The Soccer Invasion of Washington is underway.
Cars, minivans and buses are converging from every direction, full of eager players and parents from Florida and North Carolina and Massachusetts and Michigan.
And beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday, soccer balls will be bouncing around the Beltway as four giant youth tournaments -- two each in Maryland and Virginia -- commence with games on municipal and school fields throughout the area.
In a 60-hour span, 892 teams and more than 14,000 players, ages 10-19, will play about 1,000 games on 146 fields. Each team is guaranteed at least three games.
They're the Scorpions, Roadrunners, Lightning and Spirit. They're high school players trying to impress college coaches who take notes on the sidelines. Thirty-one coaches are expected at the Columbia Invitational in Howard County.
They are 11-year-olds draped in baggie shorts and colorful T-shirts who converge on the ball from every direction, despite the frantic pleas of their coaches: "No! Spread Out! Stop bunching!"
"It's starting to get crazy," Potomac Invitational Director Jerry Langdon said Wednesday.
Bill Wilson started the Potomac event 11 years ago with 24 teams playing at one site, Bullis School on Falls Road. This year Langdon has 236 teams playing at 35 fields from Bethesda to Gaithersburg. He has filled 15 hotels, some as far away as Frederick.
The Virginian has an area-high 248 teams playing on 32 fields in Springfield, Chantilly and Woodbridge. The 15-year-old tournament is unique because there are three divisions based on skill level: Challenge, Premier and Champions. Participants have filled more than 1,800 motel rooms.
"I think so many teams come to Washington because this area offers the best soccer, except for maybe St. Louis," which had a soccer park built by Anheuser-Busch, The Virginian Director Steve Halfhill said.
Its closest competitor is the Braddock Road Youth Club's Dougherty Memorial ournament, which for its 14th year has 223 teams on 47 fields in Fairfax and Prince William counties.
Among the attractions are free tickets to Saturday's American Soccer League game in Fairfax between the Washington Stars and Tampa Bay Rowdies and a anti-drug speech by former professional wrestler Big John Studd.
The Columbia tournament began 15 years ago with a $150 sponsorship from the Patuxent Publishing Co. This year, Director Louise Waxler says, Puma, Chiquita and Gatorade are among the corporate sponsors.
"We've seen it grow every year," said Waxler, who turned away teams after receiving 185 entries.
In conjunction with the tournament, Columbia officials are having soccer contests Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Centennial High School in Ellicott City. Former U.S. national team captain Rick Davis is the host. The contest finals will be at haltime of Saturday's professional game between the Maryland Bays and Albany Capitals at Cedar Lane Park.
Potomac may have the strongest field, especially in the older divisions. Langdon said he has the top under-19 boys teams from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Maryland and last year's national runner-up from Ohio. The event also might serve as a preview for the under-16 and under-19 boys and girls national championships, held in Woodbridge in July.