It is a sparkling 70-degree Saturday morning in September. Across the region, youngsters are pulling on shinguards, squeezing feet into tight-fitting cleats and deciding how they feel about being No. 3 or No. 8 or No. 16. It's the first day of the new soccer season.

On a narrow street in Takoma Park, the Douglas family is racing around collecting the gear that will sustain them for the next five hours. Soccer balls, water bottles, Ritz crackers, sunscreen, sunglasses. A jump rope. Two purple shirts: one child's size large, one adult size large. Two blue shirts: one child's size medium, one adult size large. A referee's whistle.

This is a story about recreational soccer. About people who rise on Saturday mornings and know that, no matter what else they do that day -- drive the kids to birthday parties, go to piano recitals, stop by the office -- they will spend at least one hour watching children running up and down a field after a black-and-white ball.

Like death and taxes, soccer is a given for many Washington area families. "If your kid isn't into soccer, there's actually no one left in the neighborhood to play with on Saturdays," says Jeffrey Smith, whose son Robin, 5, is in his second season with the Cheetahs, made up mostly of kindergartners from Janney Elementary School in Northwest.

Elizabeth Rose of Northwest, mother of soccer players Rachel, 7, and Diana, 5, agrees: "Notice how no one would dare schedule a birthday party on a Saturday morning."

According to regional soccer organizations, there are approximately 80,000 children ages 4 through 18 playing recreational soccer in the District, Northern Virginia and nearby counties in Maryland. Twenty years ago, clubs attracted only a small fraction of that number, and soccer was a male-dominated sport. Today -- with high-profile events like the widely televised Women's World Cup tournament -- soccer appeals to not only boys and girls, but their families.

In this area, youngsters have the option of playing on teams sponsored by the Maryland Youth Soccer Association or the Virginia Youth Soccer Association (which includes D.C. leagues and clubs) or as part of smaller, unaffiliated clubs such as Takoma Park Neighborhood Youth Soccer.

Purple Versus Fuchsia

On the Ed Wilhelm Field behind Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park, the Purples have taken on the Fuchsia team -- each made up of fourth- and fifth-grade girls from the Takoma Park-Silver Spring area. Rose Douglas of the Purples -- a strawberry blond 8-year-old with a face full of freckles -- is hoping for a winning season. At halftime the score is 1-0 in favor of Fuchsia.

Meanwhile, her sister Claire, 6, who will play for a team made up of kindergartners and first-graders later in the day, is on the sidelines jumping rope so furiously she seems to be competing for a world title.

Nearby, another 6-year-old soccer sibling, Kayla Lee, is reading a library book while her sister Keisha, 10, plays alongside Rose. Their father, Derrick Lee, works at night as a police officer. His shift ended at 6:30 a.m. -- enough time to get home, change his clothes, eat breakfast and deliver Keisha to her 11 a.m. game. Kayla plays at 2:30. Sitting back in a plastic stacking chair he brought from home, he sighs and says, "We're in for a long day."

Families choose to plan entire weekends around soccer for a number of reasons. Like Lee, some parents enjoyed the sport as youngsters and want to share that passion with their children. This is certainly true of Bethesda soccer parents Claudia de Colstoun Werebe and Roberto Werebe, who grew up in Venezuela and Brazil, where the sport is an obsession. "Why play soccer?" asks Claudia. "That's like saying, `Why have a barbecue on the Fourth of July?' "

Then there's the fact that soccer clubs make it so easy -- and so inexpensive -- to sign up that you almost have to make a conscious effort not to participate. Most leagues have minimal registration fees. (The exception is travel teams, which often have steep fees. But, then, elite travel teams play in the kind of rarefied atmosphere that causes parents to hire paid coaches and drive 90 miles to games every other weekend.)

Other parents see soccer as a good antidote to the time children spend in front of a television or computer. And they like the social interaction. Jennifer Eugene of Silver Spring, whose son Ryan not only enjoys the sport but excels at it, says that, for him, going out on Saturdays and playing on a team with 10 of his school friends "is like a giant play date."

Self-described soccer mom Caron Swartz of Vienna views soccer games as a play date for the entire family. Last year she invested in metal folding chairs and loves sitting on the sidelines with other parents while 7-year-old Stephen and 6-year-old Zachary play their matches. The other families, she says "have become our community."

On top of the social interaction and the physical activity, "You get a great T-shirt collection out of it," adds Jim Douglas, father of Rose and Claire.

The Game Continues

It is the second half of the Purple vs. Fuchsia match, and Rose Douglas is playing forward -- her favorite position. She hates it when the coach or the assistant coach -- who is her dad -- takes her out of the game.

