I have always chuckled at the memory of one of my first girls soccer experiences back in New England. My daughter Aimee, then 5, would spend most of her recreational team’s games holding hands with her little blond girlfriend while all the other boys and girls ran circles around them. Late in the season, desperate to get her to do something—anything—on the field, I offered Aimee a candy bar of her choice if she scored a goal. She left her friend in the dust, dashed down the sideline, stole the ball and kicked it squarely into the tiny oblong net that served as the target. Even as I was jumping up and down in unabashed glory, my daughter had already run back downfield to re-embrace her friend’s hand.
“Don’t you want to score another goal?” I yelled across the field.
“Do I get another candy bar?” Aimee asked with a knowing smile.
That was, as I was about to learn, just the first (and the cutest) of many questions I would face in my new life as a soccer dad. When our family moved to Montgomery County in 2013, my youngest child, Angie, started playing too, meaning that I would soon get to rejoice after even more goals. Just as quickly, however, I began to agonize about what can feel like a minefield of confusing and expensive choices that I hadn’t faced before.
Aimee never truly fell in love with soccer and left the sport at age 10 to join a theater group. Angie, however, appears to be a different story. She attends every home game of the Washington Spirit, one of only nine teams in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the only professional soccer league for women in the United States, and she could tell you the name and number of every player on the U.S. team even before they won this year’s Women’s World Cup in France. When it’s too cold to play outside, Angie props an old mattress against the living room wall to absorb the blow of kick after kick. If there’s a birthday sleepover the night before an 8 a.m. game, she willingly leaves the party early to get her rest. Above all else, she hates to lose.
“I’m not worried about making a college team,” she says with the nonchalant confidence that comes with being 10 years old. “The national team might be harder, though.”
I’m 58 and probably should know better, but who am I to quell her passion? I have made her the same vow regarding her dreams that I offered my three older children: “If it’s really what you want, and you’re willing to put in the work, then I’ll do just about anything to help you.”
“Welcome to Montgomery County soccer madness!” Mark Cantor said, his voice booming through the iPhone. I’d called Cantor, a building contractor who lives in Potomac and serves as president of the board of directors for the Maryland State Youth Soccer Association (MSYSA), for advice on how to proceed with a daughter who shows promise. Cantor’s daughter, Jenna, now 26, started her soccer journey the same way Angie and hundreds of thousands of other county children have since 1971: through Montgomery Soccer Inc., known as MSI. The organization serves about 11,000 boys and girls ages 4 to 19, according to its president, Doug Schuessler, and focuses on recreational and intermediate-level leagues coached by parents; MSI also has travel teams.
Jenna was thin and fast with no special affinity for soccer when she joined her first MSI team in 2000, Cantor says. “At first, you see the swarm, the beehive of tiny little players chasing the ball all over the field. Then, after a few years, certain kids start to separate out from the pack. …That’s when, especially in this county and the D.C. region, it really starts to get interesting, especially for girls.”
Virginia and Maryland rank third and fourth nationally, behind only Colorado and Utah, in terms of the number of Division I college soccer players they produce, according to Washington, D.C.-based accountant Patrick O’Rourke at scholarshipstats.com. About one in eight Maryland girls high school players goes on to play at one of the nearly 1,700 colleges offering soccer programs, from community and junior colleges to NCAA Division I schools.