SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- This part of the country is a soccer player's paradise.
Massachusetts is second only to California in the number of registered youths playing the game. That's over 120,000 kids and it doesn't include little town leagues peppering the state.
The U.S. National team drew some of its best crowds in New Haven and there is speculation a professional outdoor team may surface in this area by 1992.
Forget the Basketball Hall of Fame is here and the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins play just an easy ride down Interstate 90.
Just call this soccer country.
"Indoor soccer could be a natural fit for us," said Springfield Civic Center manager Mike Graney, who works for Centre Management, the same company that operates the Baltimore Arena. "Soccer is very popular here and we made a pledge when we took over operation of the building to try new events. We have a lot of strong youth programs and we thought it was worth trying."
In fact, Springfield got its first indoor arena, Soccer City, just last month.
Chris Case, who had spent eight years as the vice president of the area youth soccer league, got tired of driving his team and others an hour down the pike to Glastonbury, Conn., to play indoors and decided to build his own facility.
"I put two and two together and realized all these kids needed a place to play here," he said. "Our adult leagues are already full and beginning Nov. 3, when the outdoor season ends, we'll have youth leagues on Saturdays and Sundays from 7 a.m. until midnight."
Case was among the crowd last night that got its first look at the Major Soccer League.
And what a look.
A crowd of 2,209 saw the Blast lose, 9-5, to St. Louis, in an exhibition as intense as any playoff game.
They saw Storm goalkeeper Zoltan Toth shut out the Blast for a 4-0 halftime lead. They saw a rousing second-half comeback, sparked by goals from Blast rookies Chris Simon, Chris Haywood and Dominic Feltham.
They also saw two bench-clearing brawls, and 12 fouls resulting in 24 minutes in penalties. No one left the arena until there was less than a minute left.
"I think they will not forget us too soon," said St. Louis forward Marcio Leite, who had one assist. "It is important to have games like this in places where people do not always see us.
"It is an opportunity to see people who do things differently. See some different moves. That's how players develop. Myself and Claudio [DeOliveira] grew up in Brazil and one day we had a chance to go to a stadium game. We saw great players and a wish was born in us to become soccer players. Maybe someone in this crowd will use the enthusiasm they feel from this game to develop and grow."
This was the second of two exhibitions with the Storm in New England.The package was put together by Blast public relations director Drew Forrester. The first was in Portland, Maine, Sunday, where the Blast also lost, 5-4, in overtime.
Before last night's game, Graney said he needed about 2,000 fans to begin making a profit.
Graney, like his counterpart in Portland, Steve Rosenblatt, also said he would like to make the preseason game an annual event.
"It provides a little different entertainment for us and it gives the MSL exposure, and some new fans for its cable television deals," he said. "And if interests continue to grow, who knows what could happen in the future?"
While many of the curious came as a walk-up crowd last night, the crowd in Portland came by the bus load from outlying areas -- Waterville, Augusta, Cape Elizabeth.
"People traveled, on the average, one to 1 1/2 hours to come to that game," said MSL commissioner Earl Foreman, who was in attendance but said the league wasn't looking to expand into New England at this time. "The Blast helped spread the gospel and they'll be doing the same when they go to Charlotte and Greensboro [N.C.] this weekend."
There, Foreman and Blast owner Ed Hale will meet with prospective new owner George Shinn about expansion into the Carolinas.