As U.S. Youth Soccer vice president Evelyn Gill introduced a secret special guest during a luncheon on Monday at the Overland Park Convention Center, the massive ballroom packed with 2,000 of the best youth soccer players in the country started to buzz.
Excitement rippled through the room in waves as players and parents alike reacted to Gill’s description, which made it clear to most in attendance who’d be walking on stage in a matter of seconds.
When Mia Hamm finally stepped onto the stage, the crowd went berserk — a sea of camera phones awash in adolescent screams.
“I was very surprised,” said Regan Ballard, who plays for OFC96 from Oklahoma City, which won the Region III under-18 girls title. “That was awesome. It was amazing. Growing up, I was most definitely a fan of hers, and as soon as they started talking, me and my whole table were like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Mia Hamm’ and started freaking out.”
Hamm spoke briefly to the crowd amd then spent nearly two hours signing autographs and posing for pictures with her throng of admirers, who have swarmed into Overland Park for the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship Series.
The organization will contest national championships in 14 age divisions — under-13 through under-19 for boys and girls — today through Sunday at the Overland Park Soccer Complex.
“To have this luncheon,” Hamm said, “where they all get to dress up and — rightly so — be treated like champions, it’s a wonderful experience for them.”
And she would know.
Growing up in Wichita Falls, Texas, Hamm qualified once for the National Championship Series, which served as something of a springboard to her becoming arguably the greatest player in women’s soccer history.
“From a very young age, you were trying to get to the state championship,” Hamm said. “I was able one year on the girls’ side to go to nationals, and it was in North Carolina. I remember what a big deal it was.
She knows it’s a big deal for the 88 teams assembled this week in Overland Park, so her message was one of encouragement and seizing the moment.
“I’m here basically to help share a message with these young players that I’ve been in your shoes,” Hamm said. “You’re nervous, you’re excited, you’ve worked so hard for this. Now is an opportunity to just go out there and express yourself. Do what you do best, display your skills and your love for this game.”
Overland Park was also host to the National Championship Series in 2010.
When the field expanded from 60 to 88 teams, the 12-field complex at 135th and Switzer was chosen as the prime location to play the largest National Championship Series in U.S. Youth Soccer history.
“This is tremendous for Overland Park to be able to host such a prestigious tournament two times in four years,” said Liron BenDor, vice president of marketing for the Overland Park Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The tournament will require more than 8,000 hotel room nights, which is up from 5,000 three years ago, and the expected economic impact is $4 million.
“Not only do we want to make a strong impression and make sure we help U.S. Youth Soccer be as successful as possible with this tournament, but we want to show similar organizations that we’re capable of hosting such tournaments for them as well,” BenDor said. “Whether it’s lacrosse, ultimate Frisbee or whatever it might be, the soccer complex actually is a very flexible facility. It’s not just for soccer.”