For those wondering who takes over the U.S. women's national soccer team when Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and other veterans retire within the next few years, an answer is being provided north of the border on the Red River College fields at the Pan American Games.

The United States kept its star-studded Women's World Cup champion team at home and instead sent to this under-20 tournament among five nations a more futuristic model of its women's program, which is striving to groom able replacements.

So perhaps 17-year-old goalkeeper Hope Solo will be the next Briana Scurry. Or 18-year-old forward Marcia Wallis will someday fill Hamm's role. Or Alabama high school senior Catherine Reddick, a 17-year-old defender, will be the next Carla Overbeck.

And maybe Lauren Molinaro of Ellicott City will one day be the U.S. leader in central midfield, just like the 33-year-old Akers.

Molinaro, 19, who started in midfield against Costa Rica in the U.S. team's opening 6-0 victory today, can't help but imagine herself at the 2003 Women's World Cup. By that time, about half of the current U.S. senior team roster is expected to have retired.

"It makes the dream more real," said Molinaro, a Centennial High grad who is entering her junior year at the University of Connecticut. "It seems like it's within reach here. At the Pan Am Games, this is a great step, a great opportunity. I've always thought it, I've definitely thought it, but it's so much closer right now."

The opening ceremonies took place tonight with a parade of athletes and dignitaries at Winnipeg Stadium.

This is the first appearance of women's soccer in the Pan American Games, which feature 5,000 athletes from 42 western-hemisphere nations competing in 41 sports through Aug. 8. To U.S. Coach Jay Hoffman, who was an assistant on the Women's World Cup team and is head coach of the under-18 team, the tournament is critical for young women and girls in the U.S. system.

The U.S. Soccer Federation rarely has been able to provide international challenges to its young, up-and-coming players, because many nations still consider soccer an unsuitably masculine activity for girls. The few available competitive chances have been doled out primarily to the Lillys and Hamms and other senior stars.

"The senior team in our country, they don't have any other place to play," Hoffman said. "You've got to bring in that group [for games] because they need the work. If they had a pro league, it might be a different story. Then you could have someone like a Kristine Lilly and you wouldn't have to call her for every game.

"[But] the development of these players is extremely important. . . . This for them is a tournament. You're playing for a gold medal. You've got to get results. . . . Those types of situations are important for any player. Not that it changes your game, but it changes your psyche."

To Molinaro, it presents a chance to participate rather than merely root. The best friend of U.S. senior team reserve Sara Whalen, Molinaro attended four of the six U.S. matches at the Women's World Cup this summer. Getting to all of those games was not easy.

A day after a training camp in preparation for the Pan American Games, Molinaro drove to Foxboro, Mass., for the U.S. game against Nigeria. She drove back to her parents' home in Ellicott City for the next match, the quarterfinal against Germany at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. She then flew to Portland to attend a summer soccer camp -- but took two days off to fly to Palo Alto, Calif., and Pasadena, Calif., for the Women's World Cup semifinal and final.

"It worked out," she said, "perfectly."

At these Games, the young U.S. squad is favored because of the program's record of success. Hoffman and Molinaro acknowledged, however, that they knew nothing -- absolutely nothing -- about their competition. Even advance rosters weren't available for the teams from Costa Rica, Mexico, Canada and Trinidad and Tobago.

"I'm assuming the toughest team will be Canada, but I really have no idea," Molinaro said. (Canada routed Trinidad and Tobago, 7-1, today.)

The U.S. under-16, under-18 and under-20 teams were created just a few years ago by the USSF. Though Hoffman wants to bring home the gold, he recognizes that the ultimate goal with these youth teams is to develop players.

"We want to get to the next level and get results -- `win forever' is our motto," he said. "But we also want to put these ladies in a position that, when we are thinking about [Olympic preparation] residency camp, maybe one, two, three or four of them need to be considered. . . . This is a great time for them. They are right on the cutting edge."

Six players on the Women's World Cup team participated as far back as the 1991 Women's World Cup. None of those six is expected to stay with the U.S. national program after the 2000 Olympics. Several others also are likely to move on.

"The girls are getting up in age," Molinaro said. "The next generation is coming through. . . . There are a lot of spots to fill coming up."