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Soccer’s First City? : Oneonta, N.Y., Tries to Become Sport’s Cooperstown with Hall of Fame

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Highway 28 twists and turns through the Catskills--not mountains, really, merely hills--crossing a stream here, skirting a forest there.

At this time of the year, the villages and farms along the way have a lonely look. The trees are bare, their leaves long gone. Snow dusts the surrounding hilltops. A gray, threatening sky and a cold wind complete the picture.

A few weeks ago, it wasn’t this way. Then, there still was color in the landscape. The orange of jack-o'-lanterns set on front lawns and porch railings by local children. The reds and greens of painted folk art on sale at roadside stalls. A cold yellow sun in a pale blue sky.

Now, it’s another season. Winter is almost here.

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Rolling west toward Oneonta late one afternoon, with dusk drawing in all too quickly, it was easy to be aware of the passage of time--not simply the minutes and hours on the dashboard clock, but the seasons, the years, the decades.

Past, present and future.

Which is as fitting an introduction to this journey as any. Time travel, after all, is what it’s about.

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The ball sits in a glass display case. It is black--but whether due to age or design is not readily apparent. And it is not quite round, more of a squished oval.

Painted in white characters on its surface is a date: Nov. 7th 1863.

It is the oldest soccer ball in the United States.

A few feet away, there is the photograph of a rather stern-looking young man, alongside another picture of the same man decades later. Gerrit Smith Miller was his name.

He was the founder and captain of the first soccer club in the United States--Oneida F.C. of Boston, formed in 1862.

That is the distant past.

Around the corner is the not-so-distant past, a display honoring the late-lamented Cosmos of the North American Soccer League and, in particular, their star attraction, Pele.

On a nearby wall, color photographs and banners celebrate America’s first world championship victory--by the U.S. women’s national team in China in 1991.

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In the foyer is the future.

There, under a glass dome, is the architect’s scale model of the future home of the $18-million Wright National Soccer Campus and its centerpiece attraction, the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

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Oneonta, a town of about 19,000, has seen better days. It bills itself as “The City of the Hills,” which indicates that there isn’t much else there.

A couple of months before last summer’s World Cup, an English writer visited the town, drawn out of curiosity to see what, if anything, could possibly be in a United States Soccer Hall of Fame.

The very idea, he wrote, “may sound to some like a cross between an oxymoron and wishful thinking. . . . Surely, fame and U.S. soccer are strangers.”

It only goes to show how little is known--inside and outside the United States--about a sport that has been played here ever since Smith and his Oneida teammates kicked around on Boston Common 132 years ago.

As an aside, the players on America’s first team wore a “uniform” consisting of a red scarf knotted Indian-style around their heads. The club lasted three years and was unbeaten. Its exploits are commemorated by a monument on Boston Common, near the Spring Street Gate.

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This is the sort of trivia fans of the sport can find in Oneonta, which is a little less than 200 miles northwest of New York, or 250 miles from Boston or Philadelphia.

But it might be better to postpone the trip for a few years.

Currently, the Hall of Fame is a single-story, red-brick building that shares a parking lot with a bank and law offices. Its exhibits can be viewed quite comfortably in an hour or two.

And, interesting as most of the items on display undoubtedly are, there is a wealth of material stored, awaiting the day when the dream moves from the drawing board to reality.

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Five years have passed since the Wright National Soccer Campus was dedicated.

Today, the 61-acre site in Oneonta has four soccer fields and not much more. Plans for the sports/museum complex, however, are ambitious.

They call for construction of a 27,000-square-foot museum, which is where the Soccer Hall of Fame will be housed; a 10,000-seat soccer stadium; training facilities; additional soccer fields, as well as housing for teams and visitors.

Oneonta plays host to several soccer tournaments each year, including the annual Oneonta Mayor’s Cup, the longest-running NCAA men’s Division I-A tournament.

The town has tied its future to the sport, hoping soccer will do for Oneonta what baseball did for Cooperstown, a few miles farther west on Highway 28.

For now, however, the 15,000 visitors who come to the interim Hall of Fame each year must make do with a glimpse of the past, a sampling of what was and what is to come.

They can marvel, for example, at Charlie Colombo’s gloves--the trademark leather mittens he wore in every game he played, including the United States’ historic 1-0 victory over England in the 1950 World Cup.

There are other mementos of that famous match, played at Independencia Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil on June 29, 1950, including the jersey worn by Walter Bahr.

By today’s standards, the woolen relic looks particularly dated. The United States took the field in those days in white jerseys with a diagonal red stripe and blue trim on the collar and cuffs.

Another display features a jersey from the U.S. 1934 World Cup team, as well as a participant’s medal awarded to the players.

There are exhibits on American teams from the Olympic Games and the Pan American Games. There are sections devoted to the NASL, including the contract signed by Pele in 1975 with the Gotham Soccer Club, Inc., otherwise known as the Cosmos.

There are old programs and posters, magazines and media guides, banners and bric-a-brac from clubs and leagues that have come and gone over the last century or more.

But 90% of the material donated to the Hall of Fame, including the huge and as-yet-unsorted World Cup ’94 collection, will remain hidden until the new museum is built.

Then, there will be entire floors of exhibits, audio and video records of the past, a theater for screening famous matches, a reference library and state-of-the-art interactive exhibits. That will be the time to visit.

And it won’t matter whether it’s spring or fall, summer or winter.

In Oneonta, it will always be soccer season.


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