Players see a world of difference U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL


ST. LOUIS -- No one is going to mistake this for the World Cup, but 21-year-old Randi Goldblatt doesn't seem to mind. The soccer competition at this year's U.S. Olympic Festival may draw hundreds instead of the thousands and never see the light of a network television camera, but the sport has never had a higher American profile.

So what if all the attention is directed at today's second-round World Cup showdown between the United States and heavily favored Brazil.

"I think it's all relative to soccer," said Goldblatt, the all-time leading goal scorer in the history of the University of Maryland women's team. "I don't feel like we're getting overshadowed. We're getting more attention because of the World Cup."

Goldblatt is one of three Terrapins players on the roster of the South regional team that opened round-robin competition with a 4-2 loss to the West on Saturday night. Two other players with Maryland roots -- Jill Rutten and Thori Staples of North Carolina State -- are playing for the East team that scored a 2-1 victory over the North in its opener.

In all, there are 12 players with Maryland ties in the men's and women's competitions, which is an indication that the area is both a hotbed of youth soccer and home to some solid collegiate programs.

This could be their World Cup, or it could be a stepping stone to international competition. The international focus is on the men right now, but the popularity of this year's World Cup and the inclusion of women's soccer as a medal sport in the 1996 Olympics has created greater opportunities all around.

"The only unfortunate thing is that a lot of us don't get to see the [World Cup] games," said Terrapins forward Michelle Demko, who had a goal and an assist in the South's opener on Saturday night. "But it's an honor to be here. It's a great opportunity for us."

Perhaps to an even greater extent, the men recognize the coattail effect that might result from the presence of the World Cup.

"It's a pleasure to have the World Cup here in the States," said forward Mark Jonas of Bowie, a veteran of several international competitions who plays collegiate soccer for North Carolina State. "It's a great opportunity to have it here. I think 90 percent of the players here are hoping for the sport to broaden, so eventually there will be a pro league."

The more immediate goal, however, is to gain experience and recognition for future international competition. The men's soccer competition in the 1996 Olympics will be restricted to players under 23 years of age, so all of the men competing in St. Louis are eligible for consideration.

"It's all kind of connected," said Mark Harrison, a 21-year-old midfielder who was the leading scorer (30 points) for Loyola last year. "With the World Cup, soccer is booming, so people are coming out to see what the younger players can do and what we have for World Cup '98. The immediate goal is the Olympics in Atlanta, but the ultimate goal is the chance to play for your country in the World Cup."

The Olympic Festival soccer competition is more than just an exhibition. It is -- for some of the women's players -- an audition for the U.S. National team. The next step is National Team Camp and, hopefully for some, a berth on the U.S. team that will compete against Norway, Germany and China in the Chiquita Cup, which will be played later this year in several East Coast cities.

That kind of international women's competition would have garnered scant notice around the United States a year ago, but it should get a boost from the World Cup.

"It [the World Cup] is good because it brings more people out period," said Staples, a 20-year-old defender from Joppatowne who played with the 1993 U.S. Women's National Team. "If people are watching them, I think it helps bring out more people to watch us. Soccer is growing rapidly, especially with the girls."

No one seems to feel that the Olympic Festival soccer competition has been lost in the shuffle. The crowds at the St. Louis Soccer Park have been relatively small, but they have been lively and appreciative.

"It's understandable that the World Cup gets so much attention," added Rutten, a 25-year-old midfielder from Silver Spring who plays professionally in Sweden. "It's the biggest sporting event around the world. It deserves to get the attention.

"I think there is a camaraderie. We all support each other. It's a silent sport, so the men and women need to stick together."


Players with Maryland ties who are taking part in the men's and women's soccer competitions at the United States Olympic Festival in St. Louis:


Name .. .. .. .. ..Pos. .. .Team .. .. ..Hometown .. .. .. ..College

Mark Jonas .. .. ..M/F .. ..South .. ... ..Bowie .. .. ...N.C. State

Mark Harrison .. .. .M .. ..South .. ..Clearwater, Fla. .. .. Loyola

Hamisi Amani-Dove ...F .. ..East .. ... ..Columbia .. .. .. .Rutgers

Clint Peay .. .. .. .D .. ..East .. .. ...Columbia .. .. ...Virginia

Zach Thornton .. ...GK .. ..East .. .. ...Edgewood .. .. .. ..Loyola

A.J. Wood .. .. .. ..F .. ..East .. .. ...Rockville .. .. ..Virginia

Tod Heskovitz .. .. .M .. ..North .. ..St. Paul, Minn. .. ..Maryland


Name .. .. .. .. ..Pos. .. .Team .. .. ..Hometown .. .. .. ..College

Randi Goldblatt .. ..F .. ..South .. ...Palm Beach, Fla. ...Maryland

Michelle Demko .. ...F .. ..South .. .. .. .Largo .. .. .. .Maryland

Erin Taylor .. .. ...D .. ..South .. ...Jupiter, Fla. .. ...Maryland

Thori Staples .. .. .D .. ..East .. .. .Joppetowne .. .. .N.C. State

Jill Rutten .. .. ...M .. ..East .. .. .Silver Spring ...Sweden Club

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