer players in the community at the time. “I do think there is something wrong when a city that is 11th in population in the country has somewhere between 600 and 1,600 kids playing soccer.” A seven-person steering committee was formed, tasked with identifying a coordinator and recommending a geographical organizational breakdown. SAYSO was structured as an umbrella organization, coordinating local leagues and playoffs, in conjunction with SA Parks and Recreation.

SAYSO was Part of a Broader Outreach Program

As part of their community outreach programs, the Thunder visited local schools to conduct mini-clinics for kids and physical education teachers. Batie, assistant Jim Forrest and players like Jose Berico would make a short Thunder presentation, screen an NASL promotional film featuring Pele and then adjourn to the field where players would demonstrate soccer skills in small group settings. Flyers were distributed at these clinics for kids to express their interest in playing in an organized league. The Thunder had a goal to visit every school in San Antonio by 1976 seasons end. By March, the club had estimated they reached 25,000 kids through school outreach efforts.

Continuing their 1975 efforts, GM Jim Smith would also send American players like Mark Stahl, Dan Counce and Peter Mannos to local malls to drum up interest in the club and SAYSO. Stahl remembers these visits to malls. “They were radically different than going to schools. The schools were more enthusiastic, in some ways, a captured audience. In the malls, you were trying to catch the interest of people passing by. We would go out and do some juggling, mostly getting traction from kids who were more open and amazed at different things than adults. It was more fun for the professional players to interact with the kids than it was an adult passing by in a mall.

San Antonio Thunder youth coordinator Larry Nees
Larry Nees-Thunder 1976 season SAYSO Coordinator (Image credit: 1976 SA Thunder KICK Magazine Game Program)

Larry Nees Hired to Coordinate First San Antonio Youth Soccer Program

Though he would have preferred the program coordinator role to remain in the local community, Batie convinced Lay that the Thunder’s initial assistance would be necessary to expand the youth program rapidly. Batie would soon leave for a lengthy scouting trip, so the club hired Larry Nees to coordinate youth soccer efforts. Nees had spent the previous years starting a youth soccer program from scratch in Santa Rosa, California. Batie said he rapidly turned the school and clinic programs over to Nees and focused on the 1976 season.

Nees arrived in San Antonio on October 6th and immediately began work as Director/Chairman of SAYSO. By that time, many kids reached in Thunder outreach programs had contacted the Thunder office to express interest. It became evident that the word was out as Nees presented at the second organizational meeting at Trinity the next night. Nees commented on how taken aback he was at the crowd’s size—positioned as a small group before the meeting. After seeing the event size, he created a town-hall allowing for group participation. He remembered the meeting ended after midnight.

San Antonio Community Ready for Youth Soccer

Nees, now 93-years old, lives in Northern California. He shared his good fortune in finding the open and supportive community he encountered in San Antonio. “From the beginning, when I think back over it, I am blown away by the people, by the hundreds, and the schools who responded in San Antonio. I have the fondest memories of all of those people.”

Nees commented that many of the questions he received that night, and in other speaking engagements, involved the ability for girls to play in SAYSO, specifically whether there would be non-coed teams. There were few Girl’s programs of any type in the City at the time. As a result, Nees said mothers of interested girls became a driving force in SAYSO’s formation. He related an amusing story about Parks and Recreation and how “Girl Power” helped overcome field issues the league encountered.

Initial Enthusiasm Encounters Roadblocks

Nees heard from District Commissioners that Parks and Rec’s promised fields were not available, so he arranged a meeting. He found that Parks and Rec had not accurately anticipated the level of interest in soccer. “I went to Parks and Recreation [to seek help], and they stiffed me and gave me nothing but excuses.” Nees continued, “My next meeting with them, I brought five volunteer women with me. They were right up-front with [Parks and Rec.] ‘You said before all those people that night at Trinity that we would have soccer fields. Where are they?’ Boy, they rolled right over after that, and we had fields starting the next day. Girl Power!”

