While most soccer enthusiasts are focusing on the 15th World Cup this Fourth of July weekend, the Columbia Darby -- an under-16 boys soccer team -- will be eyeing a U.S. Youth Soccer Association Eastern Regional Championship and a berth in next month's national tournament.
Columbia (22-2), which advanced to the national qualifier by defeating Olney of Montgomery County, 3-0, in last month's Maryland State Cup title game, will take part in the four-day tournament, which begins tomorrow at three sites in New Jersey.
Regional champions from each of the four age groups will advance to the USYSA national tournament in late July in Blaine, Minn. The format for the region tournament is similar to that of World Cup with each of the 16 teams competing in pool play before advancing to the single-elimination round.
The Darby will open tournament play tomorrow morning when it faces West Virginia at 9:45 at Lawrenceville Community College. Later in the day, the Darby will play Western New York, and
Saturday they will entertain Western Pennsylvania at either Mercer Community College or Rider College.
Luke Timmins, who will move to Utah with his family later this summer, is expected to start in goal for Columbia and Aaron Dane (Oakland Mills) will serve as his backup.
Providing support for Timmins and Dane is a fast-improving defensive unit led by Mike Green (Howard), Ben Stevenson (Centennial), Kumi Walker (Howard) and Matt Young (Howard).
"We've never had a problem scoring goals, but our main ingredient has always been our defense," said Columbia coach Bill Stara, whose team of 15- and 16-year-olds shared the National Capital Soccer League under-17 regular season title.
"Our defense rarely gave up a goal last season and we struggled a bit this season against the older competition, but they've got into the rhythm now and cut down on the goals."
Columbia's midfield is skilled and deep and its attack is potent with Centennial products Brian West and Matt Stevenson.
Stara took the same group of athletes to regionals last year and they won the under-15 title, but that was as far as they could go because USYSA does not sponsor a national tournament for the under-15 age bracket.
This season, Stara had his team compete "up an age group" in the NCSL Division I to ensure quality competition, which he hopes will benefit his squad in its pursuit of a national championship.
"They weren't only playing against older kids but bigger kids who were faster and stronger," said Stara, who last fall was selected The Baltimore Sun's Howard County Boys Soccer Coach of the Year after leading a young Centennial team to a 13-2-1 record and a No. 1 ranking.
"It took some time to adjust to the pace, but they've learned how to play at that level and they made all the necessary adjustments. I think we're ready."