New England Revolution midfielder Clint Dempsey knows something about playing at a high level as a young kid.
Dempsey, a native of Nacogdoches, Texas, remembers playing in the Dallas Cup, a major international tournament that features some of the best youth teams in the world and includes as alumni players like Real Madrid superstar David Beckham. Dempsey recalls playing against kids who represented Mexican clubs Pumas UNAM and Monterrey and Brazilian clubs Sao Paulo and Vasco da Gama.
So it was fitting that Dempsey was on hand Thursday night to welcome the eight teams that will compete in the Jetix Kids Cup International Finals on Friday in Columbus, Ohio, as part of the 2005 Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game festivities.
"If you look around you, you all are the future of soccer in this country," Dempsey said.
In fact, some of the players in the crowd Thursday at the COSI science museum in Columbus may be the future of soccer in Brazil. Teams from the South American nation won the Latin American boys and girls Kids Cup titles and will face their U.S. counterparts on Friday to determine the international champion. Boys and girls teams from each of three U.S. cities -- Los Angeles, Chicago and New York -- will compete against each other earlier in the day to determine who will face the Brazilians. All of the players are from 10-12 years old, and the games feature five players per side.
While the tournament has obvious benefits for the kids, Major League Soccer is benefiting as well. The league saw an opportunity in the Jetix Kids Cup in that the event, despite existing for a number of years, had previously not gotten much fanfare in the United States before.
The league seized on the chance to run the competition in the United States and make an imprint with the competing kids and with Disney, whose ABC Family and Toon Disney channels air Jetix children's programming, such as "Power Rangers" and anime series like "Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!" Short-form television programs chronicling the Jetix Kids Cup will air on ABC Kids on the ABC Television Network on Aug. 20 and on ABC Family and Toon Disney on Aug. 21.
"It shows kids that MLS supports them, and that (MLS) wants those kids to stick with soccer, because ultimately it's going to pay off for MLS in the long run," Dempsey said. "I'm a kid who developed over here, and we have a lot of Americans who did the same. We've just got to keep doing that."
Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis, also a speaker at Thursday's reception, reminded the players how far soccer has come in the United States and long this weekend's experience will stay with them.
"When I was young, we didn't have anything like this going. It was hard to find a soccer game on TV," Reis said. "The most important thing I can say to you, really, is take a look around. It's going to be an amazing weekend for you, and it's something that you'll hopefully never forget for the rest of your life."
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.