SAYSO set an ambitious launch date for the middle of January 1976. It soon became apparent that a lack of coaches who knew anything about soccer was the main barrier to team formation. Batie, Nees, and players conducted several coaching clinics to help. Batie was impressed with how quickly the local soccer community took charge of these programs. “I did the curriculum for the clinics and set them up. I usually did the introductions and some early work in each clinic, and I tried to get the local coaches and clubs involved. More and more, I turned the sessions over to the local and school coaches. I could see growth and development. It didn’t take very long in San Antonio to develop a really solid coaching structure.”

SAYSO 1975 Youth Soccer Clinic Itinerary
SAYSO Coaching Clinic Itinerary (Image Credit: Don Batie’s personal collection)

Inaugural San Antonio Youth Soccer Season Kicks Off

The season began in mid-January as planned, and the Mayor proclaimed January 10th as “Super Soccer Saturday.” The Thunder hosted a Media Invitational Doubles Tournament at a local country club during the week leading up to SAYSO’s season. Twelve 16-18-year old Boys teams kicked off the SAYSO season on that day. 2,200 Boys and Girls played in eight independent SAYSO Districts around San Antonio in the first season.

Each District organized teams into six Boys and four Girls Divisions (A-F), ranging in age 6-18. Participation was mandated. 11 years old and younger players were guaranteed to play at least 50% of the time, and older age groups at least 25%. Coed teams formed for ages 14 and older because few girls signed up. Schools provided most of the teams in SAYSO, some having enough players for multiple squads. Don Batie’s two young daughters played for their school teams in SAYSO.

More Players than Coaches

San Antonio Elementary School Soccer Field Dedication
Kelly Elementary PE Teacher and SAYSO District Commissioner Roger Rodriquez at 1976 field dedication ceremony (Image credit: SA Light 5-30-76 Sourced from Genealogy.com 7/15/20)

In a San Antonio Light interview, Nees said that more players registered, but the lack of coach volunteers limited the number of teams. “There isn’t that many people who know a great deal about soccer. Nobody wants to come forward and coach knowing they don’t have any knowledge of the game.”

Roger Rodriguez was an SAISD physical education teacher and became involved in soccer at his elementary schools through a program set up by another teacher who had previously played college soccer. He became involved in SAYSO after seeing Nees at one of his many speaking engagements. “One night, Larry Nees spoke at our Optimist Club. I invited him to speak, and as soon as he finished, he pulled me outside and asked if I would consider working to help develop youth soccer.” Shortly after, Rodriguez joined the SAYSO Board and became Commissioner of District II (primarily Westside elementary schools). He commented that PE teachers set up SAYSO teams at elementary schools all over the City, but not all participated.

Short First SAYSO Season Ends with State Playoffs

1976 SAYSO Season
Laszlo Simon, a Hungarian who played professionally with the NPSL New York Generals, coached Nautilus to 4th place State position. (Image credit: SA Light 3/14/76 Sourced from Genealogy.com 7/15/20)

The first season was short, wrapping up in April. In March, playoffs were organized by SAYSO at Olmos Basin fields to identify four teams from each Boys Division who would qualify for State South Texas Youth Soccer Association (STYSA) playoffs in Houston.  This tournament was a San Antonio vs. Houston region matchup, a small-scale version of State playoffs today. San Antonio hosted the 19-team State Girls playoffs, mostly against teams from the Houston Bay Area region. Rodriguez coached one of the Boy’s teams that traveled to Houston for these playoffs. I am not entirely sure, but these may have been the first STYSA State Championships. A few weeks after the conclusion of State tournaments, City soccer playoffs brought the inaugural season to a close.

