The strong, gifted men on the perfect grass of the new soccer field had all been boys here.

And the skills and teamwork they gained as players for the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County (SAC/HC) served them well in the larger world.

Some went on to college soccer. Others became coaches. Some have played nationally and internationally.

"Four soccer Olympians have come out of Columbia," said Desmond Armstrong, one of those Olympians, who joined a host of illustrious youth soccer veterans for a celebratory match Saturday night.

Their game was at the new $5.75 million soccer complex -- Northrop Fields at Covenant Park. The park, which officially opened Friday, is being welcomed as a long-awaited home for soccer in a county that is devoted to the game. It is expected to be a huge boon to the 6,000 young players of the soccer association and the 1,000 volunteers who keep the program going.

"We always dreamed of something like this," said Armstrong, his eyes sweeping over the fields, west of Centennial Park on Centennial Lane in Ellicott City.

For years, the association relied on a patchwork of school and park fields for practice, games and the annual Memorial Day tournament, which draws scores of youth soccer teams and college recruiters from all over the country. But the time had come for the organization and players to have a real home, said group President Dave Procida.

"It is important for a club as large as SAC/HC to have its own fields that players and volunteers can call their own," he said.

The eight-field, 55-acre complex is owned and operated by the association, with teams and youngsters paying dues. The $1 million to start building it came from funds raised over seven years, starting in 1992, by the association's board of directors. Money to operate the complex will come from dues paid by the young players, roughly $150 for two seasons; tournaments; camps; and business sponsorships. Creig Northrop, a local real estate agent, has purchased naming rights to the fields for $350,000.

On Friday afternoon before the grand opening, Jim Carlan -- the association's chief operating officer and longtime coach -- wandered the complex with a huge grin on his face.

Over more than 30 years, he has gone from being a soccer dad to a soccer granddad and has watched his beloved club grow from a small gathering of neighborhood teams to the vast volunteer organization it is today.

On Friday he admired the fields, with their even grass and perfect lines, the lights and the clubhouse, rising on a hill of a former farmland ringed by trees.

"Now I can retire!" he exclaimed with a laugh. "I'm turning it over to the next generation."

But those who know him have a hard time believing Carlan won't remain deeply involved in the association. Many who spoke at the opening ceremonies called him the Don Quixote who made his dream come true.

"You'd be a fool not to want to work with Don Quixote," said Dan Crow, senior minister at Covenant Baptist Church, which sold the land for the fields to the association. The congregation now meets at River Hill High School and plans to build a church not far from the soccer fields.

"We could have sold it for more money, but there are more important things than the bottom line," Crow said. "Six thousand kids will be blessed by this."

Many children were already playing Friday evening as the sun set gloriously over the fields, their parents coaching and cheering them on. The elders remembered the days back in the early 1970s when they were starting the club on a shoestring, with temporary goals and a table to organize teams.

"Felix Rausch -- he started this literally in his basement," Carlan said, reminiscing.

"I didn't have a basement," retorted Rausch wryly.

Rausch remembered that back then, soccer, though widely played around the world, was less well-known here. He said he rounded up the club's first coaches on his daily bus commute to Washington.

"Anyone who looked foreign," he said with a laugh. "I pulled them off the bus."

Soccer star Clint Peay -- who played in Columbia and went on to lead the University of Virginia to four national championships, join the major leagues and lead D.C. United to a championship -- said he has sweet memories of his early days.

When he was a kid growing up, "Columbia was a small place. You had the blue and the gold [teams]. You had a sense of pride," Peay said.

With 97,000 residents, Howard County has mushroomed as well. There might be a danger of losing some of that small town feeling that nurtured Peay, but the new soccer complex should help, he said.

"It's a great step in bringing back the pride and togetherness," said Peay, a 1991 graduate of Oakland Mills High School who is a trainer and coach and now lives in Ellicott City.

"It's come full circle with me and this complex."

Along with other soccer Olympians -- such as Dante Washington, Darryl Gee and Armstrong who started here as kids -- Peay played on Saturday night.

At halftime Saturday, a new crop of small boys and girls surged onto the field, grinning ecstatically and kicking balls on the field ringed with trees, under the brand new lights.

Bill McCormack Jr. tells the crowd about coaching in the early 1970s during the grand opening Friday of Northrop Fields at Covenant Park in Ellicott City."Four soccer Olympians have come out of Columbia," said former U.S. national team member Desmond Armstrong, left, one of them. Other Olympians include Columbus Crew forward Dante Washington, above left, and Clint Peay, right center, of D.C. United. The Dragons' Jacob Fenicle takes a shot against the Red Devils during an under-9 soccer match at the opening ceremonies for the $5.75 million soccer complex.