If you want to pick a thriving business in Greater Cincinnati, try anything connected to a soccer ball.

On any given Sunday, or Saturday, you'll find kids kicking around a futbol"”in rec leagues, in "select," on schoolyard playgrounds, at high school varsity matches and so on. From the sprawling practice fields at Voice of America Park in West Chester, over to Miami Whitewater in Harrison and to Clear Creek Park in Anderson, the Odysseys and Explorers are packed into over-stressed parking lots and gravel roadways.

The Cardinals, the Classics, Premier, Cincinnati United, Beechmont Soccer Club, Symmes United, the Sycamore Arsenal, Cincinnati West, Warren United"”the leagues and teams seem to keep proliferating.

The Girls Southeast Soccer Association is one triumphant example of the trend. On its latest available Form 990 (a tax form for non-profit organizations that's made public by the IRS), Girls Southeast reports annual revenues of $487,883 and net assets of $769,421. That's no street corner pick-up game.

With a staff of three paid coaches, the league draws revenue from team dues, fundraising efforts, camp fees, tournaments, concessions, even the sales of shirts, photos and balls.

Girls Southeast is, of course, just one example of why Greater Cincinnati is generally considered one of the strongest pre-teen and teen soccer markets in the continental United States.

While professional and semi-pro soccer has certainly struggled in the Tri-State, as it has in so many other markets, it nonetheless thrives at the grassroots level: high school, middle school, elementary school. Heck, even kindergartners play "rec," scrambling back and forth on the fields in dusty, kinetic clumps.

Cincinnati is actually ranked No. 2 in America for school-age soccer participation per capita (just behind Kansas City), with 101,000 active players each year in our metro market, according to a study conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
There's a trickle-down effect to this per-capita feat, and that effect can be seen in the crowds at the Soccer Villages and Dick's Sporting Goods of the region at the start of any season. The line starts here for Adidas cleats and there for Diadora uniforms. Take a number and wait.

You can talk about the World Cup and its global influence on the popularity of the game, but in Cincinnati I trace all the good will and team spirit to the Heather Mitts generation. Mitts, of course, is that hometown success story, the St. Ursula Academy champ and teen prodigy who wound up on the U.S. Women's team with Mia Hamm and the rest. She went on to play pro, and can now be seen as a soccer analyst on ESPN.

But I'll always remember Mitts when she came home in 2004, to play a final exhibition game with the U.S. Women's team against New Zealand. My family was in the stands at Paul Brown Stadium when the P.A. system announced this Cincy match represented the largest crowd to attend a national team soccer game outside of the Women's World Cup. (And yes, they trounced the Zealanders, 6-0, but Mitts & Co. did it with style and sportmanship.)

Mitts didn't leave the field when the game ended, either. She stayed for two hours, signing anything shoved her way by thousands of area soccer kids (many who arrived in uniform themselves): T-shirts, souvenir programs, photos, soccer balls, even soggy cleats. My girls were amazed to walk away with a treasured autograph. I was amazed she did it all for free, for the love of the local fans. In that moment, Mitts became the ultimate role model, a personification of the loyalty that Cincinnati soccer can instill in the hearts of the players.

Months later, when I happened to speak to her dad"”Christ Hospital cardiac surgeon Don Mitts"”I relayed that anecdote and my daughters' amazement. Dr. Mitts was hardly surprised at his offspring's generosity. Heather exemplifies the soccer spirit in this town. Going global doesn't change that.

One of soccer's strongest proponents in this town is Buddy LaRosa, the pizza king, who quietly hands out soccer scholarships to teens across the region, for those who are scoring on goal and in the classroom.

Yes, high school football is the sport that's first in Buddy's heart"”and always will be.

But in this city, teen soccer has earned its own way as a solid enterprise. It's an industry here to stay, and not just for kicks.