By Clemente Lisi – Bronx, NY (July 23, 2012) US Soccer Players — When I was in high school 20 years ago, the school soccer team played many of its games on a bumpy and dusty field located in the shadows of Yankee Stadium. With the screeching of subway cars within earshot, my teammates and I spent many weekday afternoons at Macombs Dam Park trying to score goals for LaSalle Academy before sparse crowds that included a few parents and curious onlookers. I didn’t score too many goals back then, but I do remember how great it felt to have Yankee Stadium as a backdrop.
Times change and a new Yankee Stadium was built ahead of the 2009 baseball season on the site of where I used to play soccer. A new Macombs Dam Park was built across the street, featuring a state-of-the-art soccer field. If only I was in high school now to play on such a great surface. When English giants Chelsea, winners of the Champions League, and free-spending French club Paris Saint-Germain took to the field at Yankee Stadium Sunday night as part of the World Football Challenge, it marked the first-ever soccer game at the new stadium.
“This is a spectacular place for football,” Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo said after the game. “It truly felt like a Champions League match.”
Indeed, the Stadium, as everyone in New York calls it, remains one of the world’s most-iconic sports grounds. I still have memories of attending the ballpark – hot dog in one hand, mitt in the other – on Saturdays to watch my beloved Bronx Bombers. Monument Park, located in the outfield, was my favorite place to visit before the game. It was the place where legends like Babe Ruth came to life. Being the son of Italian immigrants, my favorite was Joe DiMaggio.
Playing soccer on a baseball diamond was common in the original North American Soccer League era, and this summer several Major League Baseball stadiums are staging soccer games. Though it took a significant break, playing soccer at Yankee Stadium isn't a new concept.
In decades past and before satellite TV and the Internet brought soccer games from around the world into our homes, Yankee Stadium was an important venue for soccer. Several New York-based teams affiliated with the American Soccer League, United Soccer League, National Professional Soccer League, and North American Soccer League all competed at the ballpark dating back to 1931.
The National Team also played at Yankee Stadium once – a friendly against England in a rematch of the 1950 World Cup game that the Americans had won 1-0. The game was played on June 8th, 1953.
“The game had to be postponed by a day because of rain and the Yankees' fear of damage that soccer in the rain would do to the field," said soccer historian Roger Allaway. "The English team was aghast at the idea of postponing a game because of such a silly reason, but it wasn’t silly to the Yankees."
The Americans, who fielded five players from that 1950 game, lost 6-3 before 7,271 fans, a record at the time for the fewest people to ever watch England play anywhere in the world.
The New York Cosmos called Yankee Stadium home during the 1976 NASL season (the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field had been torn down), allowing Pele to play on the same sacred grass in the Bronx as some of this country's greatest baseball players. Eight years earlier, on September 1st, 1968, Yankee Stadium served as the site for an international friendly featuring Santos of Brazil and Benfica of Portugal. Box seats cost just $8 (bleachers were priced at $6 on the day of the game) for the chance to see Pele and Eusebio, both of whom would end their careers in the NASL. The friendly was played as part of a doubleheader that featured the New York Generals and Detroit Cougars. The House That Ruth Built, if just for a day, became The House That Pele Played In.
"I think that the friendlies between Santos and European teams in the 1960s at Yankee Stadium did draw largely immigrant crowds. The day of Americans becoming familiar with European soccer by watching it on TV was still well in the future," Allaway said. "Pele was a huge draw, including many who were there to root against him."
The majority of the 36,904 fans in attendance were not there to see the Generals or the Cougars. For many, it was a rare chance to see international stars in person and the players did not disappoint. The game ended 3-3. The biggest crowd to ever attend a game at Yankee Stadium had taken place in 1947 when Hapoel Tel Aviv, in what was then Palestine, took on a team of New York-based All-Stars before a crowd of 43,117. To this day, that remains a record for a soccer game at the stadium. There will be a shot at a new record come August 8th when Real Madrid plays AC Milan. Though the current stadium is smaller than its predecessors, it has just over 50,000 seats.
The last game ever played at the previous Yankee Stadium was on August 10th, 1976 when the Cosmos routed the Miami Toros 8-2 with Giorgio Chinaglia scoring five goals and assisting on two others, an NASL record that stood until the league’s demise in 1984. Pele scored twice in that game. Once Giants Stadium opened across the Hudson River, the Cosmos and world-class friendlies migrated there.
A crowd of 38,202 showed up on Sunday night mostly to root for Chelsea, although there was a small section of PSG supporters sitting in what is usually the outfield. What the fans witnessed was a hard-fought 1-1 draw. With Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blaring over the public-address system (a Yankee game tradition) following the final whistle, a new chapter in the stadium’s history had been written. I was glad to have been there for it.
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