I was standing on the sidelines, watching another questionable call in favor of the home team, when I heard her behind me: "For the love of God, how can you say that, Ref? That was another terrible call, just terrible!" The ref looked toward the sidelines but did nothing. Turning to see who was supporting my son's team of 11-year-olds so vocally, I found, leaning forward and flushed with anger, a nun, the relative of a teammate. She stormed the sidelines for most of the game, hooked on the action of youth tournament soccer. That particular tournament was held on Long Island, but every month there are tournaments somewhere, from sea to shining sea and beyond. They are open to teams known as "select" or "travel" teams, made up of players supposedly a cut above the average for their age groups. Travel teams also consist of willing and able parents -- willing to spend a weekend watching soccer hours away from home and able to afford it. The National Capital Soccer League, this area's official travel division, has some 300- plus teams, with players between eight and 18. Parents soon discover that travel soccer can be expensive if a team tries to take in too many tournaments, but it can also be fun for all. The trip to Long Island was the first tournament away from home for my son's team, the Chantilly Stallions. It won't be the last, although it's not just a matter of picking up and going; there are specific procedures that must be followed: The team must submit an entrance fee, which will be refunded if the team is not accepted but kept if the team is accepted and then drops. The fee for the Long Island tournament was $100, paid from a club treasury that gets its money from registration fees and fund-raisers. The team must send in a history including its won-lost record and past performances in tournaments; poor performances can lead to rejection. If a team is accepted, housing arrangements must be made for players and parents. Players pair up, and each pair is assigned to a host family from the team running the tournament; my son and a teammate stayed with the family of an 11-year- old player. Parents and other relatives generally stay in a motel, leaving the care of their players to the host family. Gifts must be purchased -- one for the host child and one for his parents. Players also exchange club patches after each game, and these must be obtained before setting out. Expenses mount, but the yield on your investment comes from watching. The players, waiting in the lobby to be picked up by strangers in a strange city, are like miniature pros, with their duffel bags, fidgets and small talk, fingering the few dollar bills they have been given "just in case." Their hosts arrive and the players are driven off -- for the rest of the weekend their parents will see them only in their uniforms on the field. Tournament action is intense; in Long Island, overmatched by more experienced teams including one dynamo from Canada, the Stallions had to view the games as character-builders. And that's not always bad -- especially since they seemed to do just that. Countless times the team fought back, the players offering one another encouragement. On one play a Stallion made a desperate leap at yet another Canadian rocket shot, and hit the ball with his hand. The Canadian was awarded a penalty shot, which he made easily. The offending Stallion was dejected and near tears until a teammate ran to him, patted his back and said, "Don't feel bad. It was the only thing you could do." Experiences off the field proved equally valuable, as the kids made new fri and two, that our home still seems OK to him. There are also spin-off benefits -- the dorm-like atmosphere shared by the adults in the motel and, in our case, the chance on the way home for a leisurely ride on the Staten Island Ferry, floating past the Statue of Liberty with Manhattan as a backdrop. Thanks to travel soccer, my son saw it; and that's something he'll remember longer than the scores of the tournament games.