It is gray and cold in Howard County, Md., this Memorial Day weekend. The first game of the Columbia Invitational Soccer Tournament was called on account of lightning, and during the second game rain squalls have been sweeping the length of the sodden field. It's no day for classy soccer, and when the big-shouldered 16-year-old in the number 9 jersey receives a bouncing pass out on the right, in the offensive zone, you expect nothing more from him than a hopeful kick lofted toward the opposing goalmouth.
Instead, he deadens the ball, barely looking at it, because he needs to watch the shifting pattern of players around him. Then he starts to move on the goal. From the sidelines come the yells of the soccer illiterates: Get rid of it! No crude booting for number 9, Todd Haskins, though. He keeps cutting in, and now there is only the goalie to beat.
Todd pauses for a second, almost arrogantly, to compute the trajectory of his shot. When it comes, it is a lazy lob from the side of the foot, but the ball curls just out of reach of the keeper and into the goal. Even before the ball bulges the back of the net, Todd is running back to midfield with his arms high in triumph.
Todd Haskins, a 5'8", 150-pound junior at Howard High School in Columbia, is the star goal-scorer of the local club team, Howard Courage. But next week he will exchange the red jersey of Howard Courage for the red, white and blue of the U.S. under-16 national soccer team as it heads for Scotland and the world championships. The Americans qualified for their age-group finals last fall, and they enter the world championships as one of the best soccer teams, at its level, this country has ever produced. American kids like Todd are now as good technically as any in the world.
At 16, Haskins is a seasoned player who can control a game both as a goal-scorer and as a defender, the role he plays on the national team. (Like race horses, soccer kids have an official birthday; those born on or after Aug. 1, 1972, are officially under 16.) "You wouldn't believe how scrawny he was as a 13-year-old," says Keith Tabatznik, who coached Todd when he played on the Maryland state team for children under 14. "He was just too fragile physically to handle a defensive role. But he could do so many things with the ball that I just had to use him. So I played him out on the wing. I even jumped a year with him, put him in with the 14's."
Todd has always been ahead of his time. "When he was little, I used to walk him by Thunder Hill Elementary School while the kids were practicing," says his mother, Alice Haskins, who is the principal of Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City, Md., "and Todd used to kick the ball around on his own on the sidelines. The coach started watching him, then asked me how old he was. I told him Todd was five. 'How soon is he going to be six?' he wanted to know."
Todd joined the youth team the next year and since then has followed an unimpeded route to the top of American soccer. "Coaches came round all the time," recalls Alice. "He played for the state, then for the region. And finally, the letter came to say he'd been picked for his country. They never call. It's always a letter. And they always send it to the kid. I was ecstatic."
That was early last year, after Roy Rees, the national under-16 coach, had conducted a tryout camp for the team in January. "I was looking for composed, confident players," says Rees, "and Todd was that. He tries to act laid-back, but he is a very intense, serious young man. He has the sort of pride I was looking for. And a passion for the game."
Todd began his career as an international player a year ago, when the U.S. twice beat Canada during exhibition games in Colorado by a combined score of 8-2. His true blooding in world competition, however, came last November at the regional tournament in Trinidad that determined which North and Central American and Caribbean countries would qualify for the finals in Scotland.
The U.S. made a spectacular start, winning its first three games, against St. Lucia and strong teams from Guatemala and Honduras, by a cumulative score of 19 goals to one. Then, undermined by the flu and homesickness and playing Trinidad in front of a capacity crowd of 24,000 in Port of Spain, the U.S. lost 1-0. After that, morale seemed to go to pieces. Three days later, against the same Canadian team that it had beaten so easily in the summer, the U.S. lost 2-1. Suddenly, that trip to Scotland looked highly unlikely.