Monday, December 22, 2008

Pierce Memorial Stadium memories

During my last post, I alluded to the fact that the Rhode Island Stingrays will not call Pierce Memorial Stadium their home ground in 2009,but rather, move across the Seekonk and Providence Rivers to play in Providence.

As a lifelong resident of East Providence, it saddens me to learn that pro soccer, which has endured such a rich history here, will once again abandon the same pitch where so many memorable players have plied their craft.

For anyone to truly appreciate soccer's legacy in East Providence, let's start at square one. Pierce Memorial Stadium was constructed as part of a WPA project back in the 1930s. Unfortunately, its completion coincided with the decline of soccer football's popularity due to the Depression.

Nonetheless, the field didn't search long for tenants - it hosted numerous amateur sides and games during its infancy.

While the stadium played host to many of the city's ethnic Portuguese sides, the park's heyday in the soccer realm arrived in the 1970s.

The Rhode Island Oceaneers, and its star-filled squad that included Arnie Mausser, Carmelo D'Anzi, and the great Eusebio, drew thousands to the compact 8,000 seat concrete stadium a full year before Pele's arrival in the Big Apple. They were coached by Manny Schellscheidt, who guided them to an American Soccer League championship in 1974 after compiling a sterling 16-0-2 (34 pts.) record. Indeed, it was soccer that coursed through the city's veins.

Unfortunately, the excitement wouldn't last. Within three years, the Oceaneers sailed to Indiana, leaving a soccer-loving community starved for pro soccer.

But for those who followed the sport closely, there was always soccer at Pierce Stadium. Thousands of high school, college, and amateur games were played during pro soccer's absence, as the light towers cast a glow above the center of the city on many a match night.

But the pro game would return. After an 17-year absence, the Rhode Island Stingrays set up shop via the United States International Soccer League in 1995. Pro soccer was back.

Over the years, the Stingrays have produced first-division talent, with Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Nico Colaluca (Colorado Rapids), Danleigh Borman (New York Red Bulls) and Lukasz Tumicz (Poland) among the most recent alumni who played in the cozy confines of Pierce Stadium.

In addition to the pro game, the stadium, which is beautifully tucked inside a residential neighborhood, has hosted each of Portugal's "Big 3" - Benfica, FC Porto, and Sporting - for friendlies with local sides.

I'm sure I've left huge, gaping holes in this very brief timeline. Volumes could be written on the the stadium's soccer past, as well as present. In any event, it's my hope that even with the Stingrays' departure, the stadium's rich history is never lost.

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