Northern Virginia has long been considered a veritable hotbed of soccer talent, fielding teams that have won in national and international competition and producing players who have not only starred on college teams but have also brought home college scholarships. When the George Mason University women's team met the North Carolina women's team in the recent NCAA finals, for example, both teams had former Northern Virginia high school stars on their rosters. Soccer is very big business indeed in Northern Virginia, and behind all this success are a great many very committed and very involved parents.

There are, however, limits.

Limits looked like they'd been reached when the Thanksgiving all-star tournament schedule was handed out. It called for an 8 a.m. game on Friday and an 8 a.m. game on Saturday and a 9 a.m. game Sunday. It called for the soccer players to appear at least 20 minutes before game time in Loudoun County -- a good half hour away from the homes of many of the players, including those who are on the 1975 McLean Youth all-star team. Since one of those players lives in my house, I took a very direct interest in this.

"This has gotten out of hand," I said to the coach. "Eight o'clock in the morning on a holiday weekend is ridiculous."

The coach said that if I drafted a petition to that effect, I'd get 34 signatures from the parents on our team as well as the coaches.

He explained, however, that the scheduling reflected the large number of teams involved in tournaments and the shortage of fields. One of my older son's former teammates who now plays for the University of Pennsylvania agreed. "Eight in the morning, right?" he said. "I remember those tournaments. I think they give the younger kids the worst hours." So much for the petition. Soccer had obviously been out of hand for years.

Our only hope for reprieve was rain, which fell Thanksgiving day and night, bringing the certainty that the game would be called. Certainty was dashed, however, at 6:30 the following morning when the coach's wife came through with a wake-up call.

By midmorning I was one of hundreds of Northern Virginia parents washing muddy soccer clothes.

By 11:30 a.m. we were headed back to Loudoun County for the second game of the day. By midafternoon I was washing muddy soccer clothes. The fields had done nothing but get worse.

At 6:25 the next morning it was pouring rain. I fell back asleep, sure that the game would be called. At 6:30 the phone rang. "It's very cold and raining," said the coach's wife. "So make sure everyone is bundled up warmly."

By this time the field was a swamp. A great, deep puddle ran all along one of the sidelines. The ball would go into the puddles and stop dead. This enabled the children to develop an entirely new set of soccer skills, including kicking up great amounts of mud to get the ball moving. Parents developed new soccer-watching skills that included rapid back-pedaling to avoid being splashed with mud. Calls of "cross it toward the center" were replaced with "try to get it on the grass." This was definitely building character.

By midmorning I was doing the laundry again, and beginning to worry whether the laundry system would tolerate the amount of mud it was being asked to digest. By noon I was drying cleats with a blow-dryer.

By 1:30 p.m. we were headed back to Loudoun County for the 2:30 game. It was still raining. The field had finally been ruled a disaster area but the game was to go on at a nearby elementary school. A caravan proceeded to the new site.

The right wing was already there. "This is worse than the other field!" he announced through the bone-chilling downpour. He was right. It was nothing but mud. The coaches conferred. The caravan headed back.

The game was played on the field that was merely a disaster. Since the ball wouldn't go anywhere it was impossible to score. The children seemed to be running slowly. My son the striker explained that whenever he moved his feet out of the mud he heard a suction sound. Players tackling their opponents instinctively held onto them as they skidded into puddles. This led to a great many pushing calls. "This is worse than England," said the coach who had played soccer in England. It rapidly became clear that the game would go to the players who could get up from the mud most quickly. Alas, the game resulted in a scoreless tie, but not before the news spread far and wide that the games the following day had been called, the tournament finally suspended.

This was good news, indeed. It was nice to discover that there were still some limits.