Seconds before halftime, Martin Simms of the Hawks gained control of the ricocheting ball, pivoted, then kicked it past the oncoming line of Striker players and through the goal posts. The Hawks led 3-0.

On the sidelines, parents cheered and applauded as their sons and daughters dressed in Hawk and Striker jerseys left the field for a halftime snack of juice and a pep talk from the coaches. After the game there would be picnic lunches with parents and friends.

Autumn usually means Saturday football games. But times have changed at Stoddert Playground in upper Northwest, where soccer has become the neighborhood pastime.

"I have worked just about all over this city, and I've come to the conclusion that soccer is the number one sport in D.C., mostly because it's a cheap sport," said Herbert Holmes, director of the Stoddert Playground at 39th and Calvert streets in Glover Park.

"All you need is a ball," Holmes said. "And it doesn't matter what your height or what your speed is, anyone can play."

The playground is the headquarters for the Stoddert Soccer League, the city's largest soccer little league. The Hawks and the Strikers are two of 30 teams in the league, which has grown from 40 children in 1977 to more than 400 boys and girls this year.

The playing field has become a meeting ground for the community's diverse populations. It brings together students from both public and private schools plus recent immigrants from Latin America and Asia and the offspring of officials who work in the community's numerous foreign embassies.

Girls make up about 10 percent of league's players. Shani Cook, 7, a second grader at John Eaton School, plays for the Hawks. "I just like it because it's running around and fun and you get the feeling its like being in a big league," said Cook. "It the score doesn't matter as long as we are doing it well."

Holmes added, "In the Peewees the 5-to-7-year-old division the best athletes are the girls because they mature earlier."

The teams practice several hours a week after school to get ready for the weekly one-hour Saturday morning games in which eight teams face each other at four Northwest playgrounds. There is also a spring season.

Some parents volunteer as coaches and assistant coaches while others simply sacrifice their Saturday mornings to sit in the stands and cheer and then serve picnic lunches.

Fun and exercise -- not winning -- is the credo of the Stoddert League, which is open to all youngsters aged 5 to 13. All children who try out get on a team. League rules require that each team member play at least 10 minutes each game. Team standings and game results are considered unimportant.

"We try to stimulate teamwork and sportsmanship, and downplay the winning," says Tony Diamond, a 55-year-old NASA engineer and marathon runner who serves as the league's commissioner.

"It's mainly for the kids to have fun, and secondarily for them to learn the basics of soccer, then to get some conditioning," said Diamond, whose son plays with the Hawks. "We don't really publicize the scores. There's no big public relations effort to make it known to the world."

But Hawks Coach Jeffrey Josephs is very proud of his team's no-loss record for the spring season.

He immediately showed a recent visitor a June 24th news story headlined "Hawks Win Pee Wee Crown," that chronicled his team's perfect 10-0 record in the spring season.

"I try to excite them before the game, give them a little cheer," said Josephs, a civilian engineer with the U.S. Navy Sea Systems command.

"I try to get them started and try to get them to stay there" he said. "I like the competition. It doesn't hurt when you have a little competition. It gives these kids something to point towards. And everyone looks forward to playing our team."

Fred Lewis, 32, coach of the Strikers, views the game a bit differently.

"I enjoy working with kids and I like to see them grow and develop. It's a lot of fun to teach them," said Lewis, a certified public accountant. "The scores don't mean anything to us . . . . It's an introduction to the game of soccer. These are 6- and 7-year-olds and this is a much smaller field than regulation, so it's just an introduction to the game."

Added Dan Noble, 40, father of Jacob, 6, of the Strikers, "Soccer is an easier sport for kids. At this age its just running and kicking with the feet. It's not as complicated as a baseball diamond."

And less dangerous. "Mothers have a tendency to push kids more into soccer than football because there are less injuries and there's less equipment," said Diamond, the league commissioner.

Soccer's also less burdensome on parental pocketbook because it requires less equipment than baseball or football.

The league's $11 sign-up fee ($7 for the midget division ages 6 and under) pays for soccer balls, jerseys, and the trophies each team member receives at season's end. Parents must only buy soccer shoes, which cost $10 to $15.

"For a lot of kids, this is the first time they've been on any kind of team," said Ross Ain, 37, a coach in the Peewee division. "So there are a lot of things we try to get them to think about than winning . . . . It's a friendly league that way."