As a kid, Kyle Beckerman always had his eye on the goal. He painted pictures of U.S. soccer stars, wowed classmates at Crofton Woods Elementary with his command of a soccer ball and even tagged his adolescent signature: "USA #15."

Attending the World Cup in 1994 crystallized his dream.

Twenty years after he watched a World Cup game in Washington, D.C., the 32-year-old Beckerman is set to play in his first World Cup for the United States, which kicks off its tournament Monday against Ghana in Natal, Brazil.

"Each day, it sinks in more and more that it's really happening," Beckerman said.

The midfielder told local reporters on a conference call last week that only when he arrived in Brazil and the tournament began would he "feel like it's really happening, like I'm not just dreaming."

He certainly knows what it's like to dream of a World Cup moment, having signed everything from yearbooks to Mother's Day cards with the "USA #15" tag as a child. It's much less likely he understood what it would take to earn that national team jersey.

'He'd dazzle us'

Though he starred in many sports early on, it wasn't hard to map Beckerman's future, those who know him said.

At Crofton Woods Elementary, "the sport of choice at recess was soccer and the games were dominated by older kids," said John Hanczaryk, a classmate. "When Kyle started scoring goals, the 5th graders were in awe. They kept asking, 'He's in second grade?' "

By 8, Beckerman was a soccer prodigy, Ryan McCauley said.

"After youth league games, Kyle would grab me and say, 'I want to try some moves on you,' " said McCauley, a longtime friend. "Then he'd dazzle us with all this stuff that we'd never seen. He smoked me. The guy was three or four years ahead of us, skill-wise."

Other sports beckoned but fell off his grid. In 3rd grade, Beckerman chose to play both rec soccer and football in the fall, but he soon dropped the latter — though not because of the challenge.

"Going straight from one practice to another, he didn't like changing all of that football gear in the car," said his mother, Meg Beckerman.

Beckerman grew up in Crofton, in a quiet, leafy neighborhood where he and other kids played pick-up games of street hockey, or lacrosse or soccer in the Beckermans' well-worn yard. Sometimes they simply stood in awe as the shaggy-haired kid with the gifted limbs performed a juggling act.

"In middle school, Kyle would bounce the ball off his knees, chest, head and feet, and we'd keep count of how many times he did it before the ball hit the ground," Hanczaryk said. "When he got into a rhythm, he could top 1,000. He was always out to break his record."

His bedroom walls were peppered with posters of Pele and other soccer stars, as well as a watercolor of Tony Meola, goalie of the 1990 U.S. World Cup team, a painting done together by Beckerman and his mom.

Come summer, he swam and played tennis at the Pointer Ridge Swim and Racquet Club in Bowie. But soccer always intervened.

"Kyle and his friends found a grassy area beside the pool, put some lawn chairs together to make a goal and played there," Meg Beckerman said.

'A big-boy decision'

The final sport he shed was wrestling. He'd followed older brother Todd onto the mat. Four years Kyle's senior, Todd Beckerman starred at DeMatha, going 208-1, then made All-America at Nebraska and is now the wrestling coach at Brown University.