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Tens of thousands of trophies, photographs, guidebooks, jerseys, balls and other exhibits from the National Soccer Hall of Fame sit in stasis beyond public view, walled within a 3,200-square-foot warehouse in Hillsborough.

Who knew that America's soccer legacy was stored in Hillsborough? 

Evan McIntyre, age 11, practices his juggling skills in front of a Sport Endeavors warehouse.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Evan McIntyre, age 11, practices his juggling skills in front of a Sport Endeavors warehouse.

More than 30 years have passed since the New York Cosmos last packed upward of 70,000 fans into Giants Stadium for soccer matches as part of the North American Soccer League. Yes, soccer matches, featuring the legendary likes of Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto. This weekend, the newly reborn Cosmos, now members of the revamped second division NASL, come to Cary to face the Carolina RailHawks.

Although Pelé, Alberto and the children of Chinaglia attended the Cosmos' reboot earlier this month, the names currently on the back of the iconic green kits are much more obscure. But this is a team in which nostalgia, not name recognition, is the biggest attraction. It's a revived brand in a league that itself is a revived brand.

But the history of U.S. soccer predates Pelé's stint with the Cosmos by a century. It's a history that is being stored right here in the Triangle. And it's one we can't visit.

(For more than a decade, there was a Soccer Hall of Fame in New York. What happened? Read the story.)

A short drive west of WakeMed Soccer Park, where the Cosmos and RailHawks will face off Saturday evening, there are entry points along the border of Orange County where road signs greet motorists with the county's official slogan:

Welcome to Orange County. You'll Be a Fan for Life.

The wordplay is an obvious allusion to nearby Chapel Hill, where fanaticism over University of North Carolina athletics is passed from generation to generation like a birthright. But 13 miles away in the village of Hillsborough, the border salutation strikes an ironic chord when it comes to a far less familiar bequest.

When the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y., closed in early 2010, its tens of thousands of trophies, photographs, guidebooks, jerseys, balls and other exhibits were crated and freighted to Hillsborough. There, the largest collection of American soccer history sits in stasis, walled within a 3,200-square-foot warehouse beyond public view, awaiting the day when will and wealth might again combine to breathe new life into a showcase for this country's soccer legacy.

The first known match in the U.S. using the formal London Football Association's rules was played between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, the same year America's first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, was formed. In the mid-1920s, the so-called golden era of American soccer, the practice of wealthy U.S. club owners poaching top foreign talent—dubbed the "American Menace" in Scotland— rankled several European football associations.

In 1930, the United States placed third in the inaugural FIFA World Cup in Uruguay.

Keepers of the fame

The train still runs every day through Hillsborough. But it doesn't stop anymore behind the White Furniture Company.

White Furniture's Hillsborough facility opened in 1940, an expansion of the furniture manufacturer in nearby Mebane, N.C. When White shuttered in 1989, the dilapidated facility lay dormant for two years until it was purchased by a local company looking to expand: Sports Endeavors Inc. Envisioned as a mail-order soccer apparel distributor by founder Mike Moylan, Sport Endeavors published its first catalog in 1984 under its trade moniker, Eurosport. Brendan Moylan, Mike's younger brother, joined the company full time in 1989. Today, Sports Endeavors is the corporate umbrella for a dozen brands and retail websites familiar throughout the soccer and lacrosse landscape, including Eurosport, Soccer.com and WorldSoccerShop.com.

Virtually every corridor of Sports Endeavors' offices is adorned with soccer collectibles, from vintage photographs to display cases showcasing autographed balls and jerseys. One array contains items salvaged from the original Wembley Stadium prior to its demolition. According to Brendan Moylan, for every thing on the wall, they have two or three things in storage.

However, the premises' most treasured artifacts are the Soccer Hall of Fame archives, interred inside a storeroom formerly used as the company's distribution center. Outside of officials for U.S. Soccer and Eurosport, David Kilpatrick is one of the precious few who have been permitted entry. Kilpatrick, an associate professor at Mercy College and club historian for the current incarnation of the New York Cosmos, spent two days in Hillsborough in early August 2012 researching a project about the history of New York pro soccer. When not sating his newfound craving for Hillsborough BBQ, Kilpatrick rummaged through the archives' seemingly limitless bounty from sunup through sundown.

