MONDAY'S FINALS in the 25th annual Columbia Invitational Soccer Tournament were a joy, if you were into high-quality soccer. No wonder 350 colleges - a tourney record and certainly one of the best turnouts for any youth tournament - sent recruiters who control hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships to be meted out this year.
However, if you like watching local kids win, you wouldn't have missed much by passing up a drive Monday to Fort Meade's parade grounds.
That's because out of 20Howard County boys and girls teams competing in 19age groups - 19 of those teams from Columbia - only one captured a championship. The Columbia Sharks avenged a group-play loss to capture the under-10 girls title from an unbeaten New Jersey team. The bracket included three other Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County teams and one team each from Western Howard County, Damascus and Baltimore.
Only two host teams - the under-10 and under-15 boys - got to semifinals. The other 13 local squads played their tournament-minimum three games and took Monday off. They won five, tied eight, and lost 26 of a combined 39 games. Rain-smudged bracket-boards showed that, with several exceptions, the losses were competitive, most by one or two goals.
Not that Columbia teams should have won every bracket in their own tournaments. But one title and two semifinalists in a tournament you sponsor? And SAC/HC's decision not to enter three of 10 girls brackets - two at under-15 and one at under 17? That hasn't always been the norm. Something's happening here.
Asked what all the early local exits meant, John Dingle, SAC/HC's director of player development, replied, shaking his head, "The best of the best are here."
His part-time boss, coaching director John Ellinger, the Frostburg alumnus, former UMBC coach and an Ellicott City resident who spends much of his time heading the Florida residency program for the U.S. under-17 national boys, said, "The level of play gets higher every year. It's getting tough to compete."
Which brings up an important question in youth soccer and other youth sports: When should winning - at the expense of community and team loyalties - replace a locally oriented club's initial mission of teaching the game and attendant life values to local players?
Of 284tournament teams, the 92-page program listed 142as State Cup or U.S. regional finalists, meaning teams heavily, if not primarily, focused on winning regional and national age-group titles. Fifteen were from Maryland, including five from Bethesda, five from greater Baltimore, two from Potomac and one - SAC/HC's under-19 boys - from Howard County.
Some whisper that Columbia's soccer excellence is waning. But SAC/HC has never had more children in the recreation-level ranks, which feed travel ball. A number of standout Columbia players who learned the game in SAC/HC competed Monday - for Bethesda's girls teams and for Soccer Club of Baltimore's boys, to name two examples.
Why do they choose to play for teams outside the community? You hear reasons such as superior players benefit most from being with competitive peers, better coaching, pressure from high school coaches that their players stick together in club ball, and better fields.
And true, SAC/HC hand-picks its own older teams to shoot for State Cups and higher honors; five have won national titles. But SAC/HC selects its teams with an important, more-and-more debated twist: limiting the number of "guest," or noncounty, players allowed.
Travel teams play to win; players and parents accept that going in. But winning at neighboring clubs' expense, raiding their best players, especially with all that scholarship money - and, now, professional aspirations - beckoning, bedevils community-oriented programs such as SAC/HC's.
"There are certainly people who say we should be recruiting," said Jim Carlan, SAC/HC's president, who opposes raiding other clubs just to win more. "We've got a different philosophy. We're here to serve county players, and we're going to do the best we can with the talent here."
Carlan likes the tough tournament field, which he calls "a benchmark for where we are. I've never had a complaint, and our teams keep entering, knowing a lot of the other teams recruit from, say, a 50-mile radius. Everyone knows they're going into the lions' den.
"Sometimes we get through," he says. "And when these same teams that lost last weekend enter second-level tournaments, they do well; they bring back trophies. It's relative. We're still up there among the best in the country."