It's late afternoon and Tasker Middle School in Bowie is deserted except for a few people walking dogs, a couple of joggers and one young man tirelessly kicking a soccer ball against the side wall of the school.

Most would have something better to do with their time than to repeatedly boot a ball and then chase it down for hours on end. But then, most wouldn't be practicing for their role on the United States national under-16 soccer team.

When the U.S. team travelled to Milford, Conn., recently to begin practicing for the World Junior Cup finals in Canada in mid-July, Erik Imler was part of the 22-man team that would be cut to 18 by July 12 when the U.S. plays its first game in the tournament against Ecuador.

Imler, barring any major mishaps, is expected to make the team and start at midfield. Although next year he only will be a sophomore at Bowie High School, Imler isn't totally inexperienced in top-level competition. He was an important part of Bowie's Maryland Class AA state championship squad last fall.

Imler began his progression from school soccer to national team by winning a spot on an area select and state teams. From there, he tried out and was accepted on the regional and, finally, the national team. More than 5,000 players across the county auditioned for the team in their respective regionals.

Imler wasn't "anything out of the ordinary" when Roy Rees, coach of the national under-16 team, first saw him. According to Rees, Imler was very similar to most of the boys his age.

"He was very inconsistent in his play," said Rees by telephone from his home in Texas. "He wasn't putting consistent, competent performances together. He would have some superb games, and then some very ordinary games."

However, one thing began to stand out. "It was almost frightening -- his will, his determination to succeed," said Rees. "Although he is very young, he is willing to pay the price to accomplish what is important to him."

One of the first things Rees noticed in Imler was that he was a defensive player with offensive prowess. This was due in part to Imler's role on Bowie's team. Bowie Coach Lou Reck, in designing a 4-2-4 alignment, liked to play a strong overlap game and had Imler stationed predominately in the attacking zone rather than trailing back on defense.

"Erik's skills are so good, he has the ability not to be approached when he has the ball," said Reck. "He is always thinking two or three moves ahead so he can set up a play. When he does, his passes and shots are both very accurate."

Rees felt that Imler's offensive skills would make him a good transitional player, a "hunch" that he said has "proven correct." He decided that Imler was best suited in a wide-midfield position.

Although Imler is now playing a different role for Rees than he played for Reck, he feels, ultimately, it will work to his advantage.

"I didn't have to get back {on defense} when I played at Bowie," he said. "Now I have to. Playing {in Rees' offense} is a lot harder. It really makes you work. It's not as fun having to get back when it's hot and you don't want to go anymore, but it makes you work and think a lot more, and I like that."

Imler began playing soccer at age 6 as a last resort. He wanted to participate in a sport and found it was too late to sign up for anything except soccer. And it is the only game he has played since.

"When I made the state team, I was amazed," he said. "I mean it was unbelievable. You never think it will go this far. At that point, I never even knew about the national team."

And if, as Rees said, Imler has been good for U.S. soccer, U.S. soccer in turn has been very good for Imler. He has travelled throughout the U.S. and to other parts of the world, including England, Scotland, Canada and Honduras.

"The traveling has really been fantastic," Imler said. "I mean, I would never have gotten to go to all those places. But sometimes, it was tough, too. When we went to Honduras, it was around Christmas time and it was hot. All we did was play soccer and I couldn't wait to come home."

Now he is on the road again, practicing in Connecticut, readying himself for the trip north to Canada and the championships. And even though America will be a heavy underdog to win the championship, as Rees said, "If we had four Eric Imlers on this team, I'd be willing to put money down that we'd have a good shot at winning the cup."

Meanwhile, Imler continues to practice on his own for the upcoming games. It's all the hot unglamorous days spent alone, spent slicing and firing the ball against a wall in 90-degree weather that makes the glamorous victories that much more worthwhile.

"When we get home from a trip," said Imler, "everyone around here has heard about the games and it's a big deal. And that makes it worth it. People get excited and that makes me excited.

"Sometimes the work gets to be too much or it seems that way, but then you realize not many people get this chance," he continued. "It was like when we {Bowie} beat Rockville {for the state championship}. No one thought we had a chance. We really didn't think that we could beat them. Everyone was talking about Rockville and the two Strouds {brothers John and Jeff}. But we did beat them, and it was fantastic. It made everything worth it.

"And being able to play on the national team is the same thing. It's like a dream come true. It just seems like everything has fallen into place."