1976 SAYSO Team Picture
1976 SAYSO Real Thing team picture (Image credit: Ed Garza Personal Collection)

Ed Garza, a former Mayor of San Antonio, played in the first year of SAYSO for the Real Thing (named after a Coca Cola commercial) on the Northwest side of the City. The local Coke bottler also provided the soccer balls used by SAYSO that season. Garza remembers the fun he had in his first season. ” My memories were all positive. Our coach was a skilled player, and we had Spanish speakers and English speakers. After that, I joined a team at my elementary school that was also part of SAYSO.”

The Thunder hosted a SAYSO night at their match against the Los Angeles Aztecs on May 8th. The eight Championship teams from the just-completed season (5 Boys and 3 Girls) received recognition at halftime. The Boys and Girls Under-14 Champions played in separate preliminary games before the start of the NASL match.

After SAYSO was up and running, Larry Nees stepped aside and took an equipment manager role with the Thunder. His final involvement in the organization was to help organize an end of season banquet in April. The 1,000+ volunteers in attendance elected new officers for the 1976-77 season. A tentatively scheduled summer season never was played; therefore, the new season did not begin until October. The number of players grew from 2,200 to 4,000 in the second year. 220 teams played in nine Districts.

San Antonio Youth Soccer’s Deep Impact on School Soccer

When SAYSO began to play, intermittent attempts to integrate soccer into the San Antonio ISD were already underway. Jan Schoondergang, who had moved to San Antonio from The Netherlands, organized five unofficial teams in local elementary schools in 1974. He later integrated eleven teams into SAYSO for the inaugural season.

Ken Cooper, a local attorney and soccer fan from England, had approached the Northside School District with a plan to include soccer in their athletic programs in 1974. Despite the expression of interest from seventy boys, the school board refused to set this program up. His players ended up in a local recreation league that year. Cooper was not surprised by the decision, commenting in the San Antonio Light that football coaches expressed how they felt about soccer when they would tell their players, “If you don’t do well, I’m going to send you down to the soccer team.” Cooper also moved his seven teams to SAYSO in 1976.

Could Soccer Have Actually Replaced Football in San Antonio Schools?

In January 1976, the San Antonio News ran a three-part series called the “Soccer Solution,” proposing that football be deemphasized in San Antonio high schools, replaced by soccer as the primary sport. They listed many reasons, including competitiveness, cost, and safety, as to why this made sense for a predominantly Mexican-American population. The article also pointed out the resistance soccer was receiving from football-oriented Athletic Directors, noting that every AD in the San Antonio School District was Anglo, whereas 68-90% of the students, depending on the District, were Mexican American.

Interviews conducted by these News correspondents with officials from multiple local school districts found little interest in pursuing this path. San Antonio was not alone in resisting soccer. The News also interviewed the Superintendent of the Dallas ISD, where soccer was far more advanced than South Texas at the time. He commented that the most difficult problem he had to deal with in implementing a soccer program in his District was football coaches’ opposition. Some were actively opposing soccer programs, keeping them off fields because they would “tear up the field” and refusing access to locker rooms for club soccer teams.

San Antonio ISD First Local District to Embrace Soccer

Dr. William Elizondo, who had three sons playing in YMCA leagues in the early 1970s, was elected as SAISD Board President in 1976. In June, he told me that he began lobbying for soccer as an official sport when he was first elected to the Board two years prior but wasn’t able to gain traction. After becoming president, he finally secured the votes to move soccer forward in the District in 1977. “The reason why I wanted it is that a lot of young men and girls who were not able to play football or basketball can become great in soccer. It helped them develop their minds and also made them stronger and developed educationally and develop a purpose in life.” He then named San Antonio community leaders like Ed Garza, who grew up playing the game.

