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Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)
Baseball is and will perhaps always remain the most popular of all America's pastimes. But here in Worcester another sport, one which some might consider an interloper, is pushing for recognition in its own right.
That would be soccer, or what most other countries call football.
Driven in part by the growing number of Worcester immigrants raised on soccer, the city is being pushed to create more soccer facilities and to increase residents' access to existing ones.
Cassie Giardina is program coordinator for Cultural Exchange through Soccer, an organization whose mission is to use the "universal language of soccer" to foster community among the city's diverse population, many of whom are immigrants and refugees from soccer-playing nations.
Ms. Giardina said she is not convinced the city understands the importance of increasing and improving its soccer facilities.
"The demand is huge," she said.
"The majority of open spaces and fields that are easily accessible for soccer play are not well- maintained and are not specific to soccer, while the well-maintained fields are not accessible to community members."
Ms. Giardina is not alone in her assessment.
Bob Fitzgerald, a longtime soccer enthusiast, has been coaching soccer teams participating in the Worcester World Cup and other regional soccer tournaments.
For the Worcester World Cup tournament, for example, he said there are about 16 men's and four women's teams, with people on the waiting list for both groups.
"They have no place to practice in Worcester," he said.
"Accessible fields, like the one at Elm Park school is like playing on concrete. We often have to go to places like Northboro and Auburn and rent facilities so Worcester taxpayers can play soccer."
But Robert Antonelli, assistant commissioner of public works and parks, said the city has not been tone deaf to the cries of its soccer constituents.
For example, he said, the city has spent some $24 million over the past three years and $80 million since 2000 to improve sports and recreational facilities in its 61 public parks. Soccer, he said, has benefited from that investment.
He noted, for example, that the city has three dedicated soccer fields, including Glodis Field, which is being renovated with synthetic turf and lights. He said Farber Field and Bell Hill are also dedicated soccer fields, but he acknowledged that the latter is "in pretty rough condition."
More importantly, he said, the city is expanding its portfolio of rectangular fields, which will accommodate soccer along with other sports such as football and rugby. These rectangular fields, he said, will increase playing opportunities for soccer and diminish turf breakdown from overuse.
He noted, for example, that the city spent about $100,000 regrading, reseeding and putting adequate drainage at the Elm Park field, but that field deteriorated from overuse in just one year after that work was done.
Mr. Antonelli acknowledged, however, that existing soccer facilities are primarily reserved for Worcester Youth Soccer leagues and organized school teams, and that opportunities to find space to play soccer are particularly difficult in the spring and summer, when baseball and football are being played. There are generally more opportunities in the fall, he said.
Building a soccer complex, which would allow pickup and other non-league soccer play, is not feasible at the moment because of the difficulty in finding such space among Worcester's seven hills. Similarly, building indoor soccer facilities in the city, while a great idea, is not a priority at the moment.
"Worcester should have an indoor facility," he said.
"It would be a home run for all of us, but it comes down to money, and where do we put our money first? It is a battle. There are a lot of competing interests, but we are investing in getting our parks and facilities up and running first.
"But what I can say is, as we move along and we get to the point where we have more fields, we will get an area with fields that are left open to play (pickup) soccer. I don't see that happening right now, but we can work together and strive to make that happen.
"We are more than happy, to work with everybody. The door is open."
Mr. Fitzgerald said the city has made such promises before, but has largely fallen short of fulfilling them.
"It is a baseball city, and soccer has been ignored," he said.
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