Before Mia Hamm surprised more than 2,000 youth soccer players and coaches at the Baltimore Convention Center on Monday, she sat in the building's VIP area, hidden from sight.
Hamm was — and for many, still is — the face of women's soccer in the United States. But the apex of her brilliant career, which included two FIFA Women's World Cup titles, came and went long before many of the players out in the dining hall were even born.
Now, at 42, she feels somewhat old — especially when she's surrounded by some of the country's best and brightest young players.
"Some of those players probably saw the end of my career," she said. "And there are some players in there who are going to walk up and tell me, 'My parents watched you play.'
"I'm prepared for anything."
Hamm served as the guest speaker at the 2014 US Youth Soccer national championships player luncheon Monday. Her presence was meant as a surprise to the youth teams and coaches in attendance.
It appeared that the surprise worked. The two-time FIFA Women's World Player of the Year was greeted with a rousing applause, full of screams, squeals and smiles, as she walked up to the microphone at the center of the hall.
After the luncheon, Hamm signed autographs and took pictures with the majority of the players in attendance. Boys and girls alike posted updates and photos of Hamm on Twitter, telling the world that she was there at the banquet.
The luncheon served as a kickoff event ahead of the national championships, where 96 teams earned spots through regional qualifiers to compete for national titles. The teams are categorized by both age and gender, from under-13 to under-19.
Three teams from Maryland are set to compete for a chance to be the nation's best in their respective age groups: Baltimore Celtic Dynasty 00/01 (U13 boys), Baltimore Celtic (U16 boys) and Maryland Rush Montgomery Coyotes (U16 girls).
Competition is set to begin Tuesday at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, and it runs until July 27.
"It's the end of the season, but the beginning of a week that you'll remember for the rest of your lives," US Youth Soccer president John Sutter said in a speech at the luncheon. "2014 marks a special year in soccer. It's our 40th anniversary. Forty years of US Youth Soccer. That's quite a history."
Hamm, a product of US Youth Soccer, said before her speech that she's amazed at how far the organization has advanced over the years.
"The participation rate continues to increase. There's better coaching, better facilities," she said. "Some of the players might go and play collegiately. Some of them, this might be the pinnacle of their career. But to be celebrated like this and treated like rock stars is so much fun."
While she talked at the podium, Hamm reinforced the idea that the week was about the players, and it's possible that the future of soccer in the United States could be playing at the Maryland SoccerPlex this week.
"I hope you truly see yourselves in those jerseys one day," Hamm said to them. "And it starts with this event today, and enjoying every single minute."
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