Although Columbia is a self-proclaimed hotbed of youth soccer, residents don't often get to see world champions play in their own back yard.
Yesterday, more than 200 youngsters, their parents and coaches got just such a treat, on a field at Harper's Choice Middle School.
They stood on the sidelines as members of the United States Women's National Soccer Team played -- and lost -- a scrimmage against members of the under-15 and under-16 boys' Maryland State Olympic Development Team.
The 90-minute scrimmage, which the boys won 4-1, was part of the U.S. Team's training for the Chiquita Cup, which begins Sunday at George Mason University in Virginia. The Cup is a six-game international tournament that will take place in three East Coast cities.
The U.S. Team has been training in Howard County since Saturday.
Young soccer league players from Columbia and from around Maryland, dressed in cleats, shin guards and soccer uniforms, toyed with soccer balls on the sidelines during the scrimmage, even starting a few games of their own.
"I can't believe this many people turned out just to see a scrimmage," said Gregory Dash, president of the 4,000-member Soccer Association of Columbia.
But members of the Columbia Cannonades, the under-14 girls league, understood.
"This is probably the only chance we'll get to see them live," said Becky Purtell, 13.
Brooke Barcheski, 13, said the United States is proving that soccer is not just a man's sport. "They're women and they play just as good as the men," she said.
"But the women have more finesse," added Monica Serianni, 13.
Some of the boys at yesterday's event had a slightly different perspective.
Kyle O'Brien, 12, said he is not accustomed to seeing a team full of women. "I may see one or two on a team, but the women are competitive. They play just as well as the guys," said the Columbia Rovers soccer team member.
"But guys are more physical and faster," said Scott Buescher, 12, a member of the Columbia Chelsea team.
His comments proved prophetic, as the boys, capitalizing on their greater speed, swept past the women's team.
Anson Dorrance, the U.S. Team's head coach, said that playing the boys' team was excellent preparation for the Chiquita Cup.
"Many people don't understand that 15-year-old boys on an Olympic Development Team are playing on the same level as a women's national team. Sixteen-year-old boys would beat us," he said.
Jim Barlow, coach of the combined under-15 and under-16 boys' team, said it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play against the best women players in the world. "Although we scored a few more goals than them, we learned a lot," he said.
After the game, about 100 people waited in the rain for autographs from the U.S. Team members. Youngsters with soccer balls, T-shirts, posters and autograph books waited for the women to finish their sprints in a post-game workout.
"I don't think a lot of people know the women are the world champions," said Kate MacFarland, 15, a Columbia Cougar member and Baltimore County resident. "It's like that in almost every sport. But I'm expecting we will get more recognition as soccer grows in America."
Members of the women's team were pleased with the attention.
"This is really nice. Hopefully, we will make an impression and inspire them to play on the national team one day," said Mary Harvey, a goalkeeper, while boys and girls surrounded her with outstretched pens and autograph books.
Brianna Scurry, another goalkeeper, said the enthusiasm helped her to forget the team's loss in the scrimmage.
"We were doing well at first, but eventually, [the boys'] speed got the best of us," she said. "But I'm very impressed with all the support here."