"I'll go to the game and she's pulled out and she'll be all red in the face and huffing and puffing," says her mother, Janet Douglas, a conservation scientist at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. "I'll say, `Sit down, you'll be okay.' She looks at me and says, `But I want to go back in the game.' "

"There's a whole aspect of soccer and her enthusiasm that is beyond my understanding and appreciation of the game," adds Janet, who doesn't consider herself a soccer mom. In fact, many Saturdays she runs errands while the girls are playing.

Jim Douglas, the emergency coordinator for the U.S. Department of the Interior, originally decided to coach soccer as a way to get his daughters to play. Three years later, he laughs, "It's the tar baby phenomenon. Once you start, you can't get out of it, because people are counting on you.

"You do get attached to the team and the kids," he continues. "You like to see them learn and grow. If you stick with it, after a couple years, you see them blossom into good players. That's one of the nice things about being a coach. You see them develop into a team."

Youth soccer leagues depend on volunteers to function, which is why so many parents first get involved. Most find that coaching kindergartners or first-graders is a matter of personality management rather than soccer know-how.

Dads and moms who sign up to coach typically say they volunteer to share an activity with their offspring. In the words of one dad: "You've created a space for the kids to explore this wonderful game. It's like having a front-row seat while good things -- and bad -- happen to them, and they learn to be friends and grow and develop each week."

"We have a short window to be with them," says Bill Lightfoot, former D.C. Council member and soccer dad to B.J., 8, and Ariana, 12. Lightfoot has been coaching B.J.'s team -- the Eagles -- for four years. Now an attorney in private practice with a slightly more flexible schedule, Lightfoot says that when he was on the D.C. Council it was hard to leave work for mid-week practices, and Saturday games frequently conflicted with public hearings, community festivals and civic association meetings. What did he do? "Juggle," he says. Just like everyone else.

At coaches' meetings and in league literature, soccer organizations emphasize the fact that their goal is to stress good sportsmanship and having fun over winning. In clinics around the region, parents-turned-coaches are told to teach rookie players that "the ball is your friend." (For coaching tips, see story on Page 42) You'd be hard-pressed to find a parent who doesn't say these are the lessons they want their sons and daughters to get from the experience. However, on the field, there are parents who, shall we say, lack perspective, mostly when it comes to their own children. But yelling at kids, questioning a coach's method of rotating players and emphasizing winning are universally frowned upon. Most parents say the kids don't even know the score at the end of the game.

The kids may disagree on that point.

Fuchsia Defeats Purple

By the end of Rose Douglas's game, her team has lost 4-0, in spite of encouragement from her dad and head coach Warren Maruyama. "I thought we played a good game," Maruyama tells the girls. "We had some good passing and attacking the ball."

Jim adds: "Our defense needs to give our goalie some help. We need to be tigers and put it in."

In the post-game huddle, Rose, flush from running up and down the field, pours the contents of her water bottle over her head.

Word on the field is that the Fuchsia team hadn't won a game in two years, so this victory was important for them. Rose isn't into the Monday-morning quarterback thing; she's fled the field for the adjacent playground, where she and her teammates are hanging upside down from the monkey bars.

"That's the real attraction," says Janet.

Not all kids take losses as well as Rose, especially when the losses accumulate. Sixth-grader Adrienne Fritsch was on a team that didn't win a game in three years. The team tied several games but just couldn't pull off a victory.

Her father Richard Fritsch, a child psychologist, says that for the first year it didn't bother Adrienne that her team didn't win. "But by the third year, she was starting to get the idea they could never win," he says.

Fritsch's advice to parents in this situation? "You can't keep saying `It's just a game,' " he says. "Don't try to reassure them with platitudes...you miss their experience."

Adrienne eventually decided to try playing on another team. Last week her new team won their first game of the season.

Letter to Mia

Back at the Douglas house, there are about two hours to regroup before Claire's 2:45 game. After a pizza lunch, the girls retreat to their treehouse with some friends. Inside the house, their bookshelves are crowded with "Boxcar Children" paperbacks, board games and American Girl dolls. Their soccer trophies are there, too, and other precious keepsakes.

Between the pages of a book is a letter Rose penned to soccer superstar Mia Hamm around the time the U.S. won the Women's World Cup.

"Dear Mia Hamm," she writes. "I am the star on my team like you ... My dad is the coach and on television he shows me your good long passes ... I hope to become a soccer player. Girl Power! Your friend, Rose Douglas."

