Monday, July 28, 2008

REDS: STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN TOWN

Two television cameras rolled throughout the afternoon on the sidelines of Veterans Memorial Stadium.

The gathering of fans was representative, although any crowd looks small given the backdrop of the Vet’s 10,000 seats.

This was the Eastern Conference championship match for a right of passage to the 2008 Women’s Premier Soccer League National Championship Aug. 2 and 3 in Sacramento, Calif.
A major event for New Britain? Okay, so the WPSL doesn’t exactly stir the cockles of local sports-loving hearts. We in Central Connecticut, although we stand firmly behind our daughters playing soccer and revel in the thought of their getting some interest from colleges someday, cannot get excited about the crème de la crème of American women’s soccer playing a meaningful game.

Perhaps you didn’t know about it. The major Connecticut media paid it no heed so you wouldn’t have heard about it on the radio or TV.

Although some of these women – numerous from the fertile soccer programs in state hotbeds like Farmington, Glastonbury and Guilford – will go on to play in Women’s Professional Soccer next spring, few get a kick from that.

The television cameras and the most vocal of the fans were not from Hartford. Unfortunately for the local team – the SoccerPlus Connecticut Reds – most of the interested parties who convened at the Vet were there in support of the visitors, the New England Mutiny.

It was like a Mutiny home game. Maybe that’s why the underdogs came out like a house on fire and eventually upset the Reds, 1-0. Both head coaches without hearing what the other said in the game’s rain-soaked aftermath talked about heart. It was clear that the Mutiny had it and the Reds did not.

The Reds must have felt like strangers in their own land, like the Baltimore Orioles do when the Red Sox and Yanks come to Camden Yards; like the Rock Cats do when the Portland Sea Dogs (Sox) are visiting.

The Mutiny are based in the Springfield area. Their home games are played at a high school field in Agawam. The Springfield region is incredibly avid when it comes to soccer. Families can be seen in towns like Agawam and Ludlow walking down the streets toward their stadium with blankets and pompoms and little kids in tow.

In the Hartford area just a few miles south, you rarely see anything – even the high school football games that used to captivate entire communities – bringing townsfolk together. I’ve been told by more than one person familiar with the Mutiny and the Ludlow-based Western Mass. Pioneers that the population has a Portuguese flavor and that they savor their soccer in any package.

When Sunday’s match ended, the Mutiny’s passionate celebration was recorded by the Springfield TV cameras. The star of the game – Erin Clark of Somers – was interviewed. The players took the Eastern Conference championship cup, playfully placed one of the puppies that was leashed to their bench inside and lifted it jubilantly over their heads.

Passion. Passion for the game, passion for each other and passion for the team’s loyal band of followers.

Meanwhile, the heartbroken Reds moved rapidly toward the sanctuary and melancholy of their locker room.

Now I don’t mean to indict either the fans of central Connecticut or the regional media for not warming up to soccer. It’s just very evident that the “attitude” that Reds coach Lisa Cole referred to in reference to the Mutiny, and the team spirit that both Mutiny coach Tony Horta and owner Joe Ferrara convey, is well-received by fans and players alike.

Perhaps that is why the Mutiny are packing for Sacramento and the Reds, undefeated in 13 games before their loss on Sunday, are staying home.

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