As the 2004 Sierra Mist MLS Dribble, Pass and Score national finals get underway Saturday, Traci Bender is very nervous. Like any mother would be, she's hoping her daughter, Landry, will do well, but she is hoping even more that her daughter will enjoy the event.
"I don't care one way or another how she performs," Bender said. "I just want her to be happy with how she does."
Bender knows her nine-year-old has already done something remarkable. The road to Saturday's DPS national finals started with 150,000 kids aged 8-14 taking part in local competitions. Now, in six age groups, there are a total of 30 kids left. That means Landry is among the top five 8- and 9-year-old female DPS participants in the entire country.
That's not bad for a girl who got involved with the competition almost entirely by coincidence. Bender volunteers with her local soccer association; the soccer association offered to provide manpower for the DPS event in Mansfield, Texas, and, as a result of that connection, Landry entered the competition.
"It was just kind of something to do on the weekend," Bender said. "We never dreamed or never even thought that it went this far."
Though Landry, who said Saturday her favorite player is former Dallas Burn midfielder Jordan Stone, claimed she did "bad" on Saturday, she finished second in her age group. While her success is certainly something to be proud of, her mother says simply the experience Landry has had in Los Angeles is something to cherish. One of the highlights for Landry, said her grandmother Berry Hancock, was getting her picture taken next to Britney Spears' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
"She's had a good time. She's learned to handle stressful situations," Bender said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for her."
Landry and the rest of Saturday's DPS contestants impressed a lot of people with their hard work and enthusiasm, including Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. The 1999 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year gave the kids a tour of The Home Depot Center and helped present the awards to the winners. He said the opportunity given to the competitors is a promising sign.
"I think that, as somebody who grew up playing soccer in this country, with the lack of opportunity that we had back then, to see these kids get the opportunity they have now, I think it's going to be great for the future of soccer in America," Hartman said.
"To start from 150,000 kids and to work it down and for these kids to get the opportunity to fly all the way out here and not only represent themselves, but to represent their MLS city, I think it's a really neat opportunity."
Hartman also noted that the kids who were on the field Saturday, especially the winners, showed that they are serious about soccer and that they realize the sport is something that they can continue to play into adulthood. He said the fact that the DPS finals take place in the shadow of The Home Depot Center with professional players looking on proves to the kids that there is a future for them in the sport.
The DPS competition and the kids who participate also have an impact on the event's organizers. Neel Shah, MLS' coordinator of fan development and special events, oversaw Saturday's national finals and said the enthusiasm each participant showed is encouraging. He also praised the participants' parents for creating an environment where their children can compete and enjoy themselves at the same time.
"(The program) gives me hope that there are kids out there with incredible talent. What it also does is show me how much support the parents have out there," Shah said. "The two main things I take away from it is that these kids are excellent - they're fun-loving and they're great soccer players - and they've got incredible parents as well."
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.