IF YOU'RE anything of an old-line soccer fan, chances are that contrived, summertime promotions such as the 2005 McDonald's McSoccerfest conducted in Howard County this past weekend make you want to grind your teeth.
You know, international merchandiser of high-cal fast food to kids of all ages throws around some money and gets its name printed and broadcast for free, riding the wave of popularity that continues in youth soccer.
But this kind of event -- last year it was the Got Milk? tournament, although that moved elsewhere this year -- has a couple of other dimensions worth noting.
First, it struck this old-line soccer fan that the Soccer Association of Columbia-Howard County's complex off Centennial Lane was a place where, oh, about a gazillion people played and talked soccer on a blistering Saturday followed by a scorching Sunday.
If you're not up to speed on this, the 12th annual McSoccerfest was a two-day celebration of soccer, plain and simple, that began on The Mall in Washington and has bounced around various locations ever since.
Once on site, we couldn't help but tone down the cynicism, because just walking around and listening and watching through all the balloon clowns and Mc-this and Mc-that, one fact was unmistakable: Soccer ruled.
Loud and clear.
A total of 290 teams --170 male, 120 female -- from the Baltimore-Washington area competed over both days. The entry fee was $115 per team. There were teams of 6-year-olds and teams of grown-ups, and every age in between. Just about every soccer club you could think of from the Pennsylvania line to Northern Virginia was represented.
SAC-HC's Northrop Fields at Covenant Park was the venue, but the soccer club was more landlord than anything else for the weekend. Mickey D organizers divvied up seven of the club's eight regulation-size fields into 28 minifields, each with two minigoals, for the two days, and play on them was virtually nonstop.
Each team was guaranteed a minimum of three 20-minute games, with winners playing one or two more to determine champions.
But teams were just five or six players each, four of whom could play at a time, so what's the big deal? Well, that worked out to something between 1,500 and 1,740 players, and when you figure each arrived with at least two or three parents, siblings and others per SUV-load, that's a lot of people.
Then, you watch play. The weekend's 4-vs.-4 format, with no goalkeepers allowed, meant gobs of fundamental play. For players, that's perhaps the biggest value of tournaments such as this one.
As Walt Malecki, who coaches an under-14 SAC-HC boys travel team and had two teams entered, put it: "The whole game of soccer boils down to triangles and diamonds. That's what we're really trying to teach, and that's why games like these are so important for players."
If you don't grasp soccer's Xs and Os, Malecki meant players -- on offense and defense -- working in threes or fours. If you have the ball, you always should have two, or three, passing options -- teammates working to get open for a pass.
Or, if you're defending against a player with the ball, you should have two, or three, teammates working together to cut off passing lanes.
It's ceaseless geometry, if you will, and what makes soccer (and basketball and lacrosse, for that matter) so intriguing tactically.
Another familiar county soccer name, Jon Larsson, a one-time standout at Wilde Lake High and at UMBC who is coaching an under-10 girls travel team for the Thunder Soccer Club, said he likes the small-side tournaments for another reason.
"It allows for more touches of the ball for each player," he said of his one team, which won all four of its games. "You're always in the play on the small field. I think it helps girls, especially, to learn to be more competitive, but it's good for all players. It'd be nice to have more events like this one, in fact."
We picked up on a new thing about to begin at Covenant Park that's semi- related to the McSoccerfest. That is, SAC-HC wants to try drop-in play, probably on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
John Dingle, a longtime club coach who recently became a full-time SAC-HC employee charged with player development, said the club wants to encourage spontaneous play, and that opening fields to individual players is one way to do it.
A one-day experiment was successful -- drew about 160 players, in fact. And Soccer Dome, the indoor facility in Jessup, has had success with drop-in times, as well.
What's important about drop-in competition, Dingle said, is that it allows players to learn from one another rather than having a coach or adult telling everyone what to think. It also mixes skill levels, so that lesser-skilled players can observe and learn from better players.
Watch the club's Web site for details and the small fee that will be charged: www.sac-hc.org.
Call the writer at 410-332-6525 about anything to do with Howard County amateur sports or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.