Mia Hamm understands exactly what this week has been like for the players at 2013 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship Series in Overland Park.
She’s an alumnus of the U.S. Youth Soccer ranks, who reached the national tournament once in her illustrious career.
“For a lot of these young players, this will be the highlight of their playing career,” Hamm said. “I hope numerous of them get to go play professionally and get to play on the national team, but they also should really embrace this moment.”
The National Championship Series is bringing together 88 youth teams from across the country for a weeklong battle for soccer supremacy.
For the second time in four years, the Overland Park Soccer Complex was selected to host the prestigious event, which will crown championship in 14 divisions — from under-13 to under-19 for both boys and girls — before this weekend ends.
Hamm was in town on Monday for a kickoff luncheon and spoke to the roughly 2,000 players, their coaches and many of their parents in a packed ballroom at the Overland Park Convention Center.
“These young players and their families and their coaches are invested,” Hamm said. “I’m just so excited for them that they get to express themselves playing a tournament like this. All that hard work, they get to put it on the line and compete in a sport that we all love.”
Hamm is particularly thrilled to see the growth of the women’s game, which is highlighted by the inaugural season of the National Women’s Soccer League (including current league front-runners FC Kansas City).
“I love it,” Hamm said. “I grew up at a youth level playing on coed teams. Where I was from in a small town in north Texas, I played on boys team and a couple times on girls teams, but you see that evolution happening.”
Hamm is thrilled that the new generation of budding soccer stars will have more opportunities than her ground-breaking generation was afforded.
“It really is a wonderful time to be a youth soccer player in this country,” Hamm said.
She added, “The success of the national teams, the MLS and now with the new NWSL, you see the opportunities continuing to grow. The collegiate game has gotten so much bigger and better. It’s an exciting time for youth soccer players. The U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships, that’s where they get to showcase that.”
Of course, Hamm remains an idol for many of the girls — and probably a fair number of the boys — in town to chase a championship dream.
“I was the third person in line (for an autograph),” said Reagan Ballard, who plays for OFC96 from Oklahoma City in the under-18 girls’ division. “It was insane. It’s a dream come true and it’s so awesome. Hearing her talk about what’s possible was just very cool. She is proof of how far you can go as a soccer player, so it was really awesome.”