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Born in the Northeast: the forgotten history of soccer-specific stadiums in the U.S.

In 1862, a group known as the Oneida Football Club gathered at Boston Common for a historic function: the first recorded soccer match on American soil. Their match, which predated the formation of the English Football Association by a year, was a sign of things to come for soccer in the region.

The Northeastern United States became a hotbed for American soccer in the early 1900s, and the game thrived among the communities of European immigrants that populated the burgeoning industrial centers of the eastern seaboard.

This area was also the launch point for the first professional soccer league in the country: the American Soccer League. Formed in 1921, the first iteration of the ASL featured clubs from the Northeast and lasted 12 years before being killed off by the Great Depression

While hardly the success of MLS or even the NASL, the ASL laid the framework for these future leagues — boasting European internationals and crowds that sometimes surpassed 10,000.

Some of these clubs played in soccer-specific stadiums constructed a century ago — proof of the popularity and longevity of professional soccer in the United States. 

What follows is a short history of three prominent stadiums and their critical role in establishing soccer in the U.S.

Metropolitan Oval: Life in "The Sandpit"

New York City has long been the epitome of the American cultural melting pot. Of the 5.6 million people that lived in New York City in 1920, 35 percent were foreign-born — a ratio still maintained in the present day. Few things have brought these immigrant communities together over the years as much as soccer, and perhaps no location in NYC has been as important to the sport as the Metropolitan Oval in Queens.

Built in 1925, the ground was a footballing haven for Germans from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire — a soccer co-op of sorts. While it is unclear exactly how early the stands were erected, the field is generally believed to be the nation's oldest continuously used soccer facility.

Thousands of fans squeezed into this coliseum of soccer to watch enthralling tussles between rival ethnic groups, and the field became a hub for cultural assimilation. In 1951, New York German–Hungarian S.C even won the National Challenge Cup at the Met Oval. 

A few years later, cinder block bathrooms and concession stands were added to the field, but after decades of daily use, the pitch was dilapidated. Before matches, the caretaker would use his truck to drag a metal mattress box spring across the field to pull away rocks before watering the ground with a garden hose to keep the dust down. Furthermore, the playing area was surrounded by steel pipe fence ringing the field just off the touchline and the goals used jagged metal fencing for netting.

By 1994, the Oval was in serious trouble. Grass refused to grow on the overused ground, and owners owed half a million in back taxes. But in a rare moment of togetherness in American soccer, the field was saved. The USSF and Nike both stepped in with considerable donations, allowing the debts to be cleared and even leaving enough money left over to lay down artificial turf.

These days, Met Oval's Youth Center of Excellence is one of the leading soccer academies on the eastern seaboard, regularly sending young players to D1 schools and even MLS academies. Even with the update, the field's cultural impact is not forgotten.

"I consider the Oval to be my country,” Joseph Misso, a Tunisian immigrant who came to New York in 1961 says. “And why not? It’s culture, it’s community, and it’s pride."

Lusitano Stadium: A Tradition That Lives On

While the Metropolitan Oval was a cultural melting pot, Lusitano Stadium in Ludlow, Massachusetts, is the result of a century-long Portuguese stronghold in a small western Massachusetts town. 

Many Portuguese came to New England during the Second Industrial Revolution to gain work, and a few thousand settled in Ludlow to work in the local linen factories — a common theme in this textile-heavy region. They carried a reverent soccer culture that quickly took over the town.

Grémio Lusitano, founded in 1922, began as a social club and quickly doubled as an athletic center for the Portuguese and other immigrant communities. “Lusitano is a nickname given to the Portuguese,” current club member Joao Bernardo says. “Grémio means union or together. So the club brings us together.”

On the pitch across from the clubhouse, the team played under various names and competed for a few seasons in the the American Soccer League — the earliest professional league in the country — in the 1950s.

While many soccer clubs in New England have folded, Grémio Lusitano and Lusitano Stadium are still alive today and maintain their uniquely Iberian flavor. Fans can try traditional Portuguese cuisines like bifana (Portuguese pork sandwich) served at every match. 

Early in 2022, the club enjoyed the 100th anniversary of its historic stadium. It was a celebration of the original Portuguese immigrants who founded the club and the progress they made on and off the pitch. "Our club began with Portuguese immigrants who had their homeland at heart," Bernardo said, "but in their minds the Portuguese spirit of always moving forward to make a better path and create better opportunities for their children."

A century later, Lusitano Stadium is still a reminder of football's incredible impact beyond the touchlines. 

Mark's Stadium: Weaving a Pattern For Success

To tell the story of pro soccer in America without the Fall River Marksmen is like removing the Yankees from MLB history, or excluding the Green Bay Packers from a summary of the NFL. The Marksmen won the ASL title six times in 10 seasons thanks to a pair of three-peats while also taking home four National Challenge Cup crowns (now known as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup).

The club's home during this remarkable run was Mark's Stadium, one of the first soccer-specific stadiums in the United States and easily the biggest at the time. The 15,000-seat ground — fittingly built in the shadow of a textile mill — was constructed by Sam Mark, a local baseball and basketball promoter from Fall River, Massachusetts.

Mark purchased the local pro club — Fall River United — renamed them the Marksmen, then moved the team and moved it south, across the border, and into Tiverton, Rhode Island. There, the club was able to circumvent Massachusetts' Blue Laws — religious-based restrictions that prevented activities like sports and the consumption of alcohol from taking place on Sundays.

This area on the border of Rhode Island and Massachusetts became known as the "Golden Crescent" of American soccer. Thanks to its booming textile industry, the region had the highest percentage of foreign-born residents of any population center in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. These immigrants gravitated toward the European game.

With minimal competition from professional football, crowds of 10,000-plus were a regular occurrence for league matches in Tiverton, and exhibitions against foreign sides resulted in sellouts. On June 3, 1928, 15,000 fans watched as the Marksmen drew 0-0 against Scottish champions Rangers. Two months later, the club defeated an Italian League XI 4-2.

"Fall River is one of the three most important cradles of American soccer,” Thomas McCabe, a history professor at Rutgers University-Newark, said. "You could make an argument that it is the first real soccer-specific stadium in the country."

But at the club's peak, Sam Mark initiated the soccer equivalent of the Red Sox trading away Babe Ruth 11 years earlier. In 1931, he moved the team to New York and renamed it the Yankees. Two years later, the club folded. Local sides Fall River F.C. and Ponta Delgada F.C. became the stadium's tenants, — with the former even hosting and defeating Celtic in '31.

As the years went on, soccer's prominence at the stadium declined. The field and its "L" shaped grandstand was also home to a semi-pro baseball team (owned by Mark) and hosted auto and horse racing on a dirt track that encompassed the soccer pitch. 

By the late 1950s, the stadium was gone, and the land housed a drive-in movie theater, as well as a restaurant and banquet hall. Now, an empty lot stands at the spot that was once home to America's premier soccer team.

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