As Team America reassembles in Washington this weekend after a two-week hiatus, those involved with soccer locally count on the club to provide renewed stimulus for one of the region's fastest-growing sports.
"I think the player who has visions of playing in the Olympics or the World Cup will now have a role model to look up to," says Everett Germain, president of the Annandale Boys Club and a supporter of youth soccer programs in the area for 20 years.
"Our young players will now have an opportunity to observe the national team firsthand. They will ask themselves, 'Can I eventually be as good as they are?' "
Team America, the Washington-based franchise in the North American Soccer League as the U.S. national team-in-training, is scheduled to resume practice this week and has tentative plans to begin an exhibition tour of Central and South America later this month. The team's NASL opener comes April 23 in Seattle; the home opener May 8 against Tulsa at RFK Stadium.
Its members, all native-born or naturalized Americans playing professionally in the United States, were chosen after a two-week February training camp in Tampa.
As the U.S. national team, it will also prepare for World Cup and, if rules permit, Olympic competition. The U.S. Soccer Federation has a strong bid in to have the 1986 World Cup played in the United States, which would automatically qualify Team America to play in it.
That effort was enhanced last week when Brazil withdrew its request to stage the tournament, leaving only the United States, Mexico and Canada in contention.
Having the World Cup played in the United States "would be an enormously significant step," said Robert Lifton, the principal investor and president of Team America. "It would show that America is being treated and viewed as a major soccer power in the world. As our people perceive that recognition, more and more people will get involved in soccer."
In Washington, meanwhile, the soccer establishment has high hopes for Team America. "I'm really enthusiastic about it," said George Towner, president of the Virginia Youth Soccer Association. "This is really our team, and I'm hopeful the youth soccer community will accept it in that fashion."
Despite the collapse of four previous professional soccer teams here, Towner said support within the soccer community will remain strong for Team America.
"Sure, we're all a little bit jaded," he said. "But the communications I've had with these people indicate they feel they want to come out and be of service to us. They've assigned marketing people to work with each of our clubs. This is an American team. They have a real interest in selling themselves to the community. They're personable. They're us."
Jim Sarnecki, president of the Maryland Youth Soccer Association, said he had been able to persuade officials of Team America to change the times of some home games to avoid conflicts with youth soccer games.
"There is a receptiveness and a willingness to listen," he said. "What we're saying to our people is, 'They made an effort for us. Now we'll make the effort for them.'
"I know there are going to be problems, and you might not even get the best 20 American ballplayers. But if people are willing to make it work, it will work, and the people who will benefit are the American soccer players.
"You can't be a leader when you are playing next to a Pele or a Beckenbauer. They will be the leaders. This will make the American players become the leaders in the sport."
Wally Watson, president of the Metropolitan D.C.-Virginia Soccer Association, which includes 250 teams playing in senior leagues, says he is not sure what Team America will do for soccer in Washington but whatever it is, it won't be bad.
"It has the potential to do a lot for soccer in the area and in the country," Watson offers. "Our hopes of becoming a soccer power are based on the hopes that Team America will do well."
At the Annandale Boys Club, Germain says regular exposure to Team America should improve the level of amateur soccer in this area, but he warns that it won't mean instant superstars.
"It will take time to develop our own (Johan) Cruyff whom we can relate to and enjoy," said Germain. "But people around the world say if you really want to be good in soccer, you've got to be where you can see the high-class games. The opportunity to grow up with soccer has been limited in the United States. Now there will be a chance to see what the American players can really do."