"The market for women's soccer in Washington is almost saturated," says soccer player Sheila Jones. This is news to people who didn't know there were enough women playing soccer in D.C. to make a market, let alone saturate one. But it's true: in five years Washington has become one of the best organized cities for women's soccer in the nation. Many of the nine teams that formed the Washington Area Women's Soccer League in 1976 were happy to find women who were vaguely athletic -- anyone who knew the difference between a basketball and a soccer ball and who, given a season or two, could remember not to touch the ball with their hands. As interest in the sport started rising, players started seeping in: This season the league has 24 teams, and there are five other leagues as well, brimming with more than 60 teams in Virginia and Maryland. Karen Brown, 19, has been playing for 10 years; her mother, who used to drop her off at practice, decided to stick around and play, too. And Noreko Kaselow, 42 and 20 years a housewife, also came off the sidelines: "I figured I was too old, but I jogged all the time anyway, and my husband coaches soccer so got me interested. I just started playing." Mothers meet daughters, lawyers play housewives, the stars who captained high-school teams meet those they always chose last for their teams. Theresa Bushman of the McLean Redshins explains, "Soccer's quick, easy to pick up and to develop skills; and there's the camaraderie of a team sport." And finally, "it's better than jogging for exercise." The Tidal Basin Blues, one of the area's oldest teams, has been a driving force for area soccer since 1975. The Blues were good, and played others in the area but started seeking greater challenges as well, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. "We always played for recreation and for the fun of it. But we meant to beat everybody we came up against," says Sheila Jones, a former Blue. When team travels took them to Holland for a tournament, the idea for a national tournament in D.C. was born. But despite the flood of players in the area, that club recently disbanded. Pampered by the quality of players they had grown used to, when team members found literally half their team leaving for various reasons they decided to split up and join other competitive teams. "We were in the most skilled division and looking for skilled players. We would have had to move down or gotten less-skilled players, but we wouldn't do that. We were used to high standards," is the way Jones explained the end of the Tidal Basin Blues. Some teams are great, and some have to learn greatness. . . The Eastern Market Express is typical of how many teams got rolling. Connie Broadstone remembers being called by friends who were gung-ho on the idea of starting a neighborhood soccer team. She had played field hockey in high school and still jogged, so in the spring of 1979 she and the gang had the first practice. Broadstone had never even seen a game played before, but no one else was exactly a female Pele, either, and she at least made it twice across the field for the first morning's sprints -- something half her teammates did not do. "We were all new, but for one or two of us. Not only did we have to learn the rules but the skills as well, at the same time." Now she's part of the Washington Women Soccer Tournament Committee, Inc., formed three years ago to encourage women's soccer and import good competition. Last year, the second tournament brought teams from Hawaii and California; this year teams came from nine states including Louisiana, Ohio and Rhode I some from a neighborly way of getting exercise to a real sport, there are still many who are greeting the game for the first time as well as the neighbors. The transients at Bolling Air Force Base, for example, managed to get through this year's tournament, held in mid-October, without winning a game. Oh-for-ten. The problem, it seems, is that the women who play on the team and gain experience end up moving the next year, leaving new arrivals who gain experience only to leave the military base shortly thereafter. "The team," admits Barbara Barker, whose one year there makes her a veteran, "is too transient to be good." In comparison, the Capitol Gains have had "surprisingly little turnover in three years," says Lee Wakefield, who gets pointers from her soccer-playing nine-year old son. They're in it for the recreation, to play in a more relaxing atmosphere than some of the more competitive teams, Wakefield says. The team roster is a clue: Members range from a 19-year-old Swedish au pair who grew up playing soccer to a 41-year-old housewife who just started. This contrast gives an idea of what the next step for women's soccer may be: The influx of younger players who have, ironically, more experience than their elders is making some soccer players kick around the idea of starting a league for over-30s. KICKING IT AROUND
For information about joining a team or starting your own:
WASHINGTON AREA WOMEN'S SOCCER LEAGUE -- Maureen Park, 978-0848.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY -- 468-4176.
HOWARD COUNTY -- Maryanne Corkaran, 301/997-5774.
FAIRFAX COUNTY -- Denise Bouchet, 569-5871.
ARLINGTON COUNTY -- John McLaughlin, 532-2088.
MID-MARYLAND -- Martha Hamilton 927-0780.