The symbol of suburban life on the cusp of the 21st century might well be the shin guard or a pair of muddy cleats.
In Columbia, soccer has exploded to the point where dozens of leagues attract hundreds of players supported by thousands of parents who spend what probably seems like millions of hours there.
The community will embrace the sport on Memorial Day weekend when, for the 25th time, Howard County sponsors the Columbia Invitational soccer tournament. Nearly 300 teams from 25 states and Canada are expected to participate in an event that has become a major draw for college recruiters and an economic boon to the area.
"Today, soccer's all around you," said Peter DiMarco, the girls varsity coach at Hammond High School and the father of two soccer-obsessed children, ages 9 and 12. "My kids read soccer magazines. They want the latest soccer cleats. They talk about the advantages of shin guards.
"We're constantly on our toes, in our cars [and] vans taking them everywhere," he said. "It's a sport that we all love."
The Columbia Invitational represents the confluence of sport and business in a community where, 25 years ago, there was no such thing as organized soccer and hardly much of an economy to speak of.
In 1971, four years before the annual tournament was founded, soccer enthusiasts Felix Rausch and Doug Goodsir patched together the Soccer Association of Columbia -- with about 60 players.
"When they moved here, there was no soccer in Columbia," said Louise Waxler, the tournament's executive director for the past 12 years. "They looked for anyone with a foreign accent, because that was the international game."
SAC, which sponsors the Columbia Invitational, now has 6,000 members. The three-day tournament -- which last year had a budget of around $200,000 -- is expected to draw as many as 5,000 players from as far as Arizona. Adidas and Pepsi are sponsors.
Hotels from Columbia to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport are booked, organizers say (the tournament works with Tournament Housing Services of New Jersey to help arrange airfares, car rentals and hotel rooms). Restaurants are poised to feed hungry players -- not to mention their coaches and parents and other die-hard soccer fans.
"The magnitude of the business that it brings not only to Howard County but to Montgomery County and into Baltimore County, the airport hotels, Baltimore in the Inner Harbor, it is huge," said Sharon Baker, director of sales and marketing for the Columbia Sheraton, the tournament's headquarters hotel. "They scramble to look for rooms even in Annapolis."
Local tourism officials have no statistics on the economic impact of the tournament, but Waxler estimates that it will bring $1 million to $2 million to the local economy.
"Hotels alone would probably be a little over half a million dollars," she said. "And then, of course, you have all the food and the shopping. Those kids are here really for three days. It's great visibility for the community."
After registration tomorrownight, play begins Saturday morning on fields at 16 locations. All teams are guaranteed at least three games. Playoff rounds will be held Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, with the finals scheduled for Monday afternoon at Fort Meade.
DiMarco, who coached the Hammond High School girls' varsity team to a state championship two years ago, remembers playing soccer when he was younger. Back then, he explained, it was mostly the children of immigrants who brought an affinity for the sport from places such as Italy and Mexico.
"The support wasn't there," he said. "It was all pockets. Now it's like everywhere. It's an explosion."
This year's Columbia Invitational is expected to include 286 teams, many of them state cup, regional and national champions. Organizers had to turn away more than 100 teams because of a lack of space to play.
"We've tried not to really grow the event [any more] because of the lack of facilities," said Waxler, who owns the Columbia-based Integrated Sports Management, a sports consulting firm. "So, we're kind of limited based on our resources."
The increased visibility of the U.S. men and women's national teams and the expansion of professional leagues have turned players such as Mia Hamm and Cobi Jones into sports stars. The National Soccer Hall of Fame opened a 40,000-square-foot museum and sports complex in Oneonta, N.Y., last year.
The American Youth Soccer Organization has nearly 630,000 players from 4 1/2 to 18 years old and 250,000 volunteer coaches, referees and administrators in 46 states.
The Columbia Invitational gives those hoping to continue playing competitive soccer after high school a chance to showcase their talent in front of hundreds of college recruiters.
More than 300 colleges and universities from as far as Maine and Colorado have registered.
That entitles them to a player profile book with information on every player 16 and older.