The U.S. soccer team gearing up for the start of the world championships today in New Zealand has a 20-game unbeaten streak dating back 15 months and has outscored those opponents 71-16. Its players are drawing international attention, and its three first-round matches will be beamed home live on pay-per-view TV.

But this is not another women's spectacle on the world stage. It's the U.S. under-17 boys team, which includes three players from Maryland, two from Virginia and a head coach from Howard County.

Although most U.S. men's teams are content to advance to the second round in world tournaments, this squad has loftier ambitions.

"I think we're confident but not too confident," said Kyle Beckerman, the team's playmaker who played two seasons at Arundel High School before entering the U.S. full-time residency training camp in Bradenton, Fla., last January.

"We know that the World Cup will be a lot different than anything we've experienced," he added. "We are confident that we can win it."

The Americans are based in Auckland and open Group A play today against New Zealand before facing Poland Saturday and Uruguay Tuesday. The top two teams in each of the four four-team first-round groups advance to the quarterfinals.

Beckerman is joined in the starting lineup by defenders Oguchi Onyewu (Sherwood High) and Alexander Yi (McDonogh), and midfielder Ken Cutler (Freeman High in Richmond). All-Met forward Abe Thompson (W.T. Woodson) is among the top reserves.

In two years as coach of the U.S. team, Ellicott City's John Ellinger has compiled a 53-15-18 record. Ellinger, 48, has worked in the Washington area for many years, including a brief stint with the American Soccer League's Washington Diplomats in 1990 and at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Montgomery College-Rockville.

His current job is to help the under-17 squad surpass the quarterfinal appearances in the world championships by the 1991 and '93 teams. In 1995 and '97, the Americans failed to get past the first round.

This year's team has four players who have signed professional contracts, including German-based forwards Landon Donovan and Raul Palomares, both of whom are from Southern California. Several others are considering bypassing college and signing with Major League Soccer or European clubs following the world championships.

"The team is ready," Ellinger said. "They have been waiting for this for a long time and they are anxious to play. We need to play with passion but to keep our emotions under control."

Notes: Tournament games are available on the Cox cable system in Fairfax County. In addition, the U.S. Soccer Federation will provide updates on its Web site at www.us-soccer.com.