The Sound Of The Fury

"Stop it!" an opposing player yelled at Carolyn Ford. "You're pulling my skin!" "No I'm not," retorted the center fullback for the Bethesda (Md.) Fury, a girls' club soccer team, "I'm pulling your fat!" The referee gave Ford a yellow card for unsportsmanlike conduct, but Lisa Taverna, Carolyn's mother, approves of her daughter's aggressive play. "Our kids will give back. They're intimidated by nobody. When they step on the field, any friendship stops," says Taverna. "The beauty of it is, it teaches them professionalism."

More than 3.5 million girls play club and high-school soccer in the United States. Some of the best play for the Bethesda Fury, a club or "travel" team of 17-year-olds. NEWSWEEK followed the Fury this spring and summer as the team campaigned toward the national championships, played in the last weekend in July in Indianapolis. Judging from the Fury's experience, it is fair to say that girls have achieved true equality with boys in the amateur-sports arena, though whether that amounts to progress is a more complicated question. Girls' soccer, as played by elite travel teams, bears no resemblance to the friendly, any-kid-can-play game that caught on with suburban parents about 30 years ago. Aside from ponytails, the young women of the Fury have nothing in common with the idol-worshiping pre-teens who swooned over soccer goddess Mia Hamm at the 1996 Olympics. They have no heroes and scorn Hamm as stuck-up. They can be playful and flirtatious, but also gritty, profane and ruthless to their opponents.

The Fury was first organized in 1993, when the girls were 9 years old. In theory, girls' teams stay together as they grow older and rise through the different age groups (from under 9 to under 19). The reality is more Darwinian. Only two of the 17 original Furies remain on the squad. The rest have been replaced by better players, including, this year, Kristi Lefebvre, who travels to Washington most weekends from her home in Vermont. (Lefebvre is a playmaker and goal-scorer recruited from a team that nearly beat the Fury in the regional championships last year.) Despite the competition to make the team and get playing time, the Furies are tight-knit. They play off one another's moods and constantly touch one another. Before a game, they gather at the end of the field, away from the coach, to learn Who's got problems at home? Who has a nagging injury or menstrual cramps? Who's in trouble with the coach?

The Fury's coach, Brad Roos, 41, is gruff, hoarse, demanding and manipulative. After 19 years he has racked up 1,002 victories and has won 19 Maryland state championships and three Northeastern regional titles. Though Roos can be warm when it suits him, he is an "NFL-type coach," explains an assistant. "He's mean," say his players, respectfully. He pushes the girls like professionals, but he is not insensitive to their normal, teenage moods. A county recreation supervisor by day, he tells parents, whom he can find annoying and intrusive, "I don't want to be paid, but I'm not going to listen to you." As the season began in March, he was still brooding over last season's finale. In a regional final against the Fury's archfoe, a northern Virginia team called the Sparklers, one of the Fury's star strikers, Kerie Sample, missed a shoot-out penalty kick (it hit the goal post). The game over, she collapsed to the ground in hysterics. Roos just walked past her without saying a word. After Sample played erratically and acted up at practice last fall, Roos in effect kicked her off the team. Yet drinking one night with his assistants last spring, he quietly admitted, "I really let her down."

The Fury's regular season, against teams from New York to Maryland, is a little too easy. At a game in May, coach Roos sat fuming on the sideline, rolling small steel soccer balls in his palm, as his team ran up a 9-0 lead--before halftime. Not good enough for Roos. Watching his fullback Lauren Krasko muff a pass, he burst off the bench. "Lauren!" he yelled in his gravelly voice. "What!" Lauren shot back. "Don't 'what' me!" snapped Roos. "That's the third bad ball!" After the game, Roos grumbled, "I'm never satisfied."

The Fury girls train constantly. Forward Kelly Hammond runs with an automobile tire tied to her waist. The club-soccer season is much more important to the girls than their high-school season in the fall. Most girls jettison their boyfriends for the club season, though they still discreetly party. At practice, goalie Maggie Pyzik, a striking blonde, stood chatting with fullback Athena Gramates. "You guys have your prom?" asked Pyzik. "Yeah," said Gramates. "I didn't throw up." The fullback said that she had not thrown up partying for a while. Pyzik laughed. "I threw up Saturday night," she said. Roos winks at the drinking but makes sure the girls stay focused on the field. When Pyzik seemed a little distracted at a recent practice, Roos lit into her: "I want you to be the biggest bitch out there!" he demanded.

The girls feel more than pressure to win. The parents of the Furies are marketing their daughters for college scholarships. All the Furies have bio pages on the team Web site (bethesdafury.com). "Katy had 17 hits in one day," bragged John Owings, father of alternate goalkeeper Katy Owings, to another parent, Joe McHugh. "Lots of edu's and org's. Real good sign." At tournaments, as many as 200 college scouts show up.

The Fury's field general, the compact, trash-talking fullback Gramates, has struggled with an injured toe, which she broke kicking a car door after fighting with her mother. She has shot up her toe with Novocain so many times that it's pocked with black needle spots. The toe no longer bends. When Gramates kicks a ball wrong, she screams "F---!" Says her father, John: "She'll play through it. She's got to."

Before the state championships on June 17, Gramates gave her mates a pep talk: "We're going to kick their f---ing a--es!" The play was rough. Watching a Fury lay out one of his players with an elbow, the coach of the opposing Parkville Pumas yelled at the ref, "C'mon! That's enough! Keep the elbows down!" Not 10 yards away, coach Roos smiled and said, "I don't think crying's going to help you." The Puma coach shot back, "I don't think this is the WWF." But it might as well be. On the bench, a laughing Gramates tells her teammates, "I tried to get a foul, I admit it. She knocked my leg and I was like, 'Next play, you're going down.' And she went down. She was like, 'Why?' I said, 'You went after my leg'." The Fury won, 3-0.

The Fury scraped through the Northeastern regionals, earning Roos his 1,000th career win. Last year, after losing in the regional finals in overtime, the team threw their second-place medals in the trash. At the nationals, the team to beat was the Southern California Blues, the defending champions. Early in the four-team round robin among the Fury, the Blues and teams from Texas and Ohio, the Fury tied the Blues 1-1. A Fury overheard one of the California players remark that she wasn't even tired after the game. Coach Roos used that remark, plus a comment by a Blues parent that the team never had to travel far because the only real competition was in California, to goad the Fury. "They're disrespecting you," he yelled. The championship game between the Blues and the Fury remained scoreless into the second overtime until, with less than a minute to play, Kelly Hammond scored the winner. Coach Roos howled, the girls cried and collapsed in a heap. After the game, a few Fury parents repaired to the hotel bar. Hammond, the tournament MVP, came to find her father. She didn't seem all that excited to have just won a national championship. "Come on, let's go, we're going to miss the plane," she pleaded. Tryouts for the under-19 World Cup team started the next morning.