"The basement where the archives are housed is sort of like that last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Ark of the Covenant is hidden away," Kilpatrick confirms. "It is very much like that, in that you don't know what you'll find from box to box."

Indeed, exploits worthy of Indiana Jones himself are almost required to gain access to the Soccer Hall of Fame archives. Only a handful of historians—including Kilpatrick—have been afforded admittance for research purposes. (My request to U.S. Soccer for access in order to write this article became a three-month odyssey that ultimately concluded with a terse refusal.)

Although U.S. Soccer wouldn't unlock the gates, it did supply an inventory of the stored Hall of Fame archives. For venerable soccer historians like Colin Jose and Roger Allaway, the most important items are the tens of thousands of books, documents and images stored inside filing cabinets. There are Spalding guides dating back to 1904, editions of the American Soccer League News as early as 1934 and National Soccer News from 1944, and much more.

Photographs include Carlo Zilliani's collection from the 1940s and '50s, plus a general array of images believed to date back to the 1880s. But the crown jewel is famed street photographer John Albok's catalog, which includes hundreds of pristine photos of soccer in New York City as well as rare color film of soccer being played in such places as Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds.

There are also individual collections and scrapbooks given to the hall by players like Jack Hynes, Arnie Oliver and Werner Mieth; coaches such as Jack Rottenberg and Kurt Lamm; journalists Milton Miller, Frank Kracher, Ike Kuhns and others; and longtime soccer historian Sam Foulds.

The find that most blew away Kilpatrick was the scrapbooks of Bob Millar. A Scottish immigrant, Millar played for more than a dozen clubs from 1913 until 1929, including Bethlehem Steel FC and the New York Giants. He also coached the U.S. National Team to its third-place finish in the 1930 World Cup.

"It was really right there in a nutshell," says Kilpatrick, "the history of U.S. pro soccer in the 1920s right there in front of my eyes ... There was your Ark of the Covenant. There was your Holy Grail."

A large portion of the archives comprises records and other materials from the 1994 World Cup, hosted by the United States, which Allaway says have never been fully inventoried. When the original NASL disbanded in 1983, former player Howie Charbonneau, then working in the league's front office, passed along the NASL's archives, including hundreds of reels of match footage.

Last year, U.S. Soccer loaned a handful of items from the Hall of Fame archives to SCORE! Sports Exhibit in the Luxor Las Vegas casino and hotel. For a cover charge, patrons can glimpse U.S. jerseys from the 1930 and 1950 World Cups, the 1999 Women's World Cup trophy and other antiquities. If you have trouble finding the exhibit, it's upstairs next to the food court.

"A museum in my home"

The absence of a physical soccer hall of fame exacerbates a dissipation of U.S. soccer lore and memorabilia that occurred even during the hall's days in Oneonta, when there were scant resources for research and collection.

Throughout his 13-year coaching career at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Jack Huckel enjoyed a close association with the Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta. In May 2000, Huckel left Skidmore to become director of museum and archives at the hall, a post he held until late 2009.

"For most of the history of the museum," Huckel says, "what it has in the archives came from people who brought stuff and was not proactively collected."

There are many anecdotes about history that got away. Allaway claims the hall lacks more American Soccer League (ASL) materials because the league trashed its archives when it disbanded in 1983. Huckel recalls that hall of famer John Souza owned "a significant collection of memorabilia" from his playing days in the 1940s and '50s that was destroyed during a hurricane in Florida about a decade ago. And the last anyone heard, the original 1885 American Cup trophy was in the hands of a Texas antiques dealer.

But even today, the lack of a functioning repository means other American soccer materials—both known and unknown—remain scattered to the wind. When the Cosmos hired Kilpatrick as team historian, he was given the keys to a "treasure trove" of valuables preserved by former general manager Peppe Pinton. The Lewis Cup, a trophy awarded to winners of the ASL's league cup competition from 1925 to 1963, reportedly resides in the Museum of Sports Glory in Kiev, Ukraine.

Ironically, Hank Steinbrecher, the former secretary general of U.S. Soccer and today the chairman of the Soccer Hall of Fame's board of directors, knows another fruitful fount.

