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September 19, 2009

Soccer hall could use an assist


Like many who cheered from the sidelines as Oneonta embarked on its quest to become Soccertown, USA, I was surprised and disappointed by the closure of the National Soccer Hall of Fame earlier this month.

Since the announcement Sept. 3, there's been much speculation on what went wrong "" and what will become of the institution that has existed in Oneonta in some form for 30 years, including 10 years at its current location off state Route 205, exactly half a mile from my house.

Whether the problem was mismanagement, missed opportunity or misplaced faith in a cultural revolution that may never happen, what matters now is that everyone who believes soccer is part of what makes Oneonta special rally around the hall and figure out how to keep it here.

Until recently, the hall's museum was averaging 17,000 visitors a year. Its camps and tournaments were more successful, drawing 55,000 people to the campus, but that still was not enough to sustain the $1 million-a-year operating budget for the 400,000-square-foot museum and its four fields. Several staff members were let go, and the hall is now closed to the public except during its few remaining scheduled tournaments, including the High School Hall of Fame Cup this weekend.

As the board of directors works to develop a "new, sustainable operating model" that may include online exhibits, traveling exhibits and a possible new physical location, some observers say the hall would be better off in a major city, perhaps even on the grounds of a soccer stadium.

I disagree. The museum would certainly get more tourist traffic in Washington, D.C., and it would attract more Major League Soccer fans if it were located at, say, Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. But the operating costs would rise along with the number of visitors, and it's hard to imagine the hall inspiring the kind of regional and community support it has here.

The fact is, the National Soccer Hall of Fame came to be through a grass-roots community effort and would not exist if it weren't for the vision, persistence and hard work of a group of Oneontans with a true passion for the game. Losing the hall means giving up on a dream that has endured for more than 30 years.

I grew up in Oneonta when the soccer craze was in full swing. The youth soccer league was firmly established in Neahwa Park, with hundreds of kids from Oneonta and surrounding towns playing every fall. The Hartwick College men's soccer team won the NCAA Division I championship in 1977, and 10 years later, when I was in high school, the annual Mayor's Cup tournament was still drawing standing-room only crowds to Damaschke Field.

Fast-forward to the mid-'90s, when plans for a soccer hall campus off Route 205 were announced. I was excited, but a little wary, too. Would there be more traffic on my already-busy road? Would the peaceful hillside and quiet, wooded area on my running route be spoiled by shrill whistles and ugly parking lots?

A decade later, the hall has become an important part of my neighborhood and an asset to the Oneonta community. I've come to look forward to crisp Sunday-morning runs by Stadium Circle, which, as recently as last weekend, was hopping, with games on all four fields and spectators cheering from the bleachers. I could still see the gorgeous hillside, but the soccer players running around in the foreground completed the picture "" because in Oneonta, soccer is as much a part of fall as apple cider and leaves crunching under your feet.

The hall has become a popular venue for kids' birthday parties, and its annual Festival of Trees, where admission is a canned good for the local food bank and silent auction bids on decked-out holiday trees benefit community groups, is a family tradition for many.

In 2007, I felt privileged to be able to walk half a mile down the street to see Mia Hamm get inducted and play in an exhibition game. I remember thinking I was witnessing a turning point.

Here was Mia Hamm, arguably the most well-known American soccer player, chasing a ball in Oneonta, on the same field where my 10-year-old daughter's youth league team had played.

Two years later, I'm sadly wondering if Oneonta's Soccertown dreams ever had a chance "" even as I'm hoping that somehow, the hall will find a way to maintain a presence in Oneonta.

Soccer will probably never be a sport that inspires hordes of fans to drive cross country in minivans emblazoned with "Oneonta or bust," and that's OK. With creative thinking, perseverance in tough economic times and steadfast community support, the soccer hall still has the potential to succeed in Oneonta.

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Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.