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Interactive displays and games test museumgoers' skills.
Interactive displays and games test museumgoers' skills. (National Soccer Hall of Fame)

Passionate fans get their kicks at soccer mecca

Email|Print| Text size + By David Beard
Globe Staff / August 12, 2007

ONEONTA, N.Y. -- Cooperstown is down the road 25 miles. For decades, people in this upstate New York town have endured streams of tourists asking for directions to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

But to our family, Oneonta has its own roundball mecca: the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Morphing as it moved from a Hartwick College hall to a 19th-century mansion, then to its current home -- a spacious building with a giant ball that seems to be crashing through its exterior -- the Soccer Hall of Fame indeed has expanded in its 28 years. Yet the idea by town fathers to challenge Cooperstown -- and to do it in this riverside community (a venue so improbable that a "Why Oneonta?" section appears on the Hall's website) -- seemed for decades like jealousy-inspired folly.

These days, it seems more like inspiration.

For the world's favorite sport, which for years has tried to boost its status up against this country's so-called national pastime, this has been a good summer. Today Gillette Stadium in Foxborough has sold out as British superstar midfielder David Beckham continues his tour of the United States with his new team, the Los Angeles Galaxy. Two weeks from today, the Soccer Hall of Fame is anticipating record crowds for the induction of two high-profile players: Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm, members of the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup champions. Hamm has scored the most goals in international competition (158) of any player, male or female.

"This will be the biggest induction in our history," says Jack Huckel, director of the museum and archives.

And it's about time, says the amiable, bearded Huckel, a former Skidmore College soccer coach. Walking through the museum, he makes a quick point about the popularity of American youth soccer.

"There are many more of these kids" -- he nods toward my soccer-crazed son Jordan, 14, who is wearing the jersey of Samuel Eto'o of Barcelona's world-class team -- "than there are baseball players."

He pointed to the right kid. Indeed, Jordan barely passes a day without soccer. My wife managed his indoor soccer team over the winter, and he spent much of the spring and summer on our town's artificial turf fields. That is, when he wasn't playing FIFA 07 in the basement or watching games from US, English, Spanish, German, Italian, and Latin American leagues on ESPN2, Fox Soccer Channel, or GolTV. On the long ride here, father and son listened to the audiobook of "Fever Pitch," Nick Hornby's memoir about growing up and forming a decades-long attachment to north London's Arsenal team.

Before we left home, Jordan had packed something else in the trunk: a ball, just in case we were interested in impromptu passing drills.

With groups of energetic youths in soccer gear roaming the Hall, Huckel talks about the sport's challenge: getting youngsters to maintain their passion for the game, as participant or fan, beyond middle school. With a stronger professional league in the States, video games, and cable and satellite TV, Americans are exposed to the pro game much more than in soccer's brief 1970s heyday, when Pelé and the New York Cosmos dominated.

The museum at the Hall of Fame is a place to keep the interest burning. Downstairs, sepia photographs and announcements document pioneering games in the country, such as an 1863 matchup between the Oneida Football Club, the first organized team in the United States, and players from Boston English and Boston Latin high schools on Boston Common. The exhibits move into color photography and videos of professional and national team highlights, including the icons of the sport here, from Hamm and Kristine Lilly to Pelé, Eric Wynalda, and Alexi Lalas.

It was upstairs, however, that caught Jordan's eye. Younger museumgoers push, kick, and punch away on interactive displays and games. Jordan slalomed a ball through a field of static defenders as fast as he could, then spent a half-hour pounding a ball toward a machine that measured its speed. We also sweated it out on a mini indoor field. We took a break as Diane Danielson, a self-described Title IX soccer jock in her youth, dueled with her son Andrew, 7, on the field.

"I wore No. 9 [Hamm's jersey number] before Mia Hamm," said Danielson, a business writer from Cohasset. "My dad was a Ted Williams fan."

The visit was one of four halls of fame (the others: boxing, baseball, and basketball) that Danielson was sandwiching around a trip to see family in Syracuse. While the museum is slighter than its Cooperstown rival or even the halls of tradition-laden European club teams such as Real Madrid or Barcelona, Andrew gave it two thumbs-up after his latest triumph on the penalty-kick machine.

"I hit 30!" he said joyfully, the bright lights announcing that he had powered a penalty kick at 30 miles per hour.

Jordan later found himself trying on an Arsenal jersey in the gift shop. He wore his new jersey on the way back, a perfect accompaniment to Hornby and the last four CDs of "Fever Pitch."

We didn't really stop talking about soccer -- or listening to it -- until we were nearly home.

David Beard can be reached at beard@globe.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Hampton Inn Oneonta
225 River St.
607-433-9000
hilton.com
Less than a mile from the Soccer Hall of Fame, it's clean, has free breakfasts and a pool/health club. Doubles $269 on summer weekend nights.
Clarion Hotel Oneonta
55 Market St.
607-432-7500
clarionhotel.com
Near State University of New York College at Oneonta and close to Main Street, with a pool and hot tub. Doubles $90-$256 on summer weekends.

Where to eat
Autumn Cafe
244 Main St.
607-432-6845
autumncafe.com
A haunt of SUNY Oneonta professors. Gourmet burgers, fine fish, meat, and veggie options for under $15. Also has a wide selection of microbrews. Occasional live music.

Sal's Pizzeria & Restaurant
285 Main St.
607-432-6766
A cheap way (about $8 per person) to get the college-town vibe.

What to do
National Soccer Hall of Fame
18 Stadium Circle
607-432-3351
soccerhall.org
Daily 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; 10-5 after Labor Day through Memorial Day weekend.
Adults $12.50, children ages 6-12 $7.50; 5 and under free.

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