By 2:30, Jim and Janet are preparing for a return trip to the soccer field, just down the hill from their house. The single pair of shinguards shared by the sisters is ceremoniously passed to Claire. Like Santa with his bag of toys, Jim slings a mesh bag with a dozen practice balls over his shoulder and the ritual starts again.

"Sometimes on my way to work I see men in business suits driving around in minivans with all these balls in the back of their cars," says Janet. "It's endearing to know there are other guys that have masses of soccer balls to take care of. You feel like honking and waving."

Blue Versus Teal

For this game, Jim will serve the dual role of assistant coach and part-time referee. It's how things work in the loosely structured Takoma Park club, described by one dad affectionately on this day as "a sub-genre of soccer."

In the pre-game huddle Claire, wearing No. 4, shares a soccer joke she made up with her Blue teammates. She has a flamboyant kicking style and likes to take lots of breaks. "I hate playing defense," she says and she unself-consciously admits that in the very first game of her very first season she scored a goal for the opposing team. Her dad reminds her that that happened to a player in the Women's World Cup also.

In this entry-level club of boys and girls, the coaches spend most of their time reminding the players not to run in the wrong direction. "Who's ever played a soccer game before?" Jim asks Akinda, Willie, Miguel, Calvin, Elizabeth, Claire and the other players on the team. "Okay, which way is the goal?"

Claire gets the opportunity to play forward and takes advantage of the many water breaks. In the Takoma Park rookie league, the teams don't keep score, so, after 45 minutes of drills and 45 minutes of scrimmage, everyone goes home a winner. And Claire leaves knowing she didn't score any goals for the other team.

Join the Club

In this area, there are literally hundreds of organizations offering instruction or team play for youth. For instance, kids can play soccer through Hispanic community organizations, the YMCA, Catholic Youth Organization, Boys and Girls Clubs, county and city recreation departments and commercial sports facilities. There are two separate and very different levels of soccer: recreation, or instructional, leagues and select, or travel, leagues.

The recreational teams, like the ones described in this article, offer opportunities for every registered child to play, regardless of ability. Some organizations allow children as young as 3 to participate on teams, though most start at age 4, and many go through high school. The select teams do just that: They hold tryouts and travel all over the metropolitan area and sometimes to other cities to compete. Many teams pay professional coaches, and the cost of team dues, per season, can be several hundred dollars. The travel teams generally start at age 8 for boys and at age 10 for girls. If you try out for a travel team and qualify, you'll be part of the National Capital Soccer League (for boys) or Washington Area Girls Soccer (for girls). The Old Dominion Soccer League presents another option for girls and boys wanting to play on a travel team.

Two governing bodies -- the Maryland State Youth Soccer Association and the Virginia Youth Soccer Association (which includes D.C. in its jurisdiction) -- oversee the majority of leagues in this area. There are dozens and dozens of recreational programs that are not affiliated with the Virginia or Maryland state organizations. These groups are best found by word of mouth. Registration is held well in advance of the fall and spring seasons. Now is the time to contact the organizations and request registration forms, because the deadlines can be as early as November for the spring season. Registration procedures vary from team to team; call the league in your area for specifics.

It would be impossible to list every area soccer organization in this space. Below we offer information about major governing organizations, groups in the District and the two soccer clubs featured in the article. In Maryland, we list at least one major organization for each of four nearby counties, since not all of the clubs are affiliated with the state association. In Virginia, nearly all of the local clubs are affiliated with the governing body, so we just listed the major organizations.

The District

D.C. DEPARTMENT OF RECREATION AND PARKS -- 202/673-7655. Sponsors SNICKERS City Soccer for kids age 5-14.

Leagues play in neighborhood recreation centers. Free.

D.C. SCORES -- 202/234-4112. Web site: www.americascores.org. Soccer and creative writing program for urban youth ages 8-12 offered weekdays from 3:30-5 p.m. in the fall and spring. Available to children in 16 D.C. elementary schools. $10 per person; equipment and transportation provided.

DC STODDERT SOCCER LEAGUE -- 202/537-1908. Web site: www.stoddert.com. Youth soccer league for kids age 4 1/2 to 18 offering recreational and travel teams. Recreational fees are $50 per season.

EDDIE POPE COMMUNITY SOCCER LEAGUE -- 202/487-5078. League for ages 5-14 within 14 D.C. public, charter and parochial schools. Teams play on Fridays in the fall and spring. $10 fee. In the spring, the name of the league will change to the Capital Community Soccer League.

LAFAYETTE RECREATION SOCCER LEAGUE -- 202/282-2206. Program for ages 5-7 offered Saturday mornings at Lafayette Recreation Center, 33rd and Patterson streets NW. Free.

