By the time we discovered soccer, it was almost too late for the budding athletes in our family.

I was grateful, therefore, when a friend became a Montgomery Soccer Inc. coach and offered my daughter Meredith a chance to practice with his squad. There was only a slim chance she would see action, and then only if an accredited player dropped out. But it was a start.

I went to the first practice expecting the worst. But I was surprised to find there was no distinction between slow steppers and superstars--every player knows she will be on the field for at least half of every game.

The players straggled onto the practice field. The week before they had lost a key game. "They were big and ugly," a forward complained.

But the coach would brook no complaints. He pulled out his clipboard of game notes and critiqued each past week's play with a thoroughness that would have astonished the Redskins' coaches.

Then he delivered a lecture on winning attitudes that used the word "attack" only four times.

The practice proved that the girls and their coaches take their soccer seriously. As they scrimmaged, the coach was up and down the sidelines, directing the action:

"What is this, a silent movie? You've got to talk to each other out there . . . Abbie, find your target . . . Jessie, keep your elbows down . . . Where is the sweeper? . . . Where is the stopper?"

The game was scheduled for 10 a.m. the next morning at Jackson Road Elementary School in Silver Spring. It was our green shirts against their reds. The first problem was to round up eight players. With four minutes to go, the eighth green shirt was seen running toward the field, a hairbrush-wielding mother in hot pursuit. While the mother brushed, the squad received its instructions: "Watch out for 10 and 11. The grass is uneven, you have to get under the ball. . . . This is a team you can take."

The teams were evenly matched. Aside from an occasional warning from the referee, "Watch your feet, ladies," it was a clean contest. The biggest problem seemed to be that so many players shared the same name it was difficult to tell which "Lisa" or "Rebecca" was being told to take the ball.

The game ended in a tie: 1 to 1. The players were worn down by the heat as much as by each other. But I was astounded by how exciting the contest seemed. Part of it was soccer--part of it was that those were girls on the field.

The seasons in the sun are still shorter for girls than for their brothers. The numbers of girls playing drops sharply after sixth grade, league officials have discovered. Social pressures and social lives pull the ponytails off the fields and into the stands the way they always did.

But I am glad that, in time, my daughter will have a chance to play on the field before she starts to play the field.

The high point of my introduction to soccer came during the scrimmage when three boys sidled up to watch. In my day, this would have been a time for giggles and jibes at the girls in shorts. But these sideliners were watching with respect.

"Look at the goalie," one whispered to another. "She's good."

That, to me, was victory.