On a scorching hot day (game-time temperature 93 degrees) that was better suited for going to the beach, out on a boat or sitting at home in front of a fan or in air conditioning, a respectable crowd still turned out on Saturday afternoon for a friendly between AC Milan (Italy) and Olimpia (Honduras) at Gillette Stadium. It was the first half of a soccer doubleheader with the New England Revolution hosting Sporting Kansas City in the MLS nightcap.
The drawing power of one of Europe’s true superpowers (2nd in Serie A last season, quarterfinalists in the Champions League)-AC Milan-is understandable given all the Italians in New England but Olimpia was a last-minute substitute when Cruziero (Brazil) pulled out because of a scheduling conflict. The bigger question is what makes New England such a well respected soccer market in the United States? Ever since the World Cup in 1994 held sold-out matches at dumpy Foxboro Stadium, Foxboro has been a go-to destination for U.S. national team games (U.S. men vs. Spain last June) and international friendlies (AC Milan vs. Inter Milan in 2009) to name a few examples.
There are a couple possible explanations for why soccer is so popular around here. It is a cliché to say that everyone played the sport when they were younger but in New England, that’s not far from the truth. Believe it or not, Massachusetts Youth Soccer had more registered players than any other state in 2011. With that, kids are getting into the game at a young age and by extension, so do their parents who in some cases coach the youth teams or at least attend many of the games.
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The region also produces top end talent in soccer thanks to the proliferation of club teams, summer camps and training programs for serious middle school and high school players. All you need to do is look at a roster of a U.S. college team in any level (Division 1-3 men’s or women’s) to realize that as much as any major sport (outside of maybe hockey or lacrosse), New England is the home to many outstanding soccer players. The weather doesn’t hurt development as much as other sports-namely baseball and football-since indoor soccer is a popular diversion in the winter.
The final element that always helps is the many different cultures that live in New England. The Brazilians and Portuguese are the best examples but it seems like almost all immigrants that find their way to the area, carry a deep affection for what is known as the beautiful game. Venture around Boston or any of the surrounding cities (Somerville, Medford, Chelsea) on a spring, summer or fall weekend and you’re guaranteed to see large soccer games in parks and on local fields. Soccer is something which always connects people to wherever they have come from and that never changes, no matter where life takes you.