I went out scouting around for a high school soccer practice last week. There were none. I knew there wouldn't be.
For the first time since the high school soccer program began in the early 1970s, soccer practice failed to start Aug. 15.
The school system of one of the richest counties in the United States claims that budgetary constraints forced a cutback in pay for soccer coaches, delaying the soccer season one week.
Varsity soccer coaches were the only varsity coaches whose pay was cut, since only football and soccer coaches were being paid for two weeks of summer practice.
Varsity football practice went on as normal Aug. 15.
Status, more than lost pay or the delay in starting practice, is the real issue at stake. County soccer coaches and players want and deserve equality with football coaches and players.
Since all evidence points toward soccer as the county's dominant participatory sport, coaches and players wonder, justifiably, why they are being treated in a second-class fashion.
A comparison of the two sports makes it clear that football is not the dominant sport here as it is in most counties.
Children here start playing soccer at very early ages. Many start as early as 6, and there are camps that accommodate even younger children.
The Soccer Association of Columbia, which oversees youth soccer, claims 3,800 members. SAC runs the county's largest sporting event each year, a tournament on Memorial Day weekend.
No other single sport organization comes close to SAC's numbers. Youth football leagues, facing high costs and declining interest, disappeared completely a few years ago, but have made a comeback recently.
Early soccer learning has translated into terrific results at the high school level. County high school soccer squads have won 19 state boys championships since 1976. Last year alone they won two of four state boys titles and two of two state girls titles.
Since 1976, county football teams won three state titles, including two in the last two years.
Consider the national impact. This is a small county in a small state. But when it comes to producing soccer talent, it rivals any subdivision in California, New York, Texas or Florida.
Howard County currently has at least one home-grown player on all four United States national teams.
Desmond Armstrong (Howard) plays on the U.S. World Cup team. Dante Washington (Oakland Mills) plays on the U.S. Olympic team, an under-23 squad. Hamisi Amani Dove (Wilde Lake) and Clint Peay (Oakland Mills) are members of the U.S. under-20 squad. And Brock Yetso (Centennial) is a member of the U.S. under-17 team.
Can any other county in the United States duplicate that?
Armstrong, a former Olympian, will have accomplished nearly everything a soccer player ever dreams of when he participates in the World Cup in 1994.
He played on the U.S. Olympic team in 1988, a South American professional team and a U.S. professional team. He is an articulate, personable and outstanding ambassador for the sport.
Washington, a forward for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, has led the nation in scoring at Radford University, where he is a senior.
Peay is a sophomore at the University of Virginia. And Amani-Dove is a freshman at Rutgers University.
Amani-Dove, a forward, appears destined to follow in Washington's footsteps. His U.S. team won the under-20 Liege Cup in Belgium Aug. 9.
The U.S. team won five straight games and outscored its opposition, 16-1.
Amani-Dove scored seven goals and was chosen the tournament's outstanding player.
What national impact has the county's high school football program had? Three home-grown gridders have played in the National Football League during the past 20 years. And two more were in pro camps this summer.
The swell of county-produced soccer talent also extends throughout the collegiate soccer world. Many top-caliber Division I college soccer teams have a county player.
The football program produces a steady trickle of Division I college players, and is as fine as any county high school program in Maryland. But soccer is a sport that's played 12 months a year here, while football is strictly a fall sport.
There's the high school soccer league in the fall, indoor soccer is played during the winter and club soccer takes over in spring. And there's even a summer league now.
The fledgling nine-team Metro Collegiate Summer Soccer League, which concluded Aug. 15 at RFK Stadium's auxiliary field, featured two Columbia teams battling for the championship. They were the only county teams in the league.
The Columbia Bays, the younger of the two teams, knocked off the Columbia under-23s in a shootout. The Bays rallied from a 2-0 deficit on goals by Adam Lotkin and Jon Larson. The Columbia under-23s had goals from Whitney Keiller and Junior Armstrong.
County players also dominate statewide at the club level. Six county club teams earned regional berths as the result of spring competition, although none advanced to nationals this summer. In the past, three county club teams have won national titles.
Seth Morrison (George Washington University) -- a former Centennial High player -- played on a Virginia team, The Vista, which won the under-19 national club team championship this summer.
Soccer here definitely shares the spotlight with football in the fall. And anything short of equality in coaching salaries and practice starting dates between football and soccer shouldn't be tolerated by parents of soccer players.