"I've got a museum in my home," Steinbrecher says. "My sons aren't going to want any of it, so where's it going to go? Ultimately it's going to go to the hall. But I don't want to see it sitting in a warehouse.

"I had a hundred jerseys—very often the chiefs of the soccer federations would exchange jerseys," Steinbrecher continues. "I had about a hundred of them up in my attic just hanging up there. So I called the high school and said, 'Boys, come on over and take your pick.'"

Colin Jose says the forgotten soccer history from the American West still awaits an enterprising young researcher. "Someone needs to go and research Oregon and California," he says. "We have no records of the Los Angeles league. No records of San Francisco. No records of Washington state. That sort of thing is a big problem."

Indeed, much of our information about the early days of American soccer comes from the work of people like Foulds, Jose, Allaway and David Wangerin. Records from the first iteration of the ASL during the 1920s, once lost to the dustbin of history and institutional infighting, were painstakingly re-created by Jose, who combed through clippings and microfilm of old newspapers to reconstruct statistics from every game and season. In 1998, Jose published his compiliation American Soccer League 1921-1931: The Golden Years of American Soccer.

But Foulds passed away in 1994, and Wangerin last year. The rest of the vanguard is past being able to volunteer large swaths of fleeting free time, or ward off Father Time.

"My memory is going, my ability to write is going," the 77-year-old Jose responds when asked if he still works. "I'm sort of going downhill. It's a struggle for me to do it now."

Bytes and mortar

Today, the Soccer Hall of Fame exists as a subdirectory of the U.S. Soccer website.

Still-speculative ideas for a more full-featured virtual hall of fame have been bandied about since the Oneonta location closed. However, Steinbrecher believes any effort to establish a new physical hall "may not be in the near future."

"We're not going to go willy-nilly and take a bid from a city and say, 'Well, we're going to push this hall here' without thorough investigation and guarantees of sustainability, because we just don't want another failure."

For Huckel, currently president of the board of directors for the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, the first hurdle is addressing the hall's finances.

"It's a museum. It loses money," Huckel declares. "You have to have financial backers to fill that hole. It's a money sink, not a moneymaker.

"None of them make money. None of them. They all have a sugar daddy. Baseball has the Clark Foundation and Jane [Forbes] Clark; she balances the budget with a check. The Basketball Hall of Fame survives because of the City of Springfield, the State of Massachusetts and Mass Mutual Insurance Co. Football balances their budget on the NFL Hall of Fame Game, which they get the rights to."

One seemingly modest funding proposal—floated back during Huckel's time with the hall of fame—was that a small percentage of youth soccer registration fees go toward hall operations.

"There are 3 million kids playing soccer through U.S. Youth Soccer," Huckel explains. "What would happen if we got a penny for the hall of fame from each of those kids who registered? That'd be a big chunk of money. But that kind of idea, while put forward, never came to fruition."

Finding a site isn't the problem.

"Most people tend to say we want a domiciled hall of fame," Steinbrecher says. "We want brick and mortar. And we have had inquiries from a plethora of cities—Washington, D.C., Chicago, Springfield, Mass., Rochester, St. Louis—all wanting to discuss domiciling the hall of fame. So there's significant interest.

"But there has to be financial backing in order to do that. Every city thinks it's Soccer City USA. But I can guarantee you this: Nothing will be done unless it's financially feasible to maintain and sustain it."

Over the past several weeks, both the baseball and pro football halls of fame celebrated annual induction weekends (even without a living inductee into Cooperstown for the first time since 1965). The National Soccer Hall of Fame also continues to induct new members every year (this week, U.S. Soccer announced that the 2013 ceremony will be held Oct. 11 at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.). And for the honored few, the absence of a structural hall does not detract from the significance of their achievement.

"When you hear hard-ass soccer players break down and cry when you tell them they're being inducted into the Soccer Hall of Fame," Steinbrecher says, "it is very meaningful."

But while those enshrined in Cooperstown are commemorated with a plaque, and those in Canton are immortalized with a bust, soccer hall of famers get a Web page.

Moreover, a sports hall of fame is more than a house of hallows. It is also a focal point, a symbol of the sport's acceptance and endurance. It's where history is not just honored but also bequeathed. Gradually and increasingly, America is rearing more soccer fans and players for life. The question remains, when will they see their inheritance?

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