For most young soccer players, instruction from professionally trained athletes is reserved for exclusive, and often expensive, clinics and camps.
But within the Perry Hall White Marsh Soccer Association, former pro and collegiate soccer players regularly provide coaching and practice to boys and girls as young as 4. Current Baltimore Blast players occasionally volunteer their time as well.
Mike Conway—who played for the then-Baltimore Spirit in the Major Indoor Soccer League between 1992 and 1993—is at least partially responsible for luring in the extra talent, as well as creating a more serious atmosphere among the program's recreational teams.
Conway currently works as the Blast's assistant general manager, and since 2011, he has volunteered as president of the PHWMSA. The Perry Hall resident has two sons, ages 6 and 9, who both play in the program.
"Soccer is my life," Conway told Patch, while coaching an evening travel team practice. "My heart and soul is here—this is what I grew up with."
Across the field, Derrick Marcano, who played for the Blast between 1995 and 2005, works with a group of 9-year-old boys on their passing skills. He is a friend of Conway from high school. Multiple times each week, Marcano travels to Perry Hall from his home in Woodlawn to assist with practices and so his son, Stephon, can participate in the program.
"I bring him here, where I know he can get good instruction from people who care about the game," he said. "It's a good culture."
Coaches and players in the program respect the sport in a way seldom seen in the United States, Marcano said.
"I love to see kids that really want to play the game, kids who really love the game and want to follow it at an international level—you just don't see that everywhere," he said.
Conway said he approached the position of president with several goals in mind: to begin conducting monthly meetings, standardizing the uniforms and encouraging more involvement from highly-trained community members.
"I don't think they had bad people running it before—I don't think there are any bad people volunteering their time to help kids. I just think they needed some more direction," he said.
Program volunteers also include coach Franco Pastore, a former standout player at Archbishop Curley High School and University of Maryland Baltimore County, as well as director of coaching Derek Woodward, who played at Calvert Hall and Frostburg State University.
"We just feel like, if we have these people that are knowledgeable, why not use them? We're not getting paid anything. This is all volunteer," he added.
Conway said the soccer program—which currently includes more than 1,200 athletes, age 16 and under—is growing in size and diversity, attracting families of varied social, economic and racial backgrounds from across Baltimore County.
"Players are being exposed to other kids. This isn't just their friends from school," he said.
Perry Hall's multiple playing fields provide an ideal, central location for the program, he added.
"We have Cowenton, we have Honeygo and Perry Hall Park, Kingsville has a park—we have all this space," he said. "If you're always fighting for field space, the kids won't get to practice as much."
Despite his position in the pro soccer business, Conway said the rec program isn't about home-growing the next David Beckham—at least not directly.
"It's gotten to be so much about winning, and the name on your shirt, but what I really want to hear, beyond if they're really good players, is if they're good kids," he said. "I want kids who are well rounded, who do well in school, who are respectful and have that understanding of what they're getting out of it. This is just a stepping stone for them. They're making friends here and they're becoming better players."
Of course, several of the players still dream of playing pro. Stephon Marcano, 9, said he hopes to follow in his father's footsteps and someday play for the Blast. Likewise, while attending a practice, Amy Schenning said her 9-year-old son Thorn's bedroom is decorated in homage to FIFA.
Schenning said the program has provided her son and other players with several positive role models.
"You can tell they respect their coaches ... not all of the kids have solid family situations. The team has become an extended family," she said.
Starting Memorial Day weekend and continuing through June 8, tryouts for the program's fall season are scheduled at the Community College of Baltimore County Essex. Details are available on the program's website.
After several spring tournament wins, especially among several of the girls and travel teams, Conway said he's looking forward to a new season.
"My end goal, and what we've talked about as a program, is to take the kids to the highest level where they can play," he said.