Soccer Programs Face Expected Resistance

At the Board meeting approving soccer as an official sport, Roger Rodriguez was moved from teaching to administration and tasked with setting up the first formal school soccer programs in the District (34 Boys and Girls teams in 17 Middle schools). Rodriguez chuckled when relating how he learned about his new role. “I never asked for the job. Monday night, the school board approved [the position]. Tuesday, my appointment was in the newspaper. Thursday is when I was asked if I wanted the job.” He commented that the organizational tasks he learned through SAYSO set him up for success. “Not many people [in the District] had experience in soccer, and it was all because of Larry Nees when we first started, getting all those youth teams together.” Rodriguez was also involved in the start of High School Soccer when introduced into District High Schools in 1980. The State sanctioning body, University Interscholastic League (UIL), finally approved soccer as an official sport in 1981.

Rodriguez related a story about the initial meeting with District Athletic Directors, primarily football coaches, after the District announced his appointment. He remembers the meeting moderator, who wasn’t a big fan of soccer, opening the meeting with a mixed message. ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news you are going to get paid for ten extra days. The bad news is we are going to start soccer.

The main objections from the AD’s at the meeting were not a hatred (though that did exist in some) of soccer, but more about the extra responsibilities and impact on fields, facilities, and diversion of talented athletes. Rodriguez also discussed the challenges in recruiting teachers to serve as coaches but mentioned it wasn’t that important because of the SAYSO efforts that started five years prior. “The kids are the ones who really excelled. They had the experience playing soccer and were the experts.” He continued, “A lot of them started in elementary school. As in all sports, the sooner you start playing, the better.”

The Thunder’s Legacy of Youth Soccer Lives On Today

The number of kids playing youth soccer in San Antonio has exploded over the years. SAYSO has been renamed the Alamo Area Youth Soccer Association (AAYSA) and now serves 22 clubs throughout San Antonio and eight surrounding counties. Other organizations host thousands of kids in soccer leagues, with a wide range of objectives and competitive levels. San Antonio FC, a United Soccer League professional team, now entering its fifth year, has created a four-team nationally recognized Youth Soccer Academy, which has produced professional players. Most Public, Private and Parochial High Schools in and around the region have soccer teams.

The boom expanded soccer all over South Texas. From its early beginnings, STYSA has grown to serve 29 member associations and over 100,000 kids.

Ed Garza’s Early Soccer Involvement Pays Off

Former San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza 1979 Youth Soccer photo
Ed Garza playing SAYSO Youth Soccer for Woodlawn Elementary in the 1979 (Image credit: Ed Garza Personal Collection)

Ed Garza’s early involvement in soccer almost paid dividends for San Antonio. He spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to bring MLS to the area in 2005. A $13 million soccer complex at the site of the old Brooks AFB on the city’s South Side was also planned to be part of the failed MLS project. Garza is now President of the AAYSA and is also the founder of a novel non-profit soccer organization called the Urban Soccer Leadership Academy in San Antonio.

Today, Roger Rodriguez is happy he was involved in soccer from the beginning. “Because of soccer, it has opened up a lot of avenues for kids….who would have ever thought there would be scholarships for kids who play soccer. Now it is a standard all over the country.

He also fondly remembers the Thunder “It was like a dream come true to see professional soccer players at Alamo Stadium. They were accepted by the community, and if they were there now, I think the stadium would be full.” He also gave credit where it was due for the start of youth soccer in the community. “Everything started with Larry Nees. If it hadn’t been for him, there would not be any youth soccer here.”

The San Antonio Thunder Lasting Legacy

That is unlikely. Youth soccer had too much momentum all over the country for it to remain out of the mainstream in San Antonio forever. The Dallas Tornado proved in North Texas that active support from a professional soccer club could hasten the game’s growth with youth. Despite being in San Antonio for only two years, the Thunder’s efforts, led by Ward Lay, Larry Nees, and Don Batie, gave the sport a kick start in the San Antonio region=one that is entirely integrated into the community’s fabric today.

Sources for this article include: (1) San Antonio News newspaper archives (sourced online from Newspapers.com) (2) San Antonio Light newspaper archives (sourced online from Genealogy.com) (3) Don Batie personal collection