In Howard County, it's a ritual. As sure as the seasons, as spring and fall approach, hundreds of households return to the fields each weekend. Children don uniforms, shin pads and cleats. Water bottles are filled and lawn chairs are unfolded on the sidelines. Soccer season has been upon us for weeks. It's a passion -- part of the county's fabric of life.
So taken with the fervor in which Howard embraced the game, Sports Illustrated in 1989 dubbed the county "the Heartland of U.S. soccer." The designation was well deserved at the time. Home of the Maryland Bays, a professional soccer team, Howard also produced from its organized youth soccer program some of the best young players in the country: Desmond Armstrong, a 1988 U.S. Olympic team member; Dante Washington, who played on the Olympic team this year, and Clint Peay, who plays for the University of Virginia and serves on the U.S. men's national team.
The Bays are defunct, victims of poor gate receipts. At least youth soccer continues to thrive. Some 3,800 children are enrolled in the county's largest youth soccer program, the Soccer Association of Columbia, a patchwork of neighborhood teams that spreads across most of the county.
Howard retains the distinction of being the only place in the state where real uniforms are issued to its youth players. A Saturday's drive attests not only to the colorful array of uniforms, but to the spirit whole families bring to the game. Therein may lie the rub.
Like pee-wee baseball, youth soccer has its critics who believe the rigidity and (adult?) emotions in highly organized sport often lead to unhealthy competition and a skewed perspective on winning.
The criticism cannot be passed over lightly. To the Soccer Association of Columbia's credit, team rankings have been abolished for players ages 7 to 14 and no neighborhood or team distinction is made for 5- and 6-year olds enrolled in clinic programs. This, of course, does not do away with competition. But it helps remedy some of the potentially uglier aspects of organized youth sports.
Parents should take caution: Their own excitement in the game should never send a message to their children that winning is everything. The object is to have fun, and when it comes to soccer, Howard countians do it with gusto. Let's play ball!