SARAH HOUSE -- 202/588-7197. Nonprofit providing activities for at-risk children and families. Sponsors the Soccer Nation program, which brings together African American, Latino and African youth ages 5-19 to play soccer.

SOCCER ON THE HILL -- 202/544-5385. Web site: www.teamdiscovery.com/soth. League for kids up to age 18 (no minimum age). Fee for the fall and spring is $85.

WASHINGTON SOCCER CLUB -- 202/483-4190. Travel teams for boys ages 9-18 and girls ages 11-18.

WASHINGTON YOUTH SOCCER ASSOCIATION LEGACY LEAGUE -- 202/358-0638 or 202/806-7174. This consortium of D.C.-based soccer clubs brings soccer to inner city youth ages 5-16, focusing on disadvantaged youth. $10 fee.

Maryland

FREDERICK COUNTY YOUTH SOCCER ASSOCIATION -- 410/775-1825. Organization of athletic associations offering soccer teams throughout the county for ages 4-13. Fees vary.

MARYLAND STATE YOUTH SOCCER ASSOCIATION -- 410/987-7898. Web site: www.msysa.org. Governing body for youth soccer for the state. Will refer families to soccer clubs and leagues within the state in their area appropriate to age, interest and level of play.

MONTGOMERY SOCCER INC. (MSI) -- 301/770-4440. Web site: www.msisoccer.org. Program for children in first through 12th grade offering recreational play and two competitive programs. Fees $47-$52.

PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY BOYS AND GIRLS CLUBS -- 301/918-8100. Soccer for kids ages 7-17. Recreational games are held during the week and weekends. Fees vary depending on the club.

THE SOCCER ASSOCIATION OF COLUMBIA/HOWARD COUNTY (SAC) -- 410/772-9373. Web site: www.sac-hc.org. Offers a clinic for 4- and 5-year-olds, a recreational program for ages 6-17 and 50 travel teams for ages 8-18. $105 for fall and spring seasons.

TAKOMA PARK NEIGHBORHOOD YOUTH SOCCER -- 301/270-8187. Web site: www.takomasoccer.org. E-mail: kohn@erols.com. Recreational program for ages

4-15. $30 fee.

WASHINGTON AREA GIRLS SOCCER LEAGUE (WAGS) -- 410/526-4243. Web site: www.wagsl.com. A travel league for girls covering the metropolitan area.

Virginia

NATIONAL CAPITAL SOCCER LEAGUE -- 703/385-1608. Web site: www.ncsl-soccer.com. Travel league for boys ages 8-18 in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland.

OLD DOMINION SOCCER LEAGUE -- 540/349-9749. Web site: www.odsl.org. Travel league for boys and girls ages 8-15 in Virginia and D.C.

VIRGINIA YOUTH SOCCER ASSOCIATION INC. (VYSA) -- 703/494-0030 or 703/551-4035. Web site: www.vysa.com. The governing body for youth soccer for Virginia and the District of Columbia for players ages 4-18. The Web site lists member clubs.

Add It Up

At first glance, soccer appears to be a relatively inexpensive hobby. Registration fees to join a recreational team average around $50 per season and include a team jersey. Some teams have no fees at all. Yet, beyond the mandatory protective shinguards, you may find yourself

investing in expensive leather shoes with added cushioning, cleat totes, special color-coordinated socks, padded goalie shorts and jerseys, orange cones or a "practice partner" nylon net.

We asked Jennifer and Ronald Eugene of Silver Spring to compute how much they will spend during the 1999-2000 season on 8-year-old Ryan, at right, whose extracurriculur activity of choice is soccer. Ryan has been playing on a recreational team through the DC Stoddert Soccer League for three years; this year he also is playing on a travel team.

Travel teams are far more competitive -- and far more expensive -- than neighborhood recreational leagues. Players on these

teams may travel as far away as Baltimore or Stafford County, Va., for a game.

* Recreational team registration fees............ $100

* Travel team registration fees.................. $800

* Special fees for travel team................... $58

(to cover tournaments and other expenses)

* Reimbursement to recreational coaches for equipment. $20

* Cleats...................................... $79.98

(two pairs since he'll probably outgrow the first pair)

* Shinguards................................. $13.95

* Soccer shorts............................... $19.99

* Soccer ball................................. $19.99

* Cooler with matching water jug............. $15.99

* Snacks for practices and games.............. $20

* End-of-season gifts for coaches............ $5

Total................. ..................... $1,152.90