It's not every day that a pack of female athletes comes barreling into the public consciousness as dramatically as the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team has in the past two weeks, sliding past opponents in the FIFA Women's World Cup with a passion and grit that has wowed fans.
Luckily for the 11 young girls on the Soccer Association of Columbia's Under-11 United Classic II soccer team, their parents and coach saw the top-flight role models coming before the hype, giving the girls time to take in the example.
Before the tournament started last month, each of the girls was assigned a national team other than the United States to root for, watch on TV and learn from, said Paulo Amaral, the SAC team's manager.
"The idea is that the girls would root for a team along with Team USA and see how their style of play may differ," said Amaral, whose twin daughters Olivia and Sabrina, 10, of Ellicott City, play on the team.
The result was that the girls were fully absorbed in the drama of the tournament and had an "extra incentive to watch the matches," said Lucy Esposito, who serves as the team's unofficial social coordinator and whose daughter, Isabella McConnell, plays on the team.
Esposito, also of Ellicott City, put together a bracket showing all the games and matching each girl with her assigned team.
Coach Janelle Lee talked to the girls about what to watch for on the field.
"Some of the take-aways that we wanted the girls to get is the advanced skills and the techniques, especially with the goalies," Esposito said. "The other goal was sportsmanship, and to witness the spirit of play at this level."
Ellicott City resident Joe Barrato, whose daughter Isabella Barrato plays on the team and who first suggested assigning the girls the international teams, said the experience varied for each player. But across the board, he said, girls were learning basic tenets of their sport from some of the best women players in the world.
"I would sit down with my daughter and just tried to point out things, like how they would pass backwards," said Barrato, who has coached various SAC teams over the years himself.
This World Cup came at the perfect time for the girls, Barrato said, because at 9 or 10 years old, they are at the point where their play starts getting more skillful and nuanced.
"I think they're at a point where they're going to transition," he said.
At a practice Thursday night, many of the girls on the team said they had learned a lot from watching the international and national players compete.
"You gotta really look at your team and see what they'll do," said Sabrina Amaral, who was assigned Colombia but watched the U.S. team consistently as well. "There were a lot of headers that made the goals."
Headers — which have become the highlight of the U.S. team's tournament, thanks largely to the heroics of striker Abby Wambach — were mentioned by many of the girls, who sometimes show a tentativeness to head the ball themselves, said Barrato.
"My daughter picked up on how they would use (headers) to attack, and even how they would use it to pass," he said.
Brianna Gatt, 10, of Marriottsville, who was assigned host-country Germany, gave a simpler reason for liking the tournament.
"I liked watching the soccer games, because I just like soccer," she said.
Lexi Hamilton, 9, of Laurel, was assigned Brazil, who faced the U.S. in a dramatic quarterfinal.
For that game, Hamilton was rooting for the home team, but just barely.
"You were torn though, weren't you?" asked her mother, Jackie, who said her daughter "wanted to go on" with Brazil in her team's bracket, but is too big a U.S. fan at heart.
Lexi smiled at her mother sheepishly in response.
Sidney Jones, 10, of Mt. Airy, was assigned Nigeria, and gave a more worldly view of watching the tournament.
"I just like how you can watch the other places on the Earth and see how good they are at soccer, and not just watch the U.S.," she said.
Esposito noted that because the girls play in a highly competitive travel league, it is important for them to see the passion of the national players as well.
"They're aggressive, they're passionate about their sport," she said. "And the World Cup ties in very well for this level of play in Howard County."
Amaral said he may try to gather a group of the girls together on Sunday for the final between the U.S. and Japan, a game that has his daughter Olivia, who was assigned Japan in the team's bracket, especially excited.
"I'll be the winner every time